What can happen to a city in fifteen years? In China, a lot.
A recent article in the Chinese Neweekly Magazine (@新周刊) called “A Ranking of Alienating Chinese Cities” (城市异化排行榜) gives one perspective. An intentionally self-deprecating follow-up to a popular (and more earnest) article called “The Charms of Chinese Cities” published by the magazine in 1998, the new article has re-ranked China’s major cities based on their current characteristics. Looking over the twin rankings, it’s not hard to notice that most of the cities listed experienced rocky transitions into the 21st century. Beijing, for example, was ranked “The Most Magnificent City” in 1998, but transformed into “The Most Miserable City” in 2013. Shanghai won the “Most Luxurious City” in 1998. Fifteen years later, however, it was dubbed “The Most Arrogant City.”
Although the new rankings appear tongue in cheek, they nonetheless offer a hint of what China’s big push for urbanization over the past decade and a half has really wrought. On Sina Weibo, the rankings went viral soon after their release, with more than 2,500 re-tweets. As Chinese cities get ever bigger, urbanites’ unhappiness also seems to be on the rise as the drawbacks of urbanization become increasingly manifest.
According to the Beijing Evening Post, Beijing and Mexico City topped the list of cities with “the most painful traffic jams” in 2011. Weibo user @我叫花怒放 tweeted: “The furthest distance in the world is not the distance between life and death; it’s the distance between you and me when we are both caught in traffic on the Fifth Ring Road.” In order to alleviate the problems brought by its heavy traffic, Beijing has announced several rigorous car restrictions since 2008 to crack down on car buyers and curtail the number of automobiles. But visible improvements to the traffic are still wanting.
Besides transportation problems, skyrocketing housing prices have become a major concern. Terms created by Chinese netizens such as “Ant Tribes” (used to describe recent graduates who live cheaply in major cities and work hard in low-paid jobs) and “Snail Dwelling” (a cramped house, often with multiple tenants) both vividly capture the living condition of young graduates from outside the main cities who move to urban areas.
Rapid urbanization has also changed China’s countryside. Based on data in the Report of Chinese Farmers’ Economic Condition by China’s Center for Rural Studies, rural Chinese who worked in factories earned an average annual household income of 49,688 RMB (about US$8,014) in 2011, whereas households who perform farming work only earned 21,905 RMB (about US$3,533) in a calendar year. Higher incomes in the manufacturing and construction industries have motivated young Chinese to leave rural villages for large metropolises, which has made already dense cities even more crowded. According to the National Bureau of Statistics of China, as of 2011 there were more than 252 million migrant workers in Chinese cities– over half of them work in Guangdong, Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Shandong provinces, where urbanization has created many mega-cities.
Moreover, the Bureau’s data also shows that approximately 80% of the migrant workers are between 21 and 50 years old, which means that villages are losing a major portion of their prime labor forces. As young rural residents abandon farmlands that their ancestors lived on for generations, more and more villages are dying. In Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip, author Peter Hessler writes: “Nowadays in rural China the overall trajectory is usually one of decline – that’s what I witnessed during my drive across the north. In the dying villages I glimpsed how life was disappearing.”
With rural life petering out, one might expect urban life to remain inherently attractive. But Weibo user @执着痴迷的军人控 voiced this common query: “With skyrocketing property prices, deteriorating air quality, and frustrating traffic, people still want to live in Beijing, even if it means they have to rent an apartment with dozens of people or squeeze themselves into basements. But WHY?”
The Inescapable Beijing, published by The New York Times Chinese edition, tried to explain the “why.” Ding Hongxiu, founder of technology company Beijing Morncloud, said in the article: “You can find whatever resources you want in Beijing. Many universities are located in Beijing, which offers us [small startups] a good environment for entrepreneurship, because we can easily recruit suitable graduates.” Granted, with soaring rents, congested traffic, and worsening pollution, Beijing is becoming a rough place to live. But the city still serves as China’s center for politics, culture, economics, technology, and education, offering unparalleled resources essential for almost everyone – be they entrepreneurs, college graduates, Chinese “sea turtles” returned from abroad, artists, even farmers.
As metropolises such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou become black holes for resources, medium and small-sized cites have encountered difficulties in their development. On Weibo, @杜子健 complained: “The most frustrating part about Tianjin [an industrial city an hour southeast of Beijing] is that we don’t own the resources that commonly exist in first tier cities – good resources are all taken by Beijing, our neighbor. The traditional industries of Tianjin have already ebbed, but ambitious market-oriented new industries would never choose Tianjin since Beijing is so close.”
Reports on China’s grand plan to move 250 million rural residents into newly constructed cities have populated all the major news sites. But a critical question for the country is: Will these newly built cities help dilute the resources currently concentrated in big cities? What role will they play in helping promote the development of second tier and third tier cities, rebalancing a currently unequal picture? Fifteen years from now, will we see more Chinese cities experience a “beautiful transformation” rather than increased alienation?
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that 30% of all migrant workers could be found in Guangzhou, Beijing, and Shanghai. We apologize for the error.