Asia-Pacific | April 3, 2017 at 11:12 pm

Urban Visions: The Rising Cities of a New China

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The rise of new cities in China has become commonplace In the last several years years. China’s rapid economic growth has become synonymous with its equally rapid urbanization. From the time Deng Xiaoping ascended to power in China in 1978, GDP has grown from $149.5 Billion USD to $11 Trillion USD. As Deng’s policies transformed the Chinese economy, urbanization grew from 17.9% in 1978 to 55.6% in 2015. With both the economy and the urban population continuing to grow at strenuous rates, urban development has led to new housing patterns throughout the country to address urban housing needs.

The Megalopolis of Jing-Jin-Ji

One remedy for the increasing housing demands appears in the form of a megalopolis called “Jing-Jin-Ji,” which would encompass the capital of Beijing, the metropolis Tianjin, and Hebei province (which encompasses the two cities). According to a New York Times article, the plan, if implemented, could well see 130 million people situated under one city—the largest in the world.  

Such a megalopolis could serve as a sort of heart for the larger Chinese state, with each of its three components fulfilling a crucial role within this heart. As the capital of the country, Beijing would serve as the center of culture, governance, international relations, and technological development. Below Beijing, the coastal city of Tianjin would serve as a bastion of economic development; its location on the Bohai sea would allow it to act as a center of shipping in Northern China. Lastly, the surrounding Hebei province would act as an area for industrial experimentation as well as a testing ground for urbanization practices.

Implementation of the plan has occurred gradually. The Chinese state has attempted to modernize infrastructure in conjunction with the project through railway investments. As a facet of infrastructure which has struggled to keep up with rapid development, transportation throughout the Jing-Jin-Ji region is set to expand with a $36 Billion investment in railway connections.

People Wanted: The Rise of Ghost Cities

The term “Ghost City” describes massive cities without any residents to account for their size. Massive urbanization tends create a demand for affordable housing near city centers, but where are these settlements being built?

The Civic Design Data Lab at MIT tracks these settlements throughout various regions in China, and their research has lent insight into where projects are carried out. Most small cities in China are not seeing economic growth on par with the prolific economic and population increases witnessed at the end of the twentieth and start of the twenty-first centuries. Now, cities without significant growth are relying on selling land and subsequent investment to remain solvent.

While the Chinese government claims that many of these cities have been populated over the last few years, the evidence suggests otherwise.  Besides most official Chinese state media organizations, the consensus hints that such cities have struggled to attract new residents. One photojournalist from Time Magazine found cities like Ordo in the Kangbashi region of Inner Mongolia relatively empty, while satellite images similarly display others as deserted.

What lies in store for the Chinese economy, especially under the specter of a large bubble in housing developments? While much is uncertain, warnings have already come from people such as Wang Jianlin, Chairman of Dalian Wanda group and China’s richest man in 2016.  In an interview with CNN last year, Wang called the phenomenon the “biggest bubble in history.” As someone who made his fortune ($31.4 Billion USD) in the real estate market, his words carry weight.

What is to be Done?

The Chinese economy shows signs of stabilizing in the future; the growth rate is projected to rest at a solid rate of six to seven percent per year. Population growth has also slowed over the last few decades in response to a number of state policies. As both engines of urban development stabilize, the main concerns facing China’s visionaries must transition to the consolidation of people into regions where economic growth can be harnessed.

As Former Chinese Finance Minister Lou Jiwei remarked in 2014, “It is necessary to put people at the core of urbanization, supported by institutional and systemic innovation, and unleash the development potential of urbanization through reform.” Through constant reform and innovation, China’s urban landscape will certainly continue to evolve in the coming years.

Image Credit: Steven Yu/Pixabay

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