The Costs of China’s Mega-Cities

The Costs of China’s Mega-Cities

In 2012 the Chinese government announced that for the first time in history, more people lived in its cities than in the countryside. It’s the result of an urbanization campaign that the country’s leadership has promoted, with spectacular results.

Shanghai (Wolfgang Sterneck, 2011, Flickr creative commons)

For decades, many Americans derived much of their knowledge about China from The Good Earth, Pearl Buck’s 1931 novel (which became a movie in 1937) describing the lives of farmers in the impoverished countryside of Anhui Province. The Good Earth might lead one to develop a somewhat romanticized view of life in China, but its basic elements were sound: the vast majority of Chinese were poor, rural, and dependent on farming for survival.

That is no longer the case. At the beginning of 2012, the Chinese government announced that for the first time in history, more people lived in its cities than in the countryside. This tilt toward the metropolis has by no means come about naturally; it is the result of an urbanization campaign that the country’s leadership has promoted for the past three decades, with spectacular results. First-time foreign visitors to Beijing and Guangzhou—as well as lesser-known cities like Chengdu, Kunming, and Wuhan—exclaim over the vast urban sprawl and forests of skyscrapers rising high above broad boulevards crowded with cars. In Shanghai, where I live, twelve subway lines knit together the mega-city, with another ten lines in the construction or planning phase. In the past five years, China has hosted both a Summer Olympics and a World Expo—two mega-events that would have been impossible to hold without an extensive urban infrastructure. Last fall, Foreign Policy magazine compiled a list of the seventy-five most dynamic cities in the world; twenty-nine of them are in China.

China’s impressive, and speedy, drive toward urbanization has routinely relied on violence and exploitation to achieve results. Some of that violence is visible: urban residents often find their homes marked for demolition, sacrificed by the government to lucrative construction projects. In other instances, less visible structural violence and exploitation take their toll on migrant workers, who move to cities in search of higher wages and opportunities unavailable in their rural hometowns, but do not enjoy the full benefits of urban residence because they lack a local hukou, or household registration, in the cities where they live. (An urban hukou brings with it an assortment of social services, such as access to health care and education; without it, workers are forced to rely on often substandard clinics and schools that serve migrant communities.) People fight back—urbanites have routinely protested the destruction of their homes and neighborhoods, for example—but in the end, the government almost inevitably prevails, and the cities continue to grow.

But how much longer can China continue to pursue urbanization based on coercion? And what kind of cities result from following this model? Journalist Tom Miller contemplates these questions in a short and accessible book, China’s Urban Billion: The Story Behind the Greatest Migration in Human History (Zed Books, 2012). Miller explains how the Chinese government has treated migrant workers as “economic cannon fodder,” encouraging them to move from farm to city, where they “do all the toughest, dirtiest jobs, but receive the smallest social benefits from their work.”

In different ways, hukou-holding urban residents often fare no better. Because local officials see boosting the economy as their ticket to a higher position, they “have a clear incentive to push for more development, however unneeded or badly planned, yet little incentive to listen to the concerns of residents.” The result is millions of cases of “domicide,” which historian Qin Shao chronicles in her new book, Shanghai Gone: Domicide and Defiance in a Chinese Megacity (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013). Shao has conducted extensive interviews with Shanghai residents who have fought the city’s ongoing program of demolition and relocation, revealing the extent of the violence and repression involved in creating the mainland’s flagship metropolis. Apartment owners are often content to move from their cramped older homes to more spacious ones with better amenities, but they know that the government’s offer of compensation is far below what developers will pay to the government. Filing petition after petition and singing “The Internationale,” protesters call attention to the hollowness of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rhetoric. In one district,

residents with one of the most valuable addresses in Shanghai were chased to the margins of the city so that the rich developer, with the help of the district government, could get even richer by building profitable luxury high-rises. But the socialist rhetoric still spouted by the CCP places the interests of the people as its top priority.

It is difficult to emerge from China’s Urban Billion or Shanghai Gone with anything but a cynical perspective on urbanization and government authority in China. Miller mentions a number of pilot programs and experimental policies that smaller cities have designed to reduce the social instability created by the process, but even they seem intended to benefit the government first (by easing tension), with the people ranking a distant second. This is a consistent pattern in Chinese urban policy.

Shanghai’s World Expo adopted the motto “Better City, Better Life.” In many ways, China has certainly built better cities over the past thirty years, and its urban residents do enjoy a higher standard of living. But does this translate into a better life? The answer to that question is much more personal. There is no doubt, however, that China will continue to urbanize on an unprecedented scale, and the country’s leaders would do well to consider the lessons of the past three decades as they look forward to the future. As Miller concludes, “If China’s cities are truly to accommodate 1 billion residents—one in every eight people on the planet—its leaders must find a healthier, more inclusive and, ultimately, sustainable model of urban development.” Violence and exploitation, in both their visible and invisible forms, cannot and should not continue to be the way Chinese cities deal with growing pains.


Maura Elizabeth Cunningham is a Ph.D. candidate in modern Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine. Shanghai correspondent for the LA Review of Books, her writing has also appeared at Time Asia, ChinaFile, and the Ms. Magazine blog. She is a contributing author to the second edition of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, to be published in July 2013 by Oxford University Press.


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