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.
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)