Category Archives: Reviews

Aspects of urbanization in China

This book, edited by Gregory Bracken (TU Delft), offers impressive arguments on the subject of Chinese cities and their evolution. Contributions deal mostly with architectural aspects of Chinese urbanization1. However, architecture is not an end in itself, for it is used by the authors as a tool to study the transformation of Chinese cities from post-colonial to global megalopolises.  The collected texts highlight the relations and conflicts between local and global interests and their consequences on Chinese urban society, as well as examining the impact of architecture on the social environment.

The three Chinese cities studied in this book share a common trait: they were colonial or semi-colonial cities. Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997; Shanghai was divided into foreign concessions; Guangzhou’s commercial relations with the Western world date back to the Ming dynasty, and foreign merchants enjoyed special rights there (as described by GuoXiangmin and Liu Changtao),. These cities maintain a complex relationship with their history (Lena Scheen wonders whether or not this is nostalgia) and tend to use their Past to move from post-colonial cities to global cities.

The book is divided into three sections, entitled “global ambitions”, “cultural expression” and “architectural expression”.

Contributions to the first section examine the efforts made by Chinese cities to become global cities. Leslie Sklair (LSE) studies the influence of capitalist globalisation on architecture. His view is that iconic urban monuments are used by a “transnational capitalist class” to ensure the development of global consumerism. After decolonization, cities attempted to develop a national style of modernist architecture, but this was often determined by the Western world. According to the author, although postcolonial architecture was thought to be a factor of national identity, it in fact strengthened  global consumerism   Leslie Sklair illustrates his point with several examples of cities in developing countries

The second contribution was written by Jacob Dreyer (NYU) and focuses on the creation of a new image for Shanghai. The author describes China’s efforts to transform Shanghai into a modern city with Expo 2012, using urban planning, but postponing political reforms.  The vision of the authorities is that of an ideal city. However, “a city is much more than buildings – it is a way of social relations”. These have to be taken into consideration in order to successfully transform Shanghai into a beacon of modernity. In the author’s opinion, Shanghai has the necessary infrastructures to become a global city, but needs to empower her inhabitants if she wants to acquire this rank.

Guo Xiangmin and Liu Changtao analyse discuss how Guangzhou can retrieve its status of global city without detriment to its regional role.  For the authors, “Guangzhou has to find its own special path towards being a global city in the post-colonial era”.  Throughout her history, Guangzhou has actively taken part in China’s openness to the world; this southern city was at times forced, both  by China and by foreign countries, to get involved with the rest of the world. Since the reforms, Guangzhou has become very dependent on foreign trade, and the development of the city was affected by 1997 Asian crisis, as well as the 2008 international crisis. The authors advocate a better balance between global and regional development, by expanding domestic demand and strengthening regional cooperation. In their opinion, this would increase Guangzhou’s international influence.

The second part, entitled “Cultural expression”, looks at the way Chinese cities are perceived and represented in contemporary fiction. Ana MoyaPellitero (StudioMEB) has chosen to study how contemporary Chinese film makers (Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Jia Zhang-keand Wang Xiaoshuai) depict relations and migrations between rural and urban China. Migrants’ daily lives in metropolises and urban dwellers’ bonds with their native rural homes have increasing become subjects of interests for the Chinese cinema. These movies illustrate the increasing inequalities between countryside and cities. The fifth generation of filmmakers (1980’s and 1990’s) tried not to openly criticise governmental policies on issues such as the hukou system, for fear of censorship and retaliation, whereas contemporary (sixth generation) filmmakers, using underground methods and digital cameras, have more freedom to point out the gap between rural and urban realities. The author is confident that this new fiction, as well as the new documentaries, will greatly contribute to the opening of a social debate in China.

The next text was written by Tsung-yi Michelle Huang (National University of Taiwan), who argues that in postcolonial cities such as Hong Kong, localness is a creation. To illustrate this statement, Huang chooses to analyse the movie “Little Cheung” directed by Fruit Chan in 1999. In this movie, the story of a young boy in Hong Kong in the 90’s up to the handover of Hong Kong to China, the city’s landmark symbolising its global does also represent localness.

Lilong in Shanghai, Goulard Sébastien

Lena Scheen (Leiden University) has studied the revival of old Shanghai in contemporary literature. As Shanghai is again becoming a global metropolis, the people of Shanghai seem more and more interested in learning about their city’s recent history. Lena Scheen analyses a novel, Song of Everlasting Sorrow: A Novel of Shanghai, by Wang Anyi, and the symbol in fiction of the “longtang”, which is a typical Shanghai lane house. According to the author, in this particular novel there is neither a criticism of the large-scale demolition of traditional houses, nor a sense of nostalgia for colonial Shanghai, but rather nostalgia for a typical lifestyle. Although the “longtang” seem to be transformed into characters in this novel, Wang Anyi does not plead for their preservation.  She is aware that this is an irreversible process, and although she may regret the sociability offered by the “longtang”,as well as and her own youth, she realizes that there are some things preservation programs cannot bring back.

The last part of this book is entitled “architectural expressions” and focuses on both old and new buildings in Chinese cities (Shanghai’s lilong and Hong Kong’s shopping malls).Like Lena Scheen, Non Arkaraprasertkul (Harvard University) focuses on Shanghai’s typical lane houses: the “longtang” or “lilong”.  The author does not call for the preservation of the “lilong” at all costs. Indeed, he presents  us with the drawbacks of these traditional houses, such as the poor conditions they offer to their inhabitants and the need for local authorities to increase the density of Shanghai’s city centre. However, he regrets that the social societies and residents are too often excluded from the process of decision making in matters of “lilong” preservation. He also stresses the informal heritage that the lilong offer.  When a decision is made in favour of preservation, it should not only concern the buildings, but also the residents’ social life.  The author calls for more research to be done on the lilong.

The last text, written by Jonathan Solomon (University of Hong Kong), looks at shopping malls in Hong Kong and their role as links between local and global spheres. This symbol of global cities can also be re-appropriated by locals. Although shopping malls are not meeting places where the different communities could mix together, they provide public space (a rare commodity in Hong Kong) for everyone.

This book should be read by everyone interested in Chinese cities, and not only by architects, as it demonstrates the consequences of architectural choices on many aspects of Chinese urban society. A point to remember is that cities are empty shells without their inhabitants and social activities.  Only when its inhabitants are closely involved in decision making can a city become truly global.  This book also gives us some hints about what a global city really is. It needn’t follow a Western recipe;  Chinese cities must develop their own models.

We hope that the contributors’ next studies will also include other cities in China. Because of their  history, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Guangzhou are different from other Chinese cities. These three cities have been strongly influenced by foreign powers, and are now trying to revive their Past in order to become global cities again. But these cities are not the only ones to aspire to a global destiny. Building an international image has become the concern of many other cities that also have to strike a balance between preservation and development, local concerns  and global.

Concerning the style of the book, we should like to mention the cohesion of the contributions; this book is clearly the result of team work, and the authors complete one another, making the reading of their work all the more interesting.

Full text available online

  1. Gregory Bracken, Aspects of urbanization in China:  Shanghai, Hong Kong and Guangzhou, Amsterdam university press, 2012, 212 p. []

Sebastien Goulard

Ph.D. in political science (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in social sciences (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in international relations (IRIS, Paris), B.A. (Hons) in international political studies (ESE - Nottingham Trent University)

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Chinese urban residential construction to 2040

Last September, Leon Berkelmans and Hao Wang published an interesting working paper for Australia’s central bank on urban residential construction in China up to 20401 . Since China is the number one importer of Australian iron ore, possible fluctuations of the real estate market in China  cause concern in Canberra.

According to this study, residential construction in China will remain high for the next thirty years, with a peak in the next few years, but the annual construction growth rate will slow down.  The authors note that China’s construction boom results from the economic growth the country has enjoyed for twenty years. To conduct their research, the authors used sets of data issued by official Chinese agencies and looked at similar experiences in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. They noticed that Chinese data on urbanisation underestimate the extent of urban residential construction.

  • For Berkelmans and Wang, demand for residential construction will be sustained by the  path that urban development is following in China. Based on United Nations projections and their own calculations, the authors argue that China will be even more urbanized, with more than 70% of total population living in cities, by 2040. Further reforms to the Hukou system may increase this trend.
  • Another factor for future residential construction growth is the increasing demand for floor space. According to the authors, as incomes increase, Chinese urban dwellers will be more likely to demand larger residential units. According to their study, urban floor space per capita may almost double between 2010 and 2040.
  • However, Berkelmans and Wang believe that demolitions of dilapidated buildings will gradually decline as a result  of the higher quality of the new constructions and the higher costs of expropriation (due to improving property rights for residents).

According to the authors, the GDP for residential construction  will gradually decline from 9% in 2010 to 6% in 2020 and 2% in 2040.

Berkelmans and Wang stress the importance of steel in China’s construction boom, and argue that demand for steel will not increase in the short term. With continuous urbanisation and larger residential units, China will still require high amounts of foreign steel. Moreover, steel intensity may even increase in newly built residences, because of higher quality construction standards, higher buildings, and higher demand for underground car parks.

However, Berkelmans and Wang also note that, although demand for steel will still grow in the next few decades, steel recycling (resulting from demolition) will be more developed and will partly offset iron ore imports. But in the authors’ opinion, new opportunities will appear, and as a result   more steel will be demanded to develop infrastructures in the new urban areas.

The authors clearly note that their forecasts on China’s GDP and urban development rates are assumptions. . However, their calculations give us some hints about China’s urban trends up to 2040, as do the UN studies .  But, external factors, such as political and social reforms, may affect these trends. Furthermore, the historical comparison with other countries presented by the authors may not be very accurate, since concern for sustainable development is now progressively increasing in China. For example, the relation between income and floor space may not be verified if there is a political will to “save” spaces and control urban sprawl. Nevertheless, the authors’ assumptions will undoubtedly prove right on China’s high demand for steel.

The growth of China’s demand for steel is surely  good news for Australia, a major iron-ore producer. With this interesting study, we can understand that the  process of urban development occurring in China must be considered  a global phenomenon that may affect the economy of foreign countries (in our case, Australia) and reshape international relations.

  1. Leon Berkelmans, Hao Wang, Chinese urban residential construction to 2040, Reserve Bank of Australia, Economic group, Research Discussion paper 2012-04, September 2012. 31 p. Full text available on line []

Sebastien Goulard

Ph.D. in political science (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in social sciences (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in international relations (IRIS, Paris), B.A. (Hons) in international political studies (ESE - Nottingham Trent University)

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In rush to build, property stumbles

Last month, the New York Times published an article written by Bettina Wassener on China’s real estate sector. This article, entitled “ In Rush to Build, Property stumbles ”, points out the issues that China may face as a result of the “construction rush” and the fragility of the real estate sector; but unlike in her usual articles, this time the author has not adopted a dramatic note; she has put this real estate boom into perspective, and has formulated long term hypotheses.

According to Wassener, construction projects have been mushrooming all over China for the last five years, not only in great metropolises, but also in second tier cities. Construction and real estate have become major sectors of the Chinese economy. In order to avoid real estate speculation and bubble bursts, the central government launched several measures to cool down the market in 2010; consequently, real estate prices tended to slow down.  Although, these control measures were necessary, they may have had side effects on the overall economy. Wassener has noticed that the property sector varies greatly from one city to another: whereas demand for housing and office space is still high in large cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, with no drop in prices, some of the smaller cities have begun to suffer from oversupply, causing real estate prices to decrease. All too often, construction projects in second tier cities fail to match the demand: priority has been given to eye-catching properties (described by Wassener as vainglorious projects) instead of affordable housing units. Because of housing restrictions, investment in construction projects has moved from top cities to provincial cities: but demand for luxurious housing units and CBDs is much lower there. Developers and local governments that have invested in such projects may shortly face financial weaknesses. Wassener stresses that for 2012 developers may suffer “ record-high debt maturing ”.

For the author, Beijing is trying to achieve equilibrium between developers who need to secure their investments, and the local population who can hardly afford to purchase property, due to high prices. Thus, real estate also influences social issues.

Construction in Kunming (China), Gipouloux François

Wassener has, however, raised an interesting issue by pointing out that China is a country undergoing a strong urbanisation movement. China is not Spain: there may be an oversupply in the housing market, especially in second tiers cities, but China’s  urbanisation process has not yet ended. More and more rural migrants will become urban dwellers in the next decades, and Beijing will “ undoubtedly implement measures to develop central China’s cities” .  For the author, the housing market may also benefit from the cultural trend in China that favors real estate ownership – the desire for home ownership seems to be more widespread in China than in Europe.The author has also succeeded in demonstrating that China is not undergoing a uniform urbanisation process:  differences still remain among Chinese cities and the construction market is not as mature in central China as it is in coastal China. This is also why it is important not to stereotype Chinese cities, a rule which we, at UrbaChina, must strictly follow.

We regret that the author has not examined the shady connections between real estate developers and local governments. Many large real estate projects have been ordered by local governments, who in turn may have to face financial issues in case of oversupply.  This may ignite social protests among the locals. When local governments own housing developments, we may well wonder if conflicts of interests are not involved.

The phenomenon of oversupply in housing described in this article may also result from bad planning on the part of the local authorities.  They may not have been able to foresee the urban trends in their cities, or they may have favoured construction as an important short term financial resource. In some cities, construction oversupply may partly result from the fiscal policy adopted by Chinese local governments.



Sebastien Goulard

Ph.D. in political science (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in social sciences (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in international relations (IRIS, Paris), B.A. (Hons) in international political studies (ESE - Nottingham Trent University)

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Cities of the future

In September 2012, the American review Foreign Policy published a special issue on Chinese cities. Ever since the 2010 World Exhibition in Shanghai, the international audience has shown an ever increasing interest in urbanisation issues in China, and several reviews have focused on this topic. The special issue of Foreign Policy can be seen as a response to a recent report published by the McKinsey Global Institute on the 75 most dynamic cities of 2025. According to this study, there will be more leading cities in China than in the USA.  Foreign Policy chose to focus on these Chinese cities, their infrastructures and the issues and opportunities created by their development. FP proposes several articles, interviews and picture galleries to help to understand the great urban challenges China is facing.
In 2011, for the first time, China’s urban population exceeded its rural population. Because of China’s large population and its continuous economic growth, new megacities are emerging, and Chinese cities are definitely cities of the future, as the title of the FP special issue indicates.  Wuhan and Chongqing are the next Chicago, or London. The growth of Chinese cities is a formidable impetus for change; several of the authors of articles in this issue have adopted a very optimistic and enthusiastic point of view regarding the massive urbanisation China is undergoing. Their articles explore the opportunities the new urban giants in China offer in terms of innovation and sustainable development.

  • For example, Dustin Roasa presents new inventions that may transform China’s urbanism, and place Beijing in the lead for sustainability.  Not only will Chinese cities house the tallest skyscrapers , but they will also become the cleanest and the most efficient cities, thanks to enormous investments in infrastructures. According to the author, China will surpass the USA in many innovative industries, with the result that Chinese cities will “affect the future of urban areas everywhere”.
  • The same enthusiasm, though with some reservations, is shared by Richard Dobbs and Jaana Remes in their comments on the McKinsey Global Institute’s index of the 75 most dynamic cities of 2025. Unexpectedly, China will have the highest proportion of leading cities, but, for the authors, issues of governance and speculation may threaten these Chinese cities’ capacity for world leadership.  Dobbs and Remes also give some recommendations with regard to sustainable development: basic infrastructures need to be improved in terms of building, shipping facilities and water supply, so that “a better China” may emerge.

Other articles are much more critical about China’s urbanisation. For most of these authors China’s urbanisation is still “a work in progress”, and improvement of infrastructures is not the most important challenge that Chinese cities will have to face. Rather, these authors consider political reforms to be urgently needed in order to sustain urban growth.

  • Isaac Town Fish regrets that Chinese cities are unpleasant to live in because of pollution and “sameness”.  He argues that the Chinese communist system must be blamed for these “depressing” cities.  Christina Larson disagrees with Town Fish on the sameness of Chinese cities. Although Chinese cities look similar because of their architecture, their “content” is very different; Larson made several field trips to three different Chinese cities: Guangdong, Urumqi and Shenyang. For the author, the economic reforms implemented in China over the last twenty years, have restored Chinese cities to their own pre-communist state: for instance Urumqi, a remote outpost from the 50’s to the 70’s, has now become a hub on the new Silk road.

Two articles deal specifically with Shanghai and Beijing, but it is to be regretted that there is no article covering the second tier cities, the ones that may become world cities in the next ten years.

  • According to Daniel Brook, Shanghai is not yet a global city, although it shows some of the characteristics of one. Shanghai deals with global commodities, offers global services, but still does not share global values, and so cannot stand up to comparison with New York, the most global city of all.
  • Michel Meyers’ Beijing may be seen as China’s centre, attracting millions of migrants, but even if Beijing is the seat of China’s political power, it retains some of the characteristics of a village, and is therefore not a global city either.
  • Ai Weiwei has said that Beijing lacks the freedom to become a global city. In an interview with Jonathan Landreth, this world renowned artist depicts Beijing as a “monster”.  Ai Weiwei strongly advocates for less state control, so that citizens can truly be part of this leading city, by making decisions, and so being truly involved in the city’s choices. Political reforms also need to be implemented at the local level, and municipal governments’ decisions need to be strictly scrutinised by both central authorities and local citizens.
  • Jonathan Kaiman makes this point in his article entitled “debt bomb”. Cities have carried out prestigious building programs for the sake of their “grandeur”, but as a result they are riddled with bad debts. The author warns against the possibility of the real estate bubble bursting in China, and blames the short term vision of municipal authorities.
  • But the future of Chinese cities may not be all that gloomy, for a new generation of political leaders is on its way. Geoff Dyer chooses to look at the emergence of a Chinese urban intelligentsia and focuses on the case of Wang Yang, the CCP secretary for Guangdong. According to the author, Wang Yang has achieved important political reforms in his province, promoting transparency and encouraging civil society.  Geoff Dyer hopes that this kind of leader will be nominated for the new Politburo.

At first glance, we may assume that the writers have not visited the same cities, since there is a clear distinction between those who consider Chinese cities a success, and even a possible model for European and American cities to follow, and those who feel that numerous political reforms need to be carried out if Chinese cities are to become sustainable. But, on closer inspection, it seems obvious that all the writers are all right. Chinese cities are dynamic, and Shanghai has woken up from a long, dreamless night. These cities offer huge opportunities, but at the same time it is only the beginning of their transformation.  These cities have the political will, the financial means (although they must get rid of bad debts), the economic growth and the demographic trends to become global cities and challenge the domination of New York, London or Tokyo.  However, they need to be open up to their own inhabitants.  That is why, as Ai Weiwei has said, democracy is needed. World cities have always been places where people can exchange ideas and concepts freely, and so let innovation thrive. New York, the most global of cities, has attracted millions of immigrants, not only for her economic dynamism but also for the freedom she has offered.




Sebastien Goulard

Ph.D. in political science (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in social sciences (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in international relations (IRIS, Paris), B.A. (Hons) in international political studies (ESE - Nottingham Trent University)

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Shanghai nø city guide

Matthieu Duperrex & Claire Dutrait (eds) (2012), Shanghai Nø City Guide,  Urbain, Trop Urbain-la revue de villes. Plus d’information

This book, which is comprised of fifty different articles, aims to provide its readers with a clearer idea of the multiple aspects of the urban transformation that Shanghai has undergone over the last twenty years.  The book was published just before Shanghai World Expo was launched in 2010, and many articles mention this event.

The collection does not pretend to be academic. Contributors come from a wide range of backgrounds, nationalities and occupations, but many of them work in the art industry: the numerous illustrations reflect the artistic aspect of the book.  Many of the authors have told their own story about Shanghai in the form of a travel diary, and so the articles reflect their personal experience. By using the first person narrative mode, the narrator allows the reader to discover the city as he sees it.

This book comprises seven parts, which describe different approaches to the city, from the “myth of Shanghai” as seen through Western eyes to the possible future urban trends of the city. Because the authors come from different background, readers are given a global image of Shanghai.  They learn, for example, about the image of Shanghai in movies with a study of Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, or about the Muslim minority in Shanghai. Most of the articles are easily accessible to the majority of readers, with the exception of a few requiring some basic knowledge of architecture and urban planning.

Only available in e-format, this book also offers an interactive experience of the city, with the inclusion of short movies and sounds of the city.  These extras increase the reader’s immersion into Shanghai. Although the book is simple to use, some features remain obscure at first sight, and it is questionable whether the different tables of contents organized by categories and article length were really necessary.

Although the diversity of the selected texts highlights the multiple aspects of Shanghai and reflects the contrasts of the city, the interest of the contributions unfortunately varies widely.  Some give us a very clear vision of the urban transformation of Shanghai and emerge the reader in this pulsing city; others can be too anecdotic, much too anecdotic.  The personal experiences of the authors are at times just too unsurprising.

This book can be recommended to readers interested in discovering the extraordinary city of Shanghai, and can serve as a first stepping stone to deeper reading about the city.

Sebastien Goulard

Ph.D. in political science (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in social sciences (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in international relations (IRIS, Paris), B.A. (Hons) in international political studies (ESE - Nottingham Trent University)

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