Accelerated urban growth, the extension of huge new development zones, integrated industrial-urban projects: all these urban transformations, which have been taking place in Suzhou for nearly thirty years, are a good illustration of urban transformations in the coastal regions of China. Through the study of the Prefecture-City of Suzhou, one can largely measure the evolution of urban planning and development strategies, models and processes in China.
Located in the southern part of Jiangsu Province (the so-called “Sunan”) and adjacent to the Municipality of Shanghai, Suzhou is famous primarily for its historical role: it was the capital of China, is known the world over for its classical gardens and was the manufacturing and commercial centre of the Yangtze Delta up to the time of the first Opium War (1839-1842). Then, during the period of Western domination, Suzhou gradually declined, while Shanghai prospered. Since the 1990s, Suzhou has experienced a dramatic revival and has become one of the most attractive and dynamic cities in China, as well as a major export-oriented industrial centre . During the 1980s, the authorities in Suzhou took the decision to intensively develop new industrial and urban zones around the old centre, thus preserving the historic city from extensive restructuring (under pressure from very active local architects), a rare – if not unique – event in China. Since 1985, many development zones have been created across Suzhou’s 8500 km² wide territory, which today includes about 10 million inhabitants. Some of these development zones are among the most important in China: Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP), Suzhou New District (SND), Kunshan ETDZ, Wujiang Economic Development Area, Zhangjiagang Tariff-Free District.
What are the driving forces behind this accelerated transformation, and what is the logic that underlies it?
In 1979, the new Chinese President Deng Xiaoping and his government observed the poor state of China’s economy and the inefficiency of state-owned enterprises. The main causes they identified were a lack of capital and expertise, and insufficient technological development. In order to solve these problems, they undertook “Chinese economic reforms”: the introduction of market mechanisms and opening to foreign capital, pro-urban policies and the liberalization of real estate. They singled out a model based on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI): attracting foreign investment seemed to them to be the best way to inject capital, advanced technology and management skills into the Chinese economy, and eventually to generate growth, boost local economies and develop the country.
Following these reforms introduced by the Chinese central government, during the 1980s Suzhou experienced a turning point in its model of development. Whereas, during the Maoist period, Suzhou (and more generally the Sunan) experienced a domestic market oriented rural industrialization (with the establishment of township and village enterprises), a radically new and different economic model was chosen from 1985 on: the FDI oriented model. Attracting FDI is now a priority for the authorities of Suzhou. The economic results of this policy are spectacular: Suzhou has become a Prefecture-City that is at the forefront in attracting FDI and generating growth, experiencing an annual GDP growth rate of about 15% between 2000 and 2005, and 12% between 2005 and 2010 (among the highest rates in China).
There is a key factor in implementing this FDI-oriented model: the development zones, which are huge free zones, created and developed to attract foreign investment by means of favourable tax agreements . Since 1985, the authorities in Suzhou have opened up large development areas of this sort around the old city (SND, then SIP and others). The creation of these special zones has enabled the city to construct dedicated objects and environments, specially designed for the reception of foreign investment.
These development zones are not only key tools for economic growth, but also major territorial objects, often of considerable size (it is not uncommon for them to occupy dozens of square kilometres), which have become urban poles defining the structure of the Prefecture-City of Suzhou. They are at the heart of its spatial development and logistical planning: they are not only industrial or business parks, but also important urban entities. During their development in the 1990s and 2000s, after having attracted industries and businesses, they integrated many other urban functions (residential, commercial, administrative, educational, recreational…), constituting hybrid “industrial park-cities” . Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) (Suzhou Gongye Yuan Qu) is the most important of them. It was created in 1994 by the Chinese central government within the framework of a strategic partnership with Singapore. Located to the east of the old centre of Suzhou, and very close to Shanghai, SIP today comprises an area of 288 km² (nearly three times that of the City of Paris). It first attracted many industries (SIP now includes nearly 10,000 companies), and then developed and incorporated its residential and other urban functions: it now includes about 800,000 inhabitants.
Through the deployment of these “industrial parks”, which in actual fact are new cities, a specific model of development and planning is at work and provides the driving force for Suzhou’s economic and urban boom. The attraction of foreign investment draws urban development into the development zones : the jobs thus created generate a need for nearby housing and the attraction of FDI indirectly finances the construction of urban facilities and infrastructures. This mechanism is reinforced by the intense competition in which the different administrative territories are engaged at all levels, whether it be between different development zones, different districts in the Prefecture-City of Suzhou, or between Suzhou and the other Municipalities in Jiangsu (Nanjing , Wuxi, Suzhou, Changzhou, Zhenjiang, Yangzhou, Taizhou, Nantong) and Shanghai.
This pattern of development and planning is not specific to Suzhou; Suzhou is an emblematic case which exacerbates the process. (This is due especially to its strategic location in the Yangtze Delta region, at the forefront of Chinese development). The case of Suzhou illustrates the paramount role of development zones in the economic and urban development of Chinese cities, as well as the shift in the type of urban planning models used in China since the 1980s. Whereas, prior to the turning point in 1978, spatial planning followed a technical rationality (to carry out the national economic plan), from the 1980s it completely changed its function, approach and purpose, becoming essentially a market-oriented instrument for economic competitiveness. This shift has led to ever more serious problems of territorial coherence and environmental degradation.
Ph.D. Candidate in urban planning at LATTS (Ecole des Ponts ParisTech - Paris Est) and at Suez Environnement