Unlivable Cities

China's megalopolises may seem impressive on paper, but they are awful places to live.

Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

In Invisible Cities, the novel by the great Italian writer Italo Calvino, Marco Polo dazzles the emperor of China, Kublai Khan, with 55 stories of cities he has visited, places where "the buildings have spiral staircases encrusted with spiral seashells," a city of "zigzag" where the inhabitants "are spared the boredom of following the same streets every day," and another with the option to "sleep, make tools, cook, accumulate gold, disrobe, reign, sell, question oracles." The trick, it turns out, is that Polo’s Venice is so richly textured and dense that all his stories are about just one city.

A modern European ruler listening to a visitor from China describe the country’s fabled rise would be better served with the opposite approach: As the traveler exits a train station, a woman hawks instant noodles and packaged chicken feet from a dingy metal cart, in front of concrete steps emptying out into a square flanked by ramshackle hotels and massed with peasants sitting on artificial cobblestones and chewing watermelon seeds. The air smells of coal. Then the buildings appear: Boxlike structures, so gray as to appear colorless, line the road. If the city is poor, the Bank of China tower will be made with hideous blue glass; if it’s wealthy, our traveler will marvel at monstrous prestige projects of glass and copper. The station bisects Shanghai Road or Peace Avenue, which then leads to Yat-sen Street, named for the Republic of China’s first president, eventually intersecting with Ancient Building Avenue. Our traveler does not know whether he is in Changsha, Xiamen, or Hefei — he is in the city Calvino describes as so unremarkable that "only the name of the airport changes." Or, as China’s vice minister of construction, Qiu Baoxing, lamented in 2007, "It’s like a thousand cities having the same appearance."

Why are Chinese cities so monolithic? The answer lies in the country’s fractured history. In the 1930s, China was a failed state: Warlords controlled large swaths of territory, and the Japanese had colonized the northeast. Shanghai was a foreign pleasure den, but life expectancy hovered around 30. Tibetans, Uighurs, and other minorities largely governed themselves. When Mao Zedong unified China in 1949, much of the country was in ruins, and his Communist Party rebuilt it under a unifying theme. Besides promulgating a single language and national laws, they subscribed to the Soviet idea of what a city should be like: wide boulevards, oppressively squat, functional buildings, dormitory-style housing. Cities weren’t conceived of as places to live, but as building blocks needed to build a strong and prosperous nation; in other words, they were constructed for the benefit of the party and the country, not the people.

Even today, most Chinese cities feel like they were cobbled together from a Soviet-era engineering textbook. China’s fabled post-Mao liberal reforms meant that the country’s cities grew wealthier, but not that much more distinct from each other. Beijing has changed almost beyond recognition since Deng Xiaoping took power in 1978, but to see what Beijing looked like in the past, visit a less developed part of China: Malls in Xian, a regional hub in central China famous for its row upon row of grimacing terracotta warriors, look like the shabby pink structures that used to dot western Beijing. Yes, China’s cities are booming, but there’s a depressing sameness to what you find in even the newest of new boomtowns. Consider the checklist of "hot" new urban features itemized in a 2007 article in the Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, including obligatory new "development zones" (sprawling corporate parks set up to attract foreign direct investment), public squares, "villa" developments for the nouveau riche, large overlapping highways, and, of course, a new golf course or two for the bosses. The cookie-cutter approach is such that even someone like Zhou Deci, former director of the Chinese Academy of Urban Planning and Design, told the paper he has difficulty telling Chinese cities apart.

This model of endless fractal Beijings wouldn’t be so bad if the city itself were charming, but it is a dreary expanse traversed by unwalkable highways, punctuated by military bases, government offices, and other closed-off spaces, with undrinkable tap water and poisonous air that’s sometimes visible, in yellow or gray. And so are its lesser copies across the country’s 3.7 million square miles, from Urumqi in the far west to Shenyang way up north. For all their economic success, China’s cities, with their lack of civil society, apocalyptic air pollution, snarling traffic, and suffocating state bureaucracy, are still terrible places to live.

I spent seven years in China, living there until the end of last year. I’ve visited 21 of China’s 22 provinces and all five of its questionably named "autonomous" regions. In a traffic jam in the central metropolis of Wuhan, a barrage of car horns honking at once nearly made me deaf; smog the color of gargled milk hung over Nanjing the week I spent there, obscuring the city’s old rivers and bridges; at one of the nicest hotels in Tangshan, a city of 3 million famous for its steel industry, its 1976 earthquake, and its cabbage, I opened my window and found myself surrounded by smokestacks. I spent six years in Beijing, two months in Shanghai, a week in Tianjin, and 45 minutes in a cab on the way to the Chongqing airport. But of all the places I’ve been, I’d vote Harbin China’s least livable metropolis, at least during the three winter months I spent there as a student in 2005.

Chinese central government propaganda has gotten more sophisticated, even believable over the years, but official descriptions of cities are a major exception. Xiamen, for example, a sweltering concrete mess across the strait from Taiwan, is known as the "Garden of the Sea." Harbin, a gray Manchurian industrial powerhouse 300 miles south of Siberia that McKinsey says will be the world’s 55th-most dynamic city in 2025, gets the award for the worst abuse of language: It is widely known in China as "The Little Paris of the Orient," even though the two cities have nothing in common besides roads, people, buildings, and a fondness for bread.

In the early 20th century, Harbin had a large population of fleeing white Russians. In the 1950s, because of its strategic location, the Soviet Union sent advisors to help develop the city; they are in part responsible for the soulless apartment blocks and the creepy concrete dormitories that ring the campus of the Harbin Institute of Technology, the city’s most prominent university.

Harbin now houses nearly 6 million people, some of whom had fled from bleaker towns farther north, in a wide, flat city bisected by the cleverly named Central Avenue. Aboveground malls compete for customers with massive underground shopping centers that used to be bomb shelters. The post offices, banks, and counterfeit DVD stores looked like run-down versions of the ones in Beijing; even the bus-stop map seemed to be designed by the same person.

Besides karaoke rooms and KFC, popular destinations for locals include the mostly frigid Sun Island Park, across the street from Stalin Park, which features imitation Russian architecture and the Railway River clubhouse, administered by a local railways bureau (and yes, it’s that Stalin). For most of the year, real outdoor activities are difficult: When I arrived in February, the temperature regularly dropped below -15 degrees Celsius; buffeted by Siberian winds, it was physically painful to be outside. Locals have probably gawked at St. Sophia Cathedral, built by the Russian army in 1907, at least once or twice. And some have visited the Siberian Tiger Park, climbing into rickety vans as the guides drive among the tigers (for $8 your guide will toss a chicken at the patiently waiting animals; for $300, he’ll release a cow), and the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, billed as one of the world’s "four largest ice and snow festivals."

But mostly, people drink. Chinese alcoholism statistics are hard to come by, but Harbin hits the bottle hard. One Chinese website in 2008 ranked Harbiners as China’s No. 1 beer drinkers, claiming that they drink more than 85 liters of beer a year, on par with Lithuania and nearly twice as much as China’s second-ranked city, also in Manchuria. Many drink in restaurants or in clubs, like the popular Blues, a cavernous dance hall that featured a massive silk-screen print of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin on the wall and a fake octopus hanging from the ceiling, and where a Mongolian prostitute smacking a Korean prostitute with a chair would interrupt only the person who had been sitting on the chair. A Beijing-based blogger who lived in Harbin in 2003 told me about leaving Blues after several drinks and flagging a taxi driver, whom he recognized. "The taxi driver told me, ‘Hi, I just came from a wedding and I’m soused. You drive." So he drove himself home through Harbin’s icy, deserted streets.

Like many Chinese cites, Harbin can be extremely challenging to the health — and not just due to the sometimes scandalously toxic food served in dim, poorly lit restaurants. Hospital bathrooms in Harbin and elsewhere often lack soap and toilet paper, ostensibly out of fear that residents will steal the items. Six months after I arrived, a benzene spill in the nearby Songhua River briefly left the city without running water. The air in Harbin was so polluted that I felt as though the coal dust had sunk into my lungs, and a fine layer of black soot seeped in through our windows overnight. But even Harbin wasn’t as filthy as Linfen, a city of 4 million people in central China’s Shanxi province that Time in 2007, on a list of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, said made "Dickensian London look as pristine as a nature park."


The most livable parts of Chinese cities tend to be those that existed before Communist Party control. Teahouses, sometimes in elaborate, winding wooden structures, populate Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province; the areas around West Lake of Hangzhou, in Zhejiang province near Shanghai, feature an urban peacefulness and quiet. In an essay, dissident artist Ai Weiwei listed a "few nice parks" as one of the two things he liked about Beijing (the other was that "people still give birth to babies"). Chinese cities have little crime; one can stroll safely through Beijing’s magnificent Temple of the Sun park at midnight and lie on the altar, roughly 20 feet high, where the emperor used to offer sacrifices to the sun, and marvel at the luxury of so much space in a crowded city. And on the rare day when the sky is clear, you can even see the stars.

Many of China’s most tolerable areas, though, have foreign elements. Shanghai owes its cafe culture, its warrens of charming alleys, and its stately waterfront buildings to foreign colonization. The former foreign concession Tianjin, a municipality roughly the size of Beijing and 30 minutes away by high-speed rail, still retains some delightfully ramshackle mansions from that period. (Many Chinese, however, see the foreign concessions as a reminder of the early 20th-century colonization and therefore shameful, and some see American cities, with their GDPs expanding at glacial rates of 1 to 2 percent, as relics of the past.) Despite the best efforts of local governments and developers to raze old neighborhoods, the Silk Road oasis of Kashgar and the Tibetan capital of Lhasa still harbor majestic temples and mosques. The former foreign concession Gulangyu, a five-minute ferry ride from Xiamen in South China’s Fujian province, is one of the most pleasant spots in China. A carless island, filled with less than 20,000 residents, it’s experiencing a boom because tourists "want to experience Western culture," a woman named Xie Lida told me in 2010; her family owns one of the island’s most popular coffee shops, called Zhu Family Garden, on the first floor of their massive villa. The European parlor-style decoration features paintings of the British countryside, overstuffed chairs with rose patterns, and Earl Grey served from an imitation British tea set.

Cities that try to replicate the success of places like Gulangyu often do so by plunking a massive Western structure in the center of their city. In 2003, Dalian erected a hulking Bavarian-style fortress above the conference center near where the World Economic Forum held its "Summer Davos"; the castle looked more at home in a Mario Bros. video game than a coastal Chinese city. (It was torn down in 2010.) The southern boomtown of Shenzhen boasts an Eiffel Tower 25 percent the size of the original; Hangzhou’s version is 33 percent. In 2003, Fuyang, an impoverished city of 8 million people in central Anhui province, built a massive government office, at a cost of nearly $5 million, resembling the U.S. Capitol. ("Without the red flag, you can’t tell if it’s America or China," one local resident quipped to a Chinese state journalist.)

The copycat ethos also extends to domestic landmarks. The Water Cube, where Beijing hosted its Olympic swimming events, has spawned a look-alike spa in the metropolis of Chongqing offering brothel service, at least until a 2010 police raid. Chengdu has built a fake version of the Great Wall. Even China’s iconic Tiananmen Square, the site of Mao’s 1949 proclamation of an independent China and 1989’s student massacre, has a fake version in Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia autonomous region. These faux landmarks, built for the prestige of Chinese mayors and party secretaries, rarely become integrated into the city. According to a photographer who visited Hangzhou’s Eiffel Tower in 2011, migrant workers now use the land adjacent to the tower to grow crops.

And even where China’s urbanization boom has produced impressive architectural feats, it’s not always clear that the country’s cities are ready for them: A free-spending checkbook for development hasn’t yet translated to a way around the Communist Party’s stronghold on history, politics, and everything in between. So yes, there are impressive new urban meccas for the performing arts, like the soaring glass Guangzhou Opera House designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid that cost more than $200 million to build, or French architect Paul Andreu’s Beijing National Center for the Performing Arts, a gorgeously situated dome that looks like an egg floating in water, with a price tag of more than $300 million. But a pervasive fear of censorship means that many of the best plays and artwork — the lifeblood of great cities — never get created or performed.


That’s not to say Chinese cities aren’t improving. Pictures of Harbin in the 1980s make it look like Pyongyang with smog and traffic. Most Chinese lived in dormitories with shared kitchens or bathrooms, and few appliances.

"The yard is just two metres square," writes author Ma Jian in the travelogue Red Dust, about the "crumbling old shack" he lived in off a Beijing courtyard in 1981, an improvement from his previous quarters in a dormitory. "In the summer months, watermelon skins and empty ice-cream cartons fall from the flats and attract swarms of flies and mosquitoes, so I tend to stay indoors. Winter is the best season as my neighbours seal their windows." Antoaneta Becker, a former journalist from Bulgaria who studied at Peking University, Beijing’s premier college, in the late 1980s, said that it was so boring that "there was nothing to do but sit and meditate on the meaning of existence."

Now, great noodle and sushi joints dot the capital; bars mixing $15 martinis are upstairs from little tents serving beer of dubious provenance for under a dollar. Foreign and Chinese hipsters have colonized some of Beijing’s traditional hutong (small alleys that ramble throughout the center of the city) neighborhoods. The capital’s best microbrewery, Great Leap, set up a bar in one these alleys — its subversive name is borrowed from the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s disastrous forced industrial campaign that led to the starvation of 20 million to 30 million people.

But there is much work to be done before China’s urban wastelands measure up to the world’s great cities. In a different era, but one suited to China’s present condition, England-based novelist Henry James wrote, "It is difficult to speak adequately or justly of London. It is not a pleasant place; it is not agreeable, or cheerful, or easy, or exempt from reproach. It is only magnificent." After three decades of breakneck growth and 5,000 years of history, China’s cities have most of that going for them. Now they just need to work on the magnificent.

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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