What is life like in a Chinese megacity?
The more time one spends in China, and the more one travels within the country, the harder it is to describe "China" as a single entity. The country is far more geographically, culturally, linguistically and economically diverse — and confusing — than is evident from the photos we now often see of gleaming new shopping ...
The more time one spends in China, and the more one travels within the country, the harder it is to describe "China" as a single entity. The country is far more geographically, culturally, linguistically and economically diverse — and confusing — than is evident from the photos we now often see of gleaming new shopping malls in its wealthier eastern cities. There is not one China story, but countless.
From the windblown deserts of Gansu province to the fertile rice paddies of Hunan, from impoverished Tibetan shepherds to shopaholic Shanghaiese, from the glitzy coordination of mass events, like the 2008 Olympic Opening Ceremony, to the chaotic hodgepodge of daily life (orderly queues are entirely unknown), there is no single narrative or argument that encapsulates the nation. (The Atlantic’s James Fallows and others return often to this point.)
What all these aspects of China do have in common, however, is that they’re changing. Rapidly. Over the next 20 years, some 400 million people — more than the entire population of the United States — will move from the countryside to China’s fast growing cities. Imagine the many stages of American history over the last century and a half condensed into a single generation. Then you have a glimpse of the transformation underway in China.
In Britain, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, there are only two cities with a population of more than 1 million; in the United States, there are just 10 such cities. But already in China, there are 43 cities of more than 1 million, and by 2030 there will be 221, the McKinsey Global Institute predicts.
What is life like in China’s booming megacities? To begin to answer that question, this spring I visited the sprawling metropolis of Chongqing — once a relative backwater in mountainous western China, and today place where land is converted from countryside to apartment blocks and parking lots faster than anywhere else on the planet. A dynamic inland port city, and gateway to what Beijing considers China’s still Wild West, think of it as "Chicago on the Yangtze" (check out the article here — and Matthew Niederhauser’s superb photo essay here.)
During World War II, the city was known to westerners as Chungking, when it was briefly the Nationalist capital of China. Many turns of history later, it is today a place where it is possible to drive through the northern New District for more than a half hour, past block upon block of new apartment highrises, where five years ago there were only fields. Its celebrity Party boss, Bo Xiali, is already making international headlines for his storied crackdown on Chinese mobsters and wrenching political ambitions.
For all the international attention paid to decisions made in Beijing, I have come to believe that the role that China, now the world’s second largest economy, will come to play in the 21st century will depend not firstly on the wiles of its diplomats, the size of its navy, or even the next appointments to the Politburo, but on how well China manages the largest mass urbanization in history. The municipality of Chongqing, absorbing roughly 1 million new urban dwellers each year, is at the spear tip of this experiment.
UPDATE: Chicago fires back! Writing for the Chicago Reader, Lauri Apple takes issue with the comparison, and explains why Chicago is not the Chongqing of the United States:
Chongqing’s skyline has jillions of tall buildings; we’ve got our fair share of skyscrapers, but nothing approaching Chongqing’s concrete horizon. Chongqing continues to build communist-style housing developments; Chicago is tearing them down.
Chongqing is mountainous, and its main body of water, the Yangtze, looks like a river of Yoo Hoo. Chicago has no mountains, and its water is blue (and green, on Saint Patrick’s Day). In Chongqing, people play badminton in the public areas; Chicagoans play public cornhole.
Fair enough, there’s no analogy that truly explains a Chinese megacity. But hopefully the article and photos will help a bit to demystify the abstraction.