CHINESE DREAM INTRODUCTIONS

1. THE CHINESE DREAM

Neville Mars

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DREAMING IS NOT A LUXURY. AROUND TWO HOURS EVERY NIGHT OUR BRAINS PRODUCE DREAMS. PRECISELY WHY IS NOT CLEAR, BUT THE GENERAL FUNCTIONS SEEM EVIDENT. DREAMS PROCESS OUR RECENT EXPERIENCES. DATA STORED IN OUR TEMPORARY MEMORY IS ENCODED AND TRANSFERRED TO BECOME PART OF THE NARRATIVE OF OUR LONG TERM MEMORY. THIS IS THE SYSTEM-CHECK OF OUR MIND. CONSOLIDATING NEW DATA, IT FEEDS OUR UNDERSTANDING AND CONSTRUCTS OUR IDENTITY. EQUALLY, DREAMS WILL CONSIDER THE FUTURE. WHEN FACING IMPORTANT OR DIFFICULT MOMENTS, OUR DREAMS WILL SET THE STAGE TO ALLOW US A VIRTUAL TEST RUN. WE CAN PREPARE OURSELVES — GENERATE NEW IDEAS IN ANTICIPATION OF CHANGING CIRCUMSTANCES. DREAMS BECOME THE PLAYGROUND OF OUR DESIRES; A SAFE PLACE TO EXPRESS UNCHARTED URGES FOR WHICH THERE MAY BE NO ROOM IN WAKING LIFE. SOME DREAMS WILL BE REJECTED, WHILE OTHERS BECOME POWERFUL ASPIRATIONS THAT GIVE DIRECTION TO OUR DECISIONS.

RISE AND SHINE: CHINA HAS BEEN UP FOR THREE DECADES. WITH DENG XIAOPING’S ACCESSION TO POWER, CHINA LAUNCHED ITS LAST AND BOLDEST DREAM: THE DREAM OF INDIVIDUAL PROSPERITY. IT OPENED ITS EYES TO AN ALTERNATIVE REALITY, ITS DOORS TO THE GLOBAL ECONOMY, AND CONFORMED TO MARKET PRAGMATISM TO REALIZE THIS DREAM. SINCE THEN, A SINGLE MASSIVE WAVE OF PROGRESS HAS KEPT THE ENTIRE NATION ON ITS FEET.

THE SUCCESS HAS AMAZED FRIEND AND FOE. TODAY ‘GETTING RICH IS GLORIOUS’ MAY HAVE LOST ITS APPEAL AS A PARTY SLOGAN, BUT IT HAS EXPANDED TO BECOME THE INTRINSIC MOTIVATION OF CHINA’S ENTIRE POPULATION. SPREADING FAST BEYOND THE INITIAL TESTING GROUNDS OF THE SPECIAL ECONOMIC ZONES, THE GROWING PROSPERITY HAS NURTURED A SOLID AND CONSIDERABLE MIDDLE CLASS AND SPURRED THE CONSTRUCTION OF INDUSTRY AND CITIES ACROSS THE COUNTRY. THESE CITIES ARE THE TRADEMARKS OF MODERN CHINA, THE SUBJECT OF THIS BOOK, AND THE OBJECTIVE OF THE CHINESE DREAM: A SOCIETY OF MIDDLE CLASS CONSUMERS SETTLED IN MODERN CITIES.

THE ASPIRATIONAL DRIVE OF INDIVIDUALS SHAPING CONTEMPORARY URBANIZATION RESEMBLES THE AMERICAN DREAM OF THE FIFTIES, AND WITH RURAL POPULATIONS IN THE DEVELOPING WORLD FLOCKING TOGETHER IN MEGASLUMS, THIS MUST BE THE CORE COMPONENT OF THE GLOBAL DREAM. BUT WHAT IS THE FORM OF THE MODERN CITY? HOW CAN IT BE REALIZED? AND WHAT SOCIETY DOES IT ENGENDER?

FEARFUL SYMMETRY: THE PRECISE TRANSLATION OF THE BEIJING 2008 OLYMPIC SLOGAN IS ‘ONE SAME WORLD, ONE SAME DREAM’. TO CHINESE PEOPLE ITS INTERPRETATION IS OBVIOUS: ‘WE CAN OBTAIN THE SAME LIVING COMFORTS AS THE WEST, AND THE BEIJING OLYMPICS WILL SHOW THIS TO THE WORLD’. FOR THE PEOPLE IN THE DREAM, THE TV COMMERCIALS OF CARS GLIDING PAST A BACKDROP OF SHINY NEW TOWERS IS PROOF THAT (THIS TIME) IT IS REAL. CONFRONTED WITH SO MUCH PROGRESS, QUESTIONING THE QUALITY OF THE FUTURE SEEMS SENSELESS. THE CRUDEST FORM OF TWENTIETH CENTURY MODERNITY IS ON OFFER, AT A TIME WHEN THE DEVELOPED WORLD HAS COME TO ACKNOWLEDGE ITS SHORTCOMINGS. MESMERIZED BY NEW FOUND CONSUMERISM, THE YOUNG MIDDLE CLASS LOOKS AHEAD AND MARCHES ON.

THE CENTRAL GOVERNMENT ON THE OTHER HAND IS INCREASINGLY AWARE THAT THIS PASSIONATE ADOPTION OF WESTERN-STYLE PROGRESS CAN NO LONGER SUFFICE. THE IMMINENT DANGERS: IT WILL EXCLUDE THE BULK OF CHINA’S CITIZENS FROM MUCH OF THE PROGRESS BEING MADE AND PRESENT THE POOREST WITH THE BILL FOR ITS RAMPANT ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION. YET THE ONGOING ECONOMIC BOOM HAS INSTILLED ITS LEADERS WITH A TOWERING CONFIDENCE TO RESPOND. THE LATEST TECHNIQUES FROM THE WEST ARE ACQUIRED — THE NEWEST ARCHITECTURE, THE FRESHEST BIOTECHNOLOGY. IN REALITY THE UNIQUE CONDITIONS CONTEMPORARY CHINA FACES DEMAND NEW PARADIGMS. HALF WAY DOWN THE PATH OF MODERNIZATION THE HAZARDS OF NOT DREAMING ARE REVEALING THEMSELVES. CHINA’S BOOM EXPERIENCES HAVEN’T MOVED BEYOND THE SHORT TERM MEMORY. THERE HAS BEEN NO OPPORTUNITY TO ASSESS THE PRODUCTS OF A SOCIALIST MARKET ECONOMY, SIMPLY NO TIME TO REFLECT ON ITS OUTCOME. THE CHINESE DREAM IS NOT BEING UPDATED.

INSTEAD EVERY NEW PROBLEM — MANY OF WHICH PRESENT THEMSELVES ON A SCALE PREVIOUSLY UNSEEN — IS SIMPLY COUNTERED WITH A PLAN FOR ITS REMOVAL BY THE YEAR 2020, 2030 OR 2050. IN PERFECT SYMMETRY ALL CONTEMPORARY SHORTCOMINGS ARE DIRECTLY MIRRORED TO BECOME OUTSTANDING OBJECTIVES FOR THE FUTURE. CHINA NOW BOASTS RADICAL SCHEMES FOR (ALMOST) ALL ASPECTS OF SOCIETY, FROM WELFARE TO TECHNOLOGICAL INNOVATION, ENVIRONMENTAL SUSTAINABILITY AND MOON LANDINGS. IF ACHIEVED CHINA WILL BECOME NOT JUST A SUPERPOWER, BUT THE WORLD’S MOST ADVANCED NATION. THE WEST MUST HOLD ITS BREATH AND BELIEVE, IF ONLY FOR A LACK OF ALTERNATIVES.

SCATTERED DREAMS: WITNESSING CHINA’S MIRACLE ON A DAILY BASIS, THE CONTRAST BETWEEN THE CONTEMPORARY BIG HAZARDS AND CHINA’S BIG HOPES FOR 2020 AND BEYOND ISN’T QUITE SO STARK. RESPONDING TO CRISIS HAS BEEN KEY TO CHINA’S SUCCESS. FROM THE INCEPTION OF REFORM, EVERY SUCCESSIVE WAVE OF CHANGE HAS COME OUT OF A DISASTER PREDICAMENT. WITHOUT A BLUEPRINT FOR THE SOCIALIST MARKET ECONOMY, TRANSITION HAS BEEN A BUMPY RIDE. WITHIN YEARS OF LOSING CENTRAL FUNDING, LOCAL GOVERNMENTS FOUND THEMSELVES CLOSE TO BANKRUPTCY. WITHIN ANOTHER FEW YEARS THE LAND REFORMS PUT IN PLACE TO ALLOW LOCAL GOVERNMENTS TO LEASE AND DEVELOP AREAS UNDER THEIR JURISDICTION UNLOCKED THE WORLD’S MOST RAMPANT BUILDING FRENZY. THE ’89 UPRISING DID NOT YIELD ANY SUBSTANTIAL POLITICAL REFORM, BUT FURTHER ENCOURAGING ENTREPRENEURIALISM HAS UNLEASHED THE WORLD’S LARGEST CONSUMER MARKET.

URBAN DEVELOPMENT HAS BEEN PRAGMATIC AND OFTEN RELENTLESS. EMPLOYED AS A POLITICAL TOOL IT HAS ALSO BECOME INCREASINGLY STREAMLINED. THE SOCIALIST MARKET HYBRID CAN EXPEDITE ANY PROCEDURE, SWITCHING FREELY BETWEEN PUBLIC AND PRIVATE OPERATIONS. THE MAOIST DREAM OF COLLECTIVE OWNERSHIP IS AUCTIONED OFF IN BITS TO A MASS OF COMPANIES AND INDIVIDUALS WRESTLING FOR SUPREMACY OR SURVIVAL. FROM THE TOP, THE STATE LAUNCHES ITS MEGA PROJECTS, WHILE SOLO DEVELOPERS SEAR HOLES INTO THE ONCE COMMUNAL CARPET TO CREATE PRISTINE PATCHES FOR HASSLE-FREE PRIVATIZATION. ACCORDING TO THE ONE-STEP-UP MODEL, BOTTOM-LEVEL MIGRANT WORKERS SEND WAGES BACK HOME TO BUILD IN THE VILLAGE, WHILE URBANITES BUY THEIR FIRST APARTMENT IN THE CITY. PLOT BY PLOT URBANIZATION FACILITATES A CONTROLLED UNRAVELING OF CAPITALISM WITH CHINESE CHARACTERISTICS.

“BY 2020, CHINA WILL COMPLETE THE BUILDING OF A COMFORTABLE SOCIETY … CITIES WILL LEAD THE WAY”
– PREMIER WEN JIABAO
2005 2006 2007

LEAPFROG: THE WORLD OBSERVES THE CHINESE DREAM IN ANXIETY AND WITH ANTICIPATION. SET AGAINST A BACKDROP OF DIMINISHING RESOURCES AND BLEAK PROGNOSTICATIONS FOR THE CAPITAL MARKETS, THE EMERGING ECONOMIES ARE WHERE THE BIG GAINS ARE TO BE MADE. IT IS THE ABSENCE OF A MATURE POWER GRID, THE LOWER CURRENT LEVELS OF URBANIZATION, THE LACK OF CARS AND SO ON, THAT SUDDENLY OFFER HOPE. LEAPFROG DEVELOPMENT, SO OFTEN VAUNTED YET SELDOM OBSERVED, IS TODAY DEMANDED FROM CHINA IN ORDER TO ALIGN THE COURSE OF PROGRESS WITH GOALS FOR GLOBAL SUSTAINABILITY. BIG SOLUTIONS ARE REQUIRED TO MOVE BEYOND SUCH FUEL-DEPENDENT LANDSCAPES AS THOSE PRODUCED BY THE AMERICAN DREAM. INDEED, TO LEAPFROG EFFECTIVELY, THIS KNOWLEDGE MUST BE FOUND AND IMPLEMENTED NATIONWIDE AND NOW.

THE 400 FETISH: IN 2001 JUST SUCH A RADICAL PLAN FOR LEAPFROG URBANIZATION CAME FROM WITHIN CHINA. THE THEN STATE MINISTER OF CIVIL AFFAIRS, DOJE CERING, PROPOSED THE CONSTRUCTION OF 400 NEW CITIES BY THE YEAR 2020, OR 20 NEW CITIES PER YEAR OF ABOUT 1 MILLION RESIDENTS EACH. THIS GRANDIOSE SCHEME AIMED TO ACCOMMODATE THE PROJECTED FLOOD OF RURAL MIGRANTS AND SPRINGBOARD CHINA TO THE LEVEL OF A MODEL INDUSTRIALIZED NATION.

THE OBSCENE AMOUNT OF NEWNESS BOTH SHOCKED AND MESMERIZED ME. THE DESIRE TO CONCEIVE A COMPLETE URBAN SYSTEM IS HIGHLY SEDUCTIVE. IN THEORY, A CITY BUILT AT ONCE COULD BE FREE FROM ALL THE ACCUMULATED PROBLEMS AND CLUTTER, AND OUTSMART THE PREDICAMENTS AGEING CITIES HAVE BEEN STRUGGLING WITH. IT’S AN ENTICING AND OSTENSIBLY IMPOSSIBLE IDEA, ESPECIALLY WHEN MULTIPLIED BY 400. THE PROPOSAL BECAME THE STARTING POINT FOR THE DCF’S RESEARCH.

SOON WE FOUND REALITY IS ALL TOO OFTEN MORE EXTREME THAN CHINA’S BIG AMBITIONS. DURING THE PERIOD 1978–1998 CHINA REALIZED MORE THAN 400 CITIES. THEN, WHILE URBANIZATION CONTINUED TO ACCELERATE, SUDDENLY NO NEW CITIES WERE RECORDED. THE BIRTH OF A CHINESE CITY IS A MATTER OF POLICY. DETAILED CRITERIA ARE FORMULATED THAT PRESCRIBE THE RATIO OF URBAN TO RURAL INHABITANTS IN AN AREA, AND ITS RURAL TO URBAN ECONOMIC OUTPUT. THIS IS CLEAR-CUT, BUT IT OFTEN DESCRIBES ENVIRONMENTS AT ODDS WITH OUR UNDERSTANDING OF A CITY. DISPERSED SEMI-URBANIZED REGIONS WILL OBTAIN CITY STATUS, WHILE DENSELY POPULATED INDUSTRIAL CENTERS ARE OVERLOOKED. MOREOVER, THE REGULATIONS ARE EASILY ALTERED. THE CURRENT POLITICAL CLIMATE IN CHINA IS GEARED TOWARDS THE CONSTRUCTION OF NEW CITIES BUT PREFERABLY WITHOUT GRANTING EXPENSIVE CITY BENEFITS OR LOOSING CENTRAL CONTROL.

SLICK CITIES: OUTSIDE OF THE OFFICIAL RECORDS AROUND ONE HUNDRED NEW TOWNS OF SUBSTANTIAL SIZE HAVE MUSHROOMED ACROSS CHINA IN THE LAST DECADE IN THE FORM OF MINING-TOWNS, TOURIST TOWNS, SUBURBAN ENCLAVES, FACTORY VILLAGES, THEMED AND CONCEPT TOWNS, AND MILITARY SETTLEMENTS. THEY EMERGE IN DIFFERENT FORMS, SOMETIMES AS INDEPENDENT ENTITIES, SOMETIMES AS PART OF A LARGER URBAN STRUCTURE, BUT ALWAYS CLEARLY DELINEATED FROM THE PREEXISTING. INCREASINGLY THESE ARE SLICK CITIES — CLEAN RESIDENTIAL STRONGHOLDS FORTIFIED AGAINST THEIR MUDDLED SURROUNDINGS. COMPARED TO THEIR PREDECESSORS, SLICK CITIES LOOK AND FEEL SMOOTH. BUT THERE IS A PRICE TO PAY. SLICK CITIES ARE BY NATURE STATIC. THEIR WALLED OFF SPACE IS UNYIELDING TO CHANGE. THE PUBLIC DOMAIN IS REDUCED TO THE VOIDS IN BETWEEN THE BUILDINGS. EXPLODED IN SIZE, THEIR ARCHITECTURE NEGATES THE NECESSITY FOR PLANNING BEYOND CONNECTING ARTERIES. THE STOREFRONT, THE INTERFACE OF THE CITY, IS BLINDED. THE STREETS, ONCE THE VIBRANT DOMAIN OF PUBLIC LIFE, ARE REDUCED TO TECHNOCRATIC TRANSIT SPACE. URBAN LIFE AS WE KNEW IT, SO DEPENDENT ON HUMAN INTERACTION IS DISSOLVED. NOW FEAR HAS ENTERED THE PLANNING PROCEDURES. THE CONGESTED POINTS ARE CROWD-MANAGED WITH THE INSERTION OF EVER LARGER PLAZAS AND WALKWAYS. PEDESTRIAN TRAFFIC AND CARS ALIKE FIND THEMSELVES HURTLED THROUGH VOIDS AND HIGHWAYS UNSUPPORTED BY THE LARGER NETWORK. CONGESTION IS INEVITABLE; HUMAN ENCOUNTERS UNLIKELY. THE FABRIC OF THE SLICK CITY IS STRETCHED APART. PLANNING HAS BECOME THE PRACTICE OF MOVING PEOPLE OUT AND VOIDS IN. THE EXPANSION AND FRAGMENTATION OF THE CITY ACCELERATES.

SPLIT CITIES: CHINA’S SLICK CITIES ARE LOATHED BUT ALSO LOVED, BOTH AT HOME AND ABROAD. EUROPEAN ARCHITECTS CONDEMN THEIR SOULLESS SPACES, WHILE AFRICA, THE MIDDLE-EAST AND INDIA HERALD THEIR SCALE, SPEED AND RATIONALIZED SHINE. THE PRIME MINISTER OF INDIA HOPES TO MAKE MUMBAI (CURRENTLY A METROPOLIS COMPOSED OF 60% SLUMS) INTO A CITY JUST LIKE SHANGHAI BY 2010.

BUT THERE IS LITTLE ROOM FOR NOSTALGIA, NOR REASON TO GLORIFY CHINESE MODERNITY. FOR MILLENNIA THE CHINESE EMPIRE HAS USED CITIES AS A MEANS TO SAFEGUARD THE VAST EXPANSE OF ITS RULE. AS PERFECT BEACONS OF POWER THEY EXPRESSED THE DISTANT CONTROL OF THE HARMONIOUS SOCIETY. METICULOUSLY DESIGNED AND WALLED OFF IN QUADRANTS WITH LITTLE REGARD FOR PUBLIC SPACE THEY COULD BE COPIED EFFICIENTLY WHERE NEEDED. THESE WERE THE FIRST FAST CITIES, THE FIRST SLICK CITIES. TODAY SUCCESSFUL GROWTH CONTINUES TO BE A PRECARIOUS BALANCING ACT BETWEEN TIGHT CONTROL AND HECTIC RELEASE. EXCLUSIVE COMPOUNDS TEMPORARILY PUSH INFORMAL GROWTH ASIDE, WHILE IN REALITY THE WALLED ENCLAVES ARE ENGULFED BY THE VILLAGES OF THE CONSTRUCTION WORKERS WHO BUILT THEM.

SLICK CITIES NATURALLY GENERATE SCHIZOPHRENIC URBAN GROWTH. ACROSS THE RIVER OR TRAIN TRACK ON AN EMPTY PLOT OF LAND THE TOWN IS REINVENTED FROM SCRATCH. SELF-CONTAINED DESIGNS ARE IMPLEMENTED THAT IGNORE ALL PREVIOUS INCARNATIONS. A SPLIT CITY IS BORN: THE NEW CENTER RAPIDLY TURNS ITS BACK ON THE OLD CORE. PROMINENT SPLIT CITY MODELS INCLUDE: THE VERTICAL CITY (NEW LOOKS DOWN OVER OLD), THE RING CITY (OLD IS ENCIRCLED BY NEW), SPRAWL CITY (NEW SCATTERS AND FLEES FROM OLD) AND THE “BRAND NEW CITY”. THE MOST RECENT WAVE OF RESIDENTIAL SATELLITES ARE ACTIVELY BRANDED AND MARKETED AS NEW CITIES. THIS IS AN IMPORTANT DISTINCTION WHEN IN EFFECT EVERY TOWN, CITY AND METROPOLIS IN CHINA IS NEW. EVEN EXISTING CITIES ARE REGARDED AS TABULA RASAE WAITING TO BE CLEARED.

CITY ORGANICS: THE GOAL TO BUILD 400 NEW CITIES IN 20 YEARS IS NOT QUITE AS ABSURD AS THE ASPIRATION TO ATTEMPT THEIR DESIGN. ANY TRADITIONAL NOTION OF PLANNING WILL BE INADEQUATE WHEN URBANIZATION OCCURS FASTER THAN PLANNERS CAN MAP. IT IS DRIVEN BY CONSTRUCTIONS AT THE TWO ENDS OF THE SPECTRUM: THE MACRO-PLANNED AND THE MICRO-ORGANIC. THE DESIGNER IS PRESENTED WITH A FRAUGHT DILEMMA — TO PURSUE THE CLEAN MODERNITY OF THE ECONOMIC MIRACLE, OR TO STIMULATE THE HUMAN VIBRANCY OF CHINESE ENTREPRENEURIALISM. BUT THIS IS NO MORE THAN THE ILLUSION OF CHOICE. BOTH FORMS FEAR EACH OTHER YET FEED OFF EACH OTHER. WHILE WE DELIBERATE, AGGREGATED PROJECTS GROW THE URBAN LANDSCAPE IN THE FORM OF MORE MARKET-DRIVEN UNINTENTIONAL DEVELOPMENT, OR MUD*.

AT HYPERSPEED CHINA CAN BE ENJOYED AS A LABORATORY FOR URBAN GROWTH. WITHIN THE TIME-SPAN OF A SINGLE GENERATION IT NURTURES CONSECUTIVE IDEOLOGIES OF PLANNING. OBSERVING MUD* FORMATIONS FRACTURES THE PERSISTENT BELIEFS IN BOTH THE GRASS-ROOTS CITY AND THE ORCHESTRATED LANDSCAPE. AT STREET LEVEL CHINA’S NEW URBAN REALMS LOOK PERFECTLY MICROPLANNED WHILE THE SAME POLISHED ISLAND DEVELOPMENTS AT THE SCALE OF THE METROPOLIS MERGE TOGETHER TO REVEAL MACRO-ORGANIC SYSTEMS.

THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF CHINA’S CITIES ARE DESIGNED IN DAYS; THE ENSUING MUD* CONFIGURATIONS THEN FIXED FOR DECADES. BUT, WHILE CHINESE SOCIETY SEEMS ENDLESSLY FLEXIBLE, THE INELASTICITY OF URBAN GROWTH PATTERNS DEMANDS THAT DEVELOPMENT EQUIP ITSELF WITH LONG TERM FLEXIBLE FRAMEWORKS. DEMOLISHING AND THEN RECONSTRUCTING THE BUILT VOLUME EVERY GENERATION WILL FLOUT CHINA’S EFFORTS TOWARD SUSTAINABILITY. IT IS NOT JUST ENERGY INTENSIVE — FARMLAND WILL BE PERMANENTLY LOST, WHILE THE CONFIGURATIONS THAT DEFINE CHINA’S FUTURE ENERGY NEEDS WILL BE CONSOLIDATED.

MIDWAY: NEITHER LEAPFROG AMBITIONS NOR BIG SCHEMES AND OUTSTANDING OBJECTIVES ACKNOWLEDGE THE REALITY THAT CHINA IS NOW HALFWAY DONE. 2008 MARKS THE 30TH ANNIVERSARY OF CHINA’S OPEN DOOR POLICY AND SUBSEQUENT ECONOMIC RISE. IF CURRENT GROWTH RATES CONTINUE, IN A FURTHER 30 YEARS CHINA’S GDP WILL OUTSIZE THAT OF THE USA. OTHER SIGNIFICANT HALF / HALF MARKERS ARE COMING UP, INCLUDING THE SHIFT IN EMPLOYMENT FROM PRIMARY TO TERTIARY INDUSTRY AND THE MOVE FROM PREDOMINANTLY RURAL TO PREDOMINANTLY URBAN SETTLEMENTS.

BIGNESS AND COPY AND PASTE PRACTICES ARE ONLY THE MOST VISIBLE ASPECTS OF FLASH URBANIZATION. EQUALLY, AT THE BOTTOM END STREAMLINED NEW FORMS OF SPATIAL PRODUCTION HAVE EVOLVED. RURAL CHINA IS ALSO HALF WAY DONE. HERE TOO FEAR DOMINATES PLANNING. THOUGH CITY DEVELOPMENT IS ENCOURAGED, THE MILLIONS OF RURAL TO URBAN MIGRANTS ARE BARRED FROM SETTLING AND ARE SOON REFLECTED BACK TO THE COUNTRYSIDE. DISTRUST OF SLUMS OR POTENTIALLY UNSTABLE CONCENTRATIONS OF EX-FARMER COMMUNITIES HAS KEPT CHINA’S CITIZEN REGISTRATION SYSTEM IN PLACE. IT ENFORCES A BLACK AND WHITE DIVISION BETWEEN PEOPLE WITH URBAN OR RURAL STATUS. YET THIS DIVISION IS INCREASINGLY OUTDATED BY THE BLURRED SPATIAL CONDITIONS IT PRODUCES. CITY EDGES MELT WITH FLOATING WORKERS CONGREGATING IN THE VILLAGES JUST OUTSIDE THE CITY PROPER, WHILE REMITTANCES SENT BACK HOME SPUR VILLAGE GROWTH. A FINE HAZE OF NEARLY A MILLION VILLAGES COVERS THE LANDSCAPE AND ACCOMMODATES ALMOST A BILLION PEOPLE. PLANNING POLICIES INTENDED TO STIMULATE MODERN CENTERS ARE EFFECTIVELY URBANIZING CHINA OUTSIDE OF THE CITIES. BELOW-THE-RADAR DEVELOPMENT AND INCENTIVES LIKE THE NEW “SOCIALIST VILLAGE” ARE RADICALLY RESHAPING THE COUNTRYSIDE, AND FORMING A VAST SEMI-URBANIZED TERRITORY.

CHINA’S MOST POPULATED AND FASTEST URBANIZING REGION SPANS THE CENTERS OF BEIJING, XIAN AND SHANGHAI TO FORM THE WORLD’S LARGEST URBAN FIELD: A MEGALOPOLIS TWICE THE SIZE OF FRANCE WITH THE AVERAGE DENSITY OF A MID-SIZED AMERICAN CITY. IN ESSENCE THE CAPITAL OF URBAN CHINA, IT CONSISTS OF A HIERARCHY OF CENTERS WITHIN A GRID OF VILLAGES WHOSE ECONOMIES HAVE TRANSFORMED TO SUPPORT THE URBAN CONTEXT. THOUGH MUTUALLY INTERDEPENDENT, THE COMPONENT PARTS OF THIS MEGALOPOLIS BETRAY DEEP SCHISMS. DRAWING IN UNWARRANTED FINANCIAL AND NATURAL RESOURCES FROM ACROSS THE COUNTRY, ITS CONSPICUOUS ECONOMIC ENGINES ARE KEPT STRONG. BIG SOLUTIONS SUCH AS THE SOUTH TO NORTH WATER TRANSPORTATION PROJECT PUMPS WATER ACROSS THE COUNTRY TO THE ARID NORTH AND ARTIFICIALLY MAINTAINS THE LUSH AND COOL OF ITS CITIES. BUT THE VILLAGES IN BETWEEN HAVE NO TAPS ON THESE PIPELINES.

CREEPING XIAO KANG * : THOUGH PROPAGATING MASSIVE SCHEMES AND EXTREME PROJECTS AT THE PERIPHERY, THE CCP CENTERS ITS TRUST FOR THE FUTURE ON THE GROWING MIDDLE CLASS — A TRUST IN WELL-CONTAINED SELF-ORGANIZATION THAT FOR THE MOMENT SEEMS TO BE PAYING OFF. THE ‘HARMONIOUS SOCIETY’ PROJECTED ONTO THE FUTURE IS STEADILY CARVED OUT TODAY WITH EVERY SINGLE PRODUCER TURNED CONSUMER. CONFRONTED WITH A SIZZLING HOT ECONOMY AND SURROUNDED BY DIZZYING CONSTRUCTION, THE AVERAGE INDIVIDUAL PRESENTS TO THE PARTY STABLE PROGRESS. THE BENEFITS SHOULD SLOWLY CREEP OUTWARD FROM THE CENTER TO PERIPHERY TO REACH THE COUNTRYSIDE.

HOWEVER, WHILE SOCIETAL SHIFTS FIRST SEEM TO RUN AHEAD OF SPATIAL ORGANIZATION, URBAN PATTERNS SOON REVEAL THEIR DOMINATION OVER HOW SOCIETY EVOLVES. AS CHINA’S ECONOMIC REFORMS UNFOLD, THE TENDENCY TO PRODUCE MUD* FORMATIONS ACCELERATES. THE GRIP THE URBAN CONFIGURATION HAS ON CHINESE SOCIETY TIGHTENS; THE DREAM TO DESIGN CITY OR SOCIETY SLIPS AWAY.

PARALLEL WORLDS: THE CHINESE DREAM IS AT ODDS WITH THE CCP’S GRIP ON POWER. WIDESPREAD URBANIZATION JARS AGAINST CENTRALIZED CONTROL. EXCLUSIVITY CLASHES WITH THE HARMONIOUS SOCIETY. ULTIMATELY THE DESIGN OF A SOCIETY CONTRADICTS THE EMPOWERMENT OF THE INDIVIDUAL. BEHIND THE SCENES THE CHINESE DREAM IS SHIFTING.

BUILDING CITIES WILL SHAPE SOCIETY, BUT A MODERN SOCIETY CAN’T BE SHAPED BY CITY BUILDING. THE RIGID STRUCTURE OF THE SELF-CONTAINED CITY AS A TOOL OF CONTROL IS CHALLENGED BY TWO DISTINCTLY DYNAMIC FORCES: THE MARKET AND THE MASSES. UNADDRESSED, URBANIZATION WILL CONTINUE TO GENERATE CONFLICTING REALITIES — A DISCORD AT THE HEART OF THE SOCIALIST MARKET HYBRID THAT RESONATES THROUGH CHINA’S BID FOR PROGRESS. ITS LEADERS ARE INCREASINGLY DEMANDING ON THE GLOBAL POLITICAL STAGE, YET INTERNAL DECISIONS REMAIN OBSCURED. CHINA IS THE BASIN OF GLOBAL PRODUCTION AND TRADE OF GOODS, YET ITS ECONOMY IS OPAQUE. IT IS OPENING UP TO INTERNATIONAL CORPORATIONS, YET ITS CITIZENS REMAIN BARRED FROM GLOBAL INFORMATION FLOWS. CHINA IS DREAMING UP PARALLEL WORLDS, AND BUILDING A GLOBALLY CONNECTED FORTRESS.

THE DYNAMIC CITY: CHINA WILL UNDOUBTEDLY EVOLVE AND MATURE. IT HAS SUCCESSFULLY NAVIGATED MANY OBSTACLES TO ACHIEVE THE LAST THREE DECADES OF CONTINUOUS GROWTH. A BUSINESS AS USUAL SCENARIO IS NOT IMPROBABLE. A GOOD PART OF CHINA WILL LIVE THE CHINESE DREAM, ACCOMMODATED IN BIGGER AND BRIGHTER CITIES THAN THOSE THAT EXIST ELSEWHERE ON EARTH (A SCENARIO OF PURE STATE CAPITALISM HYPOTHESIZED IN THE MAGAZINE AT THE END OF THIS BOOK).

HOWEVER, A STRONG URBAN MIDDLE CLASS AS ENVISIONED FOR 2020 COULD CARRY A NEW SOCIETY. IN 2007 INDIVIDUALS IN CHINA WERE AWARDED GENUINE PROPERTY RIGHTS (PERHAPS THE MOST PROFOUND LEGAL CHANGE SINCE THE BIRTH OF THE REPUBLIC). WITH THE CONSUMER-HOMEOWNER PLACED AT THE HEART OF URBAN DESIRE MECHANISMS, FUTURE DEVELOPMENTS WILL SUCCEED OR FAIL IN RELATION TO PEOPLE AS OPPOSED TO STATE OBJECTIVES. UNWITTINGLY, THE MIDDLE CLASS MAY UNLOCK THE FORTRESS.

TO RETAIN MARKET PALATABILITY, THE INDIVIDUAL WILL NEED TO BE OFFERED MORE THAN PERSONAL SPACE. DEMAND WILL INCLUDE CITYWIDE PERFORMANCE. AS THE URBAN DREAM TAKES SHAPE, IT HAS TO GAIN GROUND AGAINST GROWING URBAN EXPECTATIONS. COUNTER-INTUITIVELY, THIS WILL REQUIRE MORE COORDINATED PLANNING EFFORTS AT THE SAME TIME AS INCREASED HOMEOWNER STATUS. MICROPLANNED PROJECTS WILL NEED TO INTEGRATE WITHIN A COHERENT MACROLEVEL STRUCTURE. URBANIZATION WILL NEED TO BE STREAMLINED NOT FOR SPEED BUT FOR QUALITY, IN THE FORM OF EFFICIENCY AND COMFORT. BY ABOLISHING ANTI-URBAN POLICIES, CHINA CAN UNLEASH THE POWER OF ITS GROWTH OVER THE NEXT THREE DECADES AND MOVE TOWARD FUTURE-PROOFED SOLUTIONS. IN THIS CASE, TO SERVE PROJECTED MIGRATION, NO NEW CITIES ARE NEEDED. UTILIZING PREDETERMINED

FLEXIBLE FRAMEWORKS, CITIES CAN EXPAND IN THEIR NATURAL DIRECTION WITHOUT LOSING COHESION. THE PRESSURE OF THE MASSES BECOMES A BENEFICIAL FORCE TO DEVELOP THE MIDDLE-SIZE CITIES TO TWICE THEIR SIZE, THUS CONCENTRATING EXPANSION ON THE MOST EFFICIENT SETTLEMENTS OF 2 TO 6 MILLION INHABITANTS. THIS WOULD ACCOMMODATE ALL POPULATION MOVEMENTS AND ALLOW CENTERS OF PRODUCTION TO EVOLVE INTO CREATIVE AND DYNAMIC CITIES. TO MOVE BEYOND THE WORLD’S FACTORY FLOOR AND TOWARD AN ECONOMY OF IDEAS, CHINA WILL HAVE TO HARNESS THE EXPANDING NEEDS OF ITS INDIVIDUALS. IF CHINA IS TRULY TO THROW OFF ITS COMMUNIST PAST, IT WILL NEED TO HAVE MANY DREAMS FOR ITS CITIES, AND TO ALLOW COMPETITION AMONGST THEM.

BEYOND DREAMING: THE RESEARCH THAT RUNS THROUGH THIS BOOK FORMS AN INVESTIGATION INTO CHINA’S NEW FOUND MARKET REALITY AND THE SPATIAL CONDITIONS IT PRODUCES. ANALYSES CUT ACROSS DIFFERENT DISCIPLINES AND THROUGH FIVE LEVELS OF SCALE (FROM NATIONAL TO THE INDIVIDUAL) TO CREATE THE BASIS FOR DESIGN PROPOSALS OF WHAT, IN THEORY, CHINA COULD ATTAIN. UNCOMPROMISING AND OFTEN SELF-CRITICAL ALTERNATIVES AIM TO INSPIRE A NEW COURSE OF URBANIZATION. AS SUCH IT HAS BECOME AN INVESTIGATION INTO ARCHITECTURE’S OWN LONGSTANDING DREAM: THE DESIGN OF THE CITY. WHILE FOR CONTEMPORARY CHINA, AROUSED BY A LOVE FOR THE NEW, THE INABILITIES OF PLANNING AND DESIGN HAVE NOT BEEN OF GREAT CONCERN, THE NEW CHINESE CITY REPRESENTS ANOTHER UTOPIAN CONCEPT: A SOCIETY UNDER CONSTRUCTION.
2008 2009 2010


2. A SOCIETY UNDER CONSTRUCTION


ADRIAN HORNSBY

THE FACE OF CHINA: SLY RISE / ONE WORLD ONE DREAM

In 1978 China set aside the ideological struggle for global socialism, and turned instead to the more practical business of tending its own garden. Ironically this would-be parochialism of intent has thrown China onto the world stage in a much bigger and more powerful way than anything ever witnessed throughout the preceding centuries of empire and dictatorial zeal. China continues to protest the doctrine of harmony, peace, and non-intervention — a rise as though on the quiet — but as the rest of the world beholds China’s economic miracle, its surge in defense spending (outpacing roaring GDP), its sophisticated space program (not without military implications), its monster move into global trade (by the time you read this, China is almost certainly the world’s number one exporter), its impact upon the environment (likewise for energy consumption, with CO2 emissions set to exceed the US sometime before 2010), and its undeniable hand in geopolitical sore spots (e.g. Sudan, Iran, Burma), the world is starting to gasp, ‘No fair!’. China may be pursuing a “peaceful rise” — it is also doing an awful lot else. You cannot become a highly internationalized top-four global economy without major global impacts, and as a result, the past five years in particular in the West have been ones of avid China-watching. The 2008 Beijing Olympics has been unofficially billed as China’s “coming out” party — a phrase which belies a widely felt suspicion that China is still somehow “in”. Everybody knows China is growing, but to become what? What is the Chinese Dream?

Western speculation upon this point seems to traverse a void. The media supplies stories from either extreme of China’s rise, indulging on the one hand the narcissistic fantasies of Shanghai-Shenzhen ultramodernism, and on the other its own cultivated outrage at worker abuse horror shops. But these gaudy limits are given precious little by way of infill by the state itself. Instead the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) pursues a strict PR policy of maximum inscrutability. We knew Ronald Reagan liked jelly beans, Bill Clinton blow jobs; and that George W. Bush plays golf. But what is Hu Jintao like? Chinese official-speak seems to emanate from a core of indefatigable closed handedness: there is the wall of statistics, the effacement of personality, and the reiteration of such intractable slogans as: “HOLD ALOFT THE BANNER OF SOCIALISM WITH DISTINCT CHINESE CHARACTERISTICS”, “PURSUE THE COURSE OF SCIENTIFIC DEVELOPMENT”, “IMPLEMENT SOCIALIST DEMOCRACY” etc. Words are spoken, but nobody seems to be remotely clear upon what has been said. All the while the essential question looms ever larger … For the most part, the world feels it knows the American Dream. It is clearly founded upon the pluralistic ideal of a liberated people, who, in pride of their independence, list among their inalienable rights both freedom and the pursuit of happiness. It is highly individualistic, deeply antiauthoritarian, unabashedly utopian, essentially Protestant, and closely attuned to the principles of self-interest upon which capitalism rests. It has, over the past century, led its free individuals in their motor cars out into an enormously gas-guzzling landscape of single house plots with flagpoles, porchswings, and driving-distance retail marts. It has also, and less comfortably, led its government into a painful and prolonged war in Iraq, bringing on accusations of interventionist aggression and cultural and militaristic imperialism — everything the Dream once stood against. But however creaky the present, the ideology holds fast, and is propounded from the bowsprit: freedom, democracy, (neo)liberal capitalism, opened markets, and free (if with subsidies) trade.

For the CCP identity is not so easy. For a start, there is an essential discord to any socialist revolutionary party which promotes social harmony while exhorting some people to get rich quicker than others. This root contradiction, in combination with a degree of enforced reticence regarding the global demise of socialism, goes some way toward explaining the CCP’s adamantine, if charmless, inwardness. But while the political face of China has remained sturdily impassive, the body has been remarkably open. After 30 years in Mao suits, post-1978 China has welcomed a terrific influx of foreign cultural influences, and changes to wealth and lifestyles have far outpaced explicit formulations of what the country stands for or who its people are. Indeed the sheer pace of physical change has tempted numerous Western critics to posit a Chinese identity crisis — a fragile dragon which has become somehow lost or confused in the furious dust clouds of the construction boom or the artificial lights of new megamalls — a nation still ailing from recent turbulent history, and riddled with insecurities about its multi-ethnic composition, its enormous size, its questionable territories (Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, Inner Mongolia), its demographics distorted by the one child policy — in the midst of which (the critics continue), is a youth growing up in something between a cultural wasteland and a vacuum, in which values are being replaced by the most superficial consumer desires for bubble gum, mp3 players, and crass fake Westernism.

The suggestion that pop is somehow melting the minds of a generation or country is of course no more new than it is accurate. However, it seems to have found fresh throat in relation to China, especially on the subject of the starkly new pop-modernist cities which have either appeared out of seeming nowheres (the fishing village that used to be Shenzhen), or have summarily razed previous “traditional” areas in order to bounce into being. The immediate assumption is that much of the newness has come at the expense of oldness, and the West, which has always set such high value on its own architectural heritage, has been particularly appalled by acts of wholesale demolition.

This interpretation of the new Chinese city as an expression of cultural annihilation / identity loss misses two critical points about China. Firstly there is the comparatively lower status of architecture within Chinese history, which is focused less on city states, and more, given the history of political instability, on portable wealth forms. Notably, historically significant temples are often valued for their site rather than for the structure itself, which may have been knocked down and rebuilt multiple times over many centuries. It is striking that the Forbidden City in Beijing, probably China’s architectural apogee, is much more a complex reticulation of courtyards, gates and axes than an expression of built volumes or created interiors. The key interest is the capture, division and rationalization of external space — aims quintessentially different from those driving the massive stone edifices and august drawing rooms of architecturally proud imperial Europe. Secondly, while architectural tradition may occupy a relatively low position in China, tradition itself, indeed possibly to the detriment of innovation, has long been exalted,1 and China long wedded to the notion of itself as an ancient and culturally dominant civilization. In many ways the reinstatement of China upon the global stage is seen by the Chinese as no more than a setting right of a weak two centuries — a view which the CCP is no stranger to as it consciously deploys traditional “harmony” rhetoric,2 both to legitimize its own leadership (drawing a perverse line from feudalism to “Communism with Chinese Characteristics”), and to encourage the strong sense of common history and nationhood which is sweeping across China today.

What the Western fantasy of a China undergoing identity erasure instead reveals is a deep identity crisis within the Western world when confronted by this huge, closed, red alien rising. There is a sense that world order is sliding away from what has been, since the outset of industrialization, an essentially Anglo-Saxon hegemony, and a terrible anxiety gathers as it goes. To further compound the distress, this acute external probing of global power structures comes at a time when the West is suffering another identity crisis entirely on its own front: an EU which keeps gagging on its constitution, a US which — once so confident of being the best place to live on earth — is becoming increasingly aware of its unpopularity, the threat of global terrorism, the quandary of immigration, the tangibly fragile planet which seems to be sitting, regrettably, in a greenhouse almost entirely of the G8’s making — all this at the same time that Western populations themselves are getting famously addled about who they are on an individual level, and resorting more and more to antidepressants and comfort eating …. The sickeningly fat, threatened and unhappy West now turns to China, points the finger, and croaks, ‘You have an identity problem.’

ECONOMIC GROWTH:3 BLACK OR WHITE?
China’s rise is the most successful humanitarian project ever to have taken place. Never before have so many people been lifted out of extreme poverty in so short a space of time. Estimates vary, but it is on the scale of 400 million Chinese poor raised above the US$1/day line in 28 years. In that time, GDP has risen in real terms by a factor of more than 14, making China the fourth largest economy in the world (some one fifth the size of the US). If current growth rates continue, China will outsize the US in the next 20 to 30 years.

The economic growth part of the story is well known. The relationship between current growth and popular benefits is not so black and white. What is less obvious, but perhaps even more astonishing, is the growth in savings that has accompanied China’s soaring earnings. In 2006 these stood at over 50% of GDP, having hovered between the high 30s and the mid 40s for a decade. If you take the position that the purpose of raising GDP is to enable people to have more money to spend on improving their lives, this seems perverse. The super-saver policy of amassing money to stuff mattresses is hard work for small gain, and yet this is what the Chinese seem to be engaged in.

The first of China’s super-savers is the government, which has accumulated some US$1.7 trillion in foreign exchange reserves — the largest such reserve in the world. This is money which simply never enters the economy. It happens like this: an export is paid for in dollars, the dollars are passed on to the bank, and the bank is obliged to hand them over to the government in exchange for a low yielding sterilization note.4 The government then buys low yielding dollar treasury bonds, which it stockpiles, while the people who have been working so hard in China’s famous sweatshops to produce the exports never see the money. The scale of this operation is huge — in 2006 China produced toward US$1tr in exports, of which US$400bn (i.e. 40%) wound up in foreign exchange reserves. US$1.7tr is comfortably in excess of US$1,000 for every person in China. Considering that GDP per capita is still hovering around US$2,000, this seems to be saving in excess of prudence. The 20 million Chinese still living on less than US$2/day, if told their government had this much money stashed away on their behalf but wasn’t releasing it, might legitimately say, ‘Hey! I could really use a thousand bucks.’ Worse still, it’s a thousand bucks which is going to be worth a lot less fairly soon. To be keeping US$1.7tr in low yielding dollar bonds at a time when the dollar is entering what looks to be a long term wobble, and may be as much as 20% over-valued, while the RMB is perhaps 20% undervalued, seems perplexing. If exchange rates flatten out, China is set to straight lose over US$400bn.

The reason for the government’s assiduous dollar-mopping operations has been its determination to keep the RMB cheap. By sterilizing all the foreign currency, the RMB is maintained at an artificially low level, thus maximizing the attractiveness of China’s exports. The backbite is that while exports boom, people within China don’t have money to spend, banks lack capital to lend, and the internal economy is stifled. Bizarrely the people who have really benefited from this tactic over the last ten years have been the Europeans and Americans, who have enjoyed low levels of inflation, and with the inflow of terrifically cheap Chinese products, have been comfortably curling up on sofas in US$1 t-shirts with US$3 toys watching dvds on US$15 players. Now, as Chinese demand for imports is hitting truly global levels and pushing commodity prices up, the doggedly low RMB only passes this burden on to the Chinese in the form of inflation (already starting to happen with the consumer price index for 2007 rising by about 7%).

The true topsy-turviness of the foreign currency reserve is that in effect, the poor country which is growing fast — and so should be borrowing (investing in its own capacity to make money) — is conversely lending to the rich country which is growing slow — and so should be lending (investing in high growth areas where the profits are good). Is the US$1.7tr a weapon to threaten America with? Will it become a Chinese slush fund for state-sponsored buyouts of foreign companies? 2008 saw the creation of a US$200bn Chinese sovereign wealth fund which has already been active among America’s ailing banks. But as was demonstrated by US Congress’ response when China National Offshore Oil Corp. tried to buy American owned Unocal in 2005 — and failed — the West won’t give up ownership of its cherries so easily.5 In the meantime, the majority of the reserves remain a big depreciating CCP wad.

But compellingly, the government is only one of China’s super-savers, and not its most significant. Over half of China’s savings are in investments, chiefly the reinvestment rather than paying out of corporate profit. Much of this boom is focused on heavy industry — a process which has turned China into the world’s number one producer of steel, cement and flat glass,6 all of which it is now a net exporter of. The fact that China, with its enormous underemployed rural population, is labor rich, while it is also, with its scant ratio of land to people, resource poor, makes this level of investment into a sector which is extremely environmentally heavy yet creates relatively few jobs, a counter-intuitive choice.

The market factor driving this is the enormous structural bias toward heavy industry which makes its development and operation much cheaper than it should be. Local officials, under stimulus from central government to maximize economic growth (not to mention tax and personal revenues) by acting entrepreneurially, enter into partnerships with industrial developers. The state-corporate venture then requisitions farmland for a pittance, sells it to itself at below market rates, expedites the building of necessary infrastructure, obviates expensive environmental controls, and arranges deals with coal mines to provide subsidized energy for its own highly energy intensive activities. The result is an explosion of very dirty, very energy inefficient industrial producers dotted across China, each of which, under their own local official, is competing to undercut the prices (and thus most often standards) of neighboring provinces. The proceeds for the local inhabitants are a marginal rise in job supply, a marginal amount of enforced relocation, and acid rain, polluted rivers, and contaminated ground. The proceeds for the industry are corporate profits which, because of the low interest rates offered by banks, as well as restrictions around investing abroad and the lack of a mature domestic private investment market, are mostly put back into building more heavy industry. The level of reinvestment is made exceptionally intense by the fact that many of these industrial firms are State Owned Enterprises(SOEs* ), which, through what can best be described as a reform lapse, are not obliged to pay dividends to their shareholders — i.e. the state — or service their debt to State Owned Banks (SOBs), and thus are supremely cash flush at the end of each year.7 It’s a weird trick by which the state offers all of the breaks to industry, and takes precious little of the reward.

All of this expresses a massive weighting of China’s economic management toward the future. Growth is indeed screaming, but a very substantial whack of the trillions of dollars China is now earning is not making its way into the present. Instead the foreign exchange reserves and extensive industrial development represent a mortgaging of today for the sake of a perceived tomorrow.

Deng Xiaoping’s celebrated surmise that ‘It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice’ has been a guiding tenet of the reform era. Given China’s enormous energy consumption, the bulk of which comes from coal and is consumed by industry, it is becoming increasingly obvious that whatever color the cat started out as, it is black now. The question that remains is, What is the mouse?
1945
XIAO KANG *: SHOTING THE MON? BUT THE PARTY ALWAYS COMES FIRST.
The promised tomorrow of the Chinese Dream is the delivery of the XIAO KANG * shehui — literally “small comfort society”, but generally translated as “well-off society”. The Communist Party may be letting some people get rich first, but this only as a prelude to everybody getting reasonably rich. The greater transition is toward the attainment of a fully developed and fairly distributed level of modernization and prosperity. At the core of this is the creation of a large Chinese middle class.

This middle class is the new China that everybody is looking toward — both the Chinese who are aspiring to attain middle class status, and the rest of the world which is lining up to sell it all the lifestyle products it currently and so tantalizingly lacks. Depending on how you count, China’s middle class today numbers some 100 million. The 800 million Chinese shoppers in the making (equivalent to the total combined population of the US and the EU) unquestionably presents the biggest, brightest, and least saturated market on the planet. At some point, the international corporations are whispering, China will shed its current heavy-saver-heavy-investor skin, and the country will at last release some of that pent up money and live well.

However this hasn’t happened yet — or at least, not on the scale people are waiting for. The reason is simple: the Chinese themselves, along with the Chinese government and Chinese corporations, are super-savers. Over 50% of household earnings are sequestered off, moving China away from being a nation of have-nots, and toward, somewhat confusingly, a nation of could-haves but prefer-to-saves. To a credit-addicted West,8 this is confounding. All the more so when it is remembered that the vast majority of these savings are held in deposit accounts which yield below inflation rates of interest. Such is the commitment to saving in China that people will set aside over half their paycheck to keep filling a money pot with a slow leak.

The most obvious explanation for this is the lack of a welfare safety net. Without universal state healthcare, education, pensions or child support, Chinese citizens bear a heavy burden of responsibility, and at almost every point of their earning lives are likely to be saving against future need. Provision of these services, which the government could certainly afford were it to reorder current economic flows, would no doubt go some way toward easing the parsimony of its citizens, and freeing up a little more cash. But there is a deeper motivation to save, and a limit to how much people will trust a state umbrella.

China has a history of vertiginous instability. This not only stretches back through centuries, but is a tangible constituent of the present. For one, rapidly shifting policies and massive corruption abuses combine to create an extremely uncertain environment for the China of today. Change is frenetic, and impacts frequently unforeseeable. Moreover, the execution of change does not stand on point of manners, and it is impossible to know that the place where you live or work is not going to vanish abruptly beneath a bulldozer, or that a situation requiring a large bribe won’t suddenly arise. Local officials continue to exercise summary power over dispersed and under-informed local populations, and frequently jockey or indeed forge law in accordance with the principle of revenue maximization. This is a China still very much in the operating theater, and while the 17th Party Congress corroborated the policy of reform and the move toward a better ordered society, this is a move away from radically volatile conditions. Behind current modernization efforts, a very different China is in distinct living memory. People who experienced the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) knew a time when local anarchic groups — with governmental blessing — smashed up towns, used the remaining buildings as prisons, and took prisoners for seemingly arbitrary reasons — perhaps simply, having created the prisons, to have someone to put in them. It was not only chaotic, but insanely brutal in terms of the torture, executions and even tribal-style cannibalism that took place. The survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators
of these events are now somewhere around their 50s. For many, personal experience also encompasses terrible famine, brought on through sheer
governmental mismanagement. The hunger and violence of the last sixty years are not available for discussion in China, either through statecontrolled media channels, or within the national education system. Nevertheless, they create a present of extreme infixity for individuals,
who have been forced to survive in a context of capricious arbitrators of a power structure from which they have had no recourse to rule of law, or ability to discharge democratically. Under such vulnerable circumstances, a preference for saving is almost psychologically instilled.

The ironic twist to this story of fervid personal saving is that it is providing the bedrock for the system which, to some extent, it is hoping to inure itself against. Almost a third of China’s savings — equivalent to some 15% of GDP — are in household deposit accounts. The economic impact of this is a huge cash vote in favor of current capital imbalances. China’s State Owned Banks simply would not be able to afford to sterilize so much foreign currency, tolerate so much inefficiently invested industrial lending, or bankroll so many underperforming SOEs* were it not for the rich supply of cheap credit lent to them by the Chinese themselves. This money is effectively bankrolling the banks, and thus the Chinese people are
really paying on three fronts. They have in the course of the reform era come out of their grotesquely underperforming communes to work like crazy producing exports for the sake of profits which the government sits on in the form of depreciating dollars. At the same time they are suffering the most evil industrial pollution on earth for the sake of profits which the industrial producers reinvest in increasing industrial capacity. And then, of the leftover profits which do trickle down, they put half into funding these dollar-amassing and polluting operations. The people may seem to be getting scant present rewards for the phenomenally future-driven management of the country, but it is a future they are investing in on every level.

The widely held conviction that Western-style democracy follows economic development with the same inexorability as day does night is one of the West’s fondest and shakiest attempts at historical masternarrative. What the last fifty years of IMF, World Bank, and UN intervention have certainly managed to disprove is the theory that economic development necessarily follows the installation of democracy. It is striking that China — far and away the most successful of the developing nations — has achieved its remarkable economic growth largely without the conventional “prerequisites” for capitalism (e.g. property rights,9 rule of law, transparency, trust), and mostly in direct contradiction of traditional IMF-World Bank “wisdom” (China has adopted neither rapid privatization of the state sector, nor keen suppression of inflation). Instead the CCP is very much running its own version of things — a “socialist market economy”, which could alternatively be termed bureaucratic or indeed state capitalism. It’s an oxymoron which emerges in the form of a whole series of China paradoxes. China is both the most globalized country in the world (in terms of trade and openness to foreign direct investment), and one of its most closed (in terms of the state control of media and the internet, NGOs, and official data). China is home to much of the world’s most technologically advanced architecture and urbanism (including the CCTV tower and Dongtan, set to be the world’s first zero carbon city), and yet is home to a predominantly rural population. China makes up 11% of the global luxury market, but in GDP per capita terms — even by purchasing power parity — does not rank in the global top hundred. And China is the world’s fastest changing society, and yet for nearly sixty years has had the same ruling political party.

At the 17th Party Congress the CCP made it clear that while it would continue with reform, it did not intend to follow the path of Western-style development, referring no doubt, among other things, to multi-party representation. Within China, unofficial political organization or networking is strictly forbidden, and the Party certainly has no intention of allowing the populace to pass judgment on its leadership. When asked about democracy, the Party will reply, ‘We have democracy in China — democracy within the Party.’ Upsetting as this is to Western political teleology, it seems, at present, to be forging a strong path. In fact many of today’s XIAO KANG * are distinctly opposed to the idea of peasants voting for national government. Tens of thousands of protests do occur every year, but overwhelmingly these are grievance-driven and result in negotiated settlements, rather than being issue-driven, such as might lead to wider political restructuring. They are manageable. To the larger question, ‘Are people buying into the Party Dream?’ — or rather, given its savings-driven profile — ‘Are people saving into it?’ the Party can answer with confidence, ‘Yes.’

This Dream is all about prioritizing an enhanced XIAO KANG * future over capitalizing on a XIAO KANG * present. It is a shooting the moon operation. China today is poorer than it may be, but has high hopes. The whole of Chinese society is looking to the future — if only because, given Chinese history and much of the Chinese present, there is in truth nowhere else to look. Most of this future is intangible. But the clues are out there. Much is also under current production. There is one incontestable element: urbanization.

CITIES NOT SUFFRAGE!
Urbanization is China’s answer to what it’s up to and where it’s going. Urban development has been a major engine for economic growth, and indeed industrial output, where the investment boom has been in no small way powered by domestic demand.10 Crucially, and in a much bigger way than idea-based concepts for reform, it has also been a catalyst for social progress. The traditional Chinese middle class dream, so strongly rooted in the vision of a family with a child in a house, has bonded hard to the new real estate market, and the growing sense of home ownership has provided a focal point both for “social instability”,11 in cases of land dispute, and for the long-awaited development of individuals’ rights. After years of mounting pressure, in 2007 citizens were awarded the same legal protection of their property as the state — arguably the most significant shift in Chinese law since 1949. Urbanization, not democracy, it turns out, is the driver for change in China. It is also the trip, and the much dreamed-of destination.

But ironically for such a future-orientated society, the construction of this urban dream is being motivated by oppressively short term considerations. The radical mutability of the present, the near perfect absence of a reliable long term scenario, and the context of obscure and mercurial policy shifts, inevitably enforces among developers — and their local official partners — a “capitalize now” approach. Any intent to consider local integration is undermined by the fact that everything around is equally in flux, and high levels of consumer demand ensure that suppliers compete chiefly on the grounds of cost and speed. The implications of this are all the more drastic for the fact that it’s a one shot opportunity. Once cast, urban configurations are to a large extent fixed, and cities are notorious for refusing rewind.

Over the past twenty years it has become increasingly apparent that the world is a limited resource. Much of human development to date has simply not been aware of this (it always seemed so big), but the vicissitudes of globalization and a growing acknowledgment of climate change have set up potential outcomes which, though distant, are casting shadows back into the present. The 21st century will be one defined by its attempts to grapple with an angel of the long term. China’s urbanization is at the heart of its construction of a new society, and of the glorious future which the Chinese are currently and all so frugally awaiting. Given China’s contemporary role as both laboratory for urban development and leader of emerging economies, it is equally a core component in the construction of a global future, and therefore a global dream. The Chinese city may be in the thick of becoming the ultimate expression of not only spatial, but also economic and political desire. All the more reason to ask now, while the building is going up so fast, Is that in fact where we want to get to when we say we want to take each of these individual steps? All the more reason to dream harder.



note:
1 Indeed the importance of tradition is structurally embedded into tradition itself, through Confucian stress upon loyalty (to parents and thus to past), and the Taoist dictum to ‘Let your wheels move only along old ruts.’

2 The CCP’s promulgation of the “harmonious society” clearly echoes Confucian ideals and language.

3 1.12 (1978) x 1.08 (1979) x 1.08 (1980) x 1.05 (1981) x 1.09 (1982) x 1.11 (1983) x 1.15 (1984) x 1.14 (1985) x 1.09 (1986) x 1.12 (1987) x 1.11 (1988) x 1.04 (1989) x 1.04 (1990) x 1.09 (1991) x 1.14 (1992) x 1.14 (1993) x 1.13 (1994) x 1.11 (1995) x 1.10 (1996) x 1.09 (1997) x 1.08 (1998) x 1.08 (1999) x 1.08 (2000) x 1.08 (2001) x 1.09 (2002) x 1.10 (2003) x 1.10 (2004) x 1.10 (2005) x 1.11 (2006) = 14.88

4 This is something the bank holds and receives a small return on, but cannot cash. The money is effectively sterilized, hence the term.

5 A similar situation occurred with Chinese stakes in American ports. In particular, China may face walls as it moves to buy up more and more of the West’s most innovative technology companies.

6 35%, 48% and 49% of global production respectively.

7 Investment levels in China are so high that it has become a favorite economist’s gag to ask why, given how much money is being driven back into corporate ventures, is growth so slow?

8 Recent levels of household spending exceed incomes in America. If employer pension contributions are excluded, this is true also of Britain.

9 Without effective rule of law, property owners in China have occupied a somewhat precarious position. Possession of documents but not guan xi, or good relationship, with officials has been no guarantee of holding onto something. Urbanization processes have however driven change – see below.

10 Terrific investment in real estate and transportation infrastructure (US$400bn in 2006) make China its own number one customer for the enormous quantities of steel, cement and glass that it is producing.

11 A CCP euphemism for public protest. Land disputes – often stemming from (corrupt) governmental or government-sponsored land take – are the most common cause.

Owned by adrian hornsby / Added by adrian hornsby / 8.8 years ago / 78262 hits / 7 hours view time

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