China’s Urban Crisis

China stands as the primary exhibit of twenty-first-century urbanism. At a time when elite cities in the West barely manage to grow in population, Chinese cities have emerged out of virtually nothing, as hundreds of millions of people have moved from farm to city. The nation’s urbanization rate has exploded from 19 percent in 1979 to nearly 60 percent today; it is expected to hit 80 percent by 2050. In 1980, China, still laboring under the antiurban Maoist regime, was home to none of the world’s megacities; today, it is home to six. By 2035, ten of the world’s 50-plus megacities (urban areas with more than 10 million people) will be located in the Middle Kingdom.

According to UN projections, Shanghai, China’s largest city, will have 24 million people by 2020, quadrupling its population over 50 years. The population of Beijing, the capital, has tripled over the same period, to 20 million. Additional megacities include Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Tianjin, and Chengdu. China is also home to five of the world’s tallest buildings: the Shanghai Tower ranks second, while the Ping An Financial Center in Shenzhen ranks fourth.

What has happened in China’s cities matters not just to urbanists but to the future of civilization. China’s success has transformed it into a role model for many developing countries. Even in archrival India, most people believe that the People’s Republic will surpass the U.S. economically and dominate the world within two decades. China’s “civilization state,” rooted deeply in thousands of years of history, has extended its influence beyond its historical base in East Asia north to Siberia, but also far afield in South Asia, South America, and especially Africa, where an estimated 1 million Chinese now live. For people in much of the world, Beijing and Shanghai provide the direction and inspiration, not New York, London, or even Tokyo.

Despite having a major pollution problem, China is also championed as a model of “green” urbanization by such figures as Charles Bowman, the Lord Mayor of London, particularly for its model city Xiong’an, in the country’s north. The Brookings Institution has offered qualified praise for China’s wildly ambitious “belt and road” initiative, seeing it as promoting “inclusive growth” in developing countries such as Senegal and Ethiopia. (Of course, China’s indifference to political liberty, as well as pollution, also appeals to despots in urbanizing countries across the globe.)

Yet for all their achievements, China’s cities also offer a cautionary tale about authoritarian planning, excessive density, too many unneeded units, rising class tensions, plunging birthrates, heavy pollution, and, perhaps most ominously, the imposition of increasingly sophisticated population surveillance. Some of this reflects the suddenness of China’s urbanization. When China’s reforms began in 1980, the country was overwhelmingly rural. The compressed timeline by which the Chinese population became mostly urban has caused social tensions that have metastasized far more rapidly than in other societies, where they’ve usually played out over a century or longer.

Economic growth, now slowing, has driven the Chinese urban success story over the past two decades. Faster-growing conurbations exist—Delhi, Kinshasa, Cairo, Karachi—but none has experienced anything like China’s economic boom. According to International Monetary Fund (IMF) data, in 1980, China registered the world’s third-lowest GDP (in terms of purchasing power) out of 136 geographies then reported. Only Sudan and Mozambique were poorer. Today, China ranks 73rd out of 185 countries in GDP per capita. In 1980, GDP per capita in the U.S. was 41 times that of China. By 2017, America’s GDP per capita was only 3.5 times greater. China’s GDP per capita remains more than double that of India. Much of that new wealth is concentrated in the country’s largest cities. The per-capita GDP in Beijing and Shanghai averages $20,000.

A massive improvement in infrastructure since 2000 has made this rapid urbanization possible. Not long ago, Chinese cities were filled with shoddy apartments, and the streets overflowed with bicycles and even horse-drawn carts; now, automotive traffic clogs the streets, in the shadows of high-rises. Forty years ago, finding accommodations in Beijing was a struggle—on my first trip, I shared a room in a roach-infested hotel, the only place available, with a handful of Chinese-American friends from Silicon Valley. Today, Beijing and other Chinese cities can boast luxury hotels of every description. Getting around is as easy as it is in most Western urban centers—if not easier. Where dirt paths and narrow roads once prevailed in much of the country, today’s China has more miles of interstate-quality freeways and more cars on the road than the United States. China has seven of the top ten container ports and among the largest and most modern airports, trains, and subways in the world. The Beijing and Shanghai metro systems rank first and second in the world in ridership, and Shanghai’s is the world’s longest.

The scale of urban migration is staggering. The Maoist Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966, instructed millions of urban residents to move to the countryside, to “learn” from the peasants. But with the rise in 1979 of the far more pragmatic Deng Xiaoping, urbanization accelerated dramatically. With coastal city jobs luring them, a net 250 million people—many without urban hukou, or resident permits—traveled from the impoverished countryside to find work. In the process, a massive, and potentially politically charged, urban underclass has emerged. Unable to claim legal residency in the cities, China’s migrants often lack access to education, health care, and most forms of insurance. Though migrants perform many of the most dangerous jobs in manufacturing and construction—they’re largely excluded from other work—barely one in four has any form of insurance if injured.

The migrants occupy ramshackle apartments or slums, often living several to a room, in locations unlikely to appear on any approved tourist agenda. Passing beyond the fifth ring road outside Beijing, you encounter not shining new high-rises but jerry-rigged shacks and small buildings. The streets are dusty, animals lie in the midday sun, and men, off from work, line up at a house that, everyone acknowledges, accommodates the world’s oldest profession. It’s like a flashback to the China of 40 years ago: a poor country, where many eke out only a basic existence.

Ninety percent of China’s millionaires, notes political scientist David Goodman, are the offspring of high-ranking officials.

China may be the “world’s factory,” notes author Li Sun, but largely unprotected migrants do much of the work—1 million alone toil for Foxconn, the manufacturer of the iPhone. China’s great wealth derives, she points out, from a “worker-made” economy of people laboring 60-hour weeks for barely $63 a week. They reprise the role played for millennia by peasants, who built the wealth of the Middle Kingdom but shared in little of it.

Rural poverty has driven this migration. In America, rural households are, on average, 4 percent poorer than their urban counterparts; in China, the gap is 63 percent. The much-vaunted Chinese middle class is almost entirely made up of those with urban hukou, while the 40 percent of the population in the countryside struggles. The new urban bourgeoisie often are not thrilled to share their “civilized space” with impoverished migrants.

Compared with their Western cousins, these workers have few rights. Union membership in China is essentially worthless, as unions must conform to the Communist Party’s priorities. Apple manufactures virtually all its products in China, where conditions have been linked both to strikes and to several suicides of workers claiming to be treated no better than robots. Wealth in China increasingly adheres to a class of entrepreneurs well connected with the Communist Party; 90 percent of China’s millionaires, notes Australian political scientist David Goodman, are the offspring of high-ranking officials.

These class and geographic disparities pose the greatest threat to the stability of avowedly socialist China. Since 1978, the country’s Gini ratings—a measure of inequality—have gone from highly egalitarian to less equal than countries such as Mexico, Brazil, and Kenya, as well as the U.S. and virtually all of Europe. Many Chinese young people face a troubling future in a country with an oversupply of educated people who don’t necessarily possess marketable skills. In 2017, 8 million graduates entered the job market, but most earn salaries no higher than if they had gone to work in a factory straight from high school.

President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party apparatus have pledged to address class resentment, particularly among migrants. “We don’t want social conflicts to turn into a social crisis,” one high-level Party strategist told me at a private dinner in Beijing, explaining the government’s commitment to create a “moderately prosperous society” to forestall a potential underclass rebellion, with which Chinese history is replete. In recent months, migrants have taken to the streets protesting labor conditions and forced evictions from cities. Marxist study groups at universities, whose working-class advocacy conflicts with the policies imposed by the nominally socialist government, have egged on these protests, raising the ire of Party officials.

Wealth disparities seem certain to grow. Already, the richest cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, have been declared “full,” and even second-tier provincial capitals like Chengdu are pushing out the poor. Forcible slum clearance in China often involves the destruction of organic urban villages: densely populated but chaotically planned former communities, swallowed up by the growth of nearby metropolises. This upheaval comes as China’s economic growth rate has dropped dramatically—to 6 percent in 2018, well below its 9 percent average since 1989. Industrial production has slowed to the lowest level since 2004. For many internal migrants, this means not only unemployment but also, potentially, homelessness.

China seems determined to make its major centers into showplaces resembling the West’s global “superstar cities”—New York, London, San Francisco. This means limiting growth and creating zones for elites, an old Chinese urban tradition, and orienting development largely to the well-educated and highly skilled, as well as to foreign nationals. It’s a “gentrification” strategy that resembles that of the West but with the force of an authoritarian state behind it. The state tightly controls real-estate development, often at the local level; revenue from such activity fills the larders of local governments and, often enough, well-connected individuals. Tech companies may complain about government interference, but if they want to build a high-tech development, they can do so through “brute-forcing geographic proximity,” as former Google China chief Kai-fu Lee puts it. The politically connected tech impresario need not worry much about facing the kind of antidevelopment opposition often present in Western cities. China has no middle-class NIMBYism of significance or a local equivalent of post-economic progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

In the Chinese scheme, migrants and other lower-class Chinese, notes scholar Salvatore Barbones, face social “exclusion” that is “in danger of ossifying into something resembling a permanent caste system.” Chinese science-fiction writers—who have retained some degree of political license—envision an ever more hierarchical society. Chinese sci-fi, such as Hao Jingfang’s Folding Beijing, often depicts future megacities, divided into closely delineated communities for the elite, the middle ranks, and a vast poor population, living largely by recycling the waste generated by the rich.

The rapid migration from China’s countryside to its cities has created neighborhoods of intense poverty, often with several people occupying single rooms. (NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

The rapid migration from China’s countryside to its cities has created neighborhoods of intense poverty, often with several people occupying single rooms. (NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Such a centralized, hierarchical system has deep roots in Chinese urban history. Unlike their Western equivalents, Chinese cities, noted Max Weber, never established autonomy or control over their own affairs, including self-defense. As opposed to commercial centers like Amsterdam, China’s cities, suggests historian Chye Kiang, were essentially “cities of bureaucrats and aristocrats.” These walled cities had markets, but inside, the emphasis was on social control, with mandarins dictating when people would wake, work, and sleep. The Communist pattern of central control had its precedents in the feudal era and in a long tradition of state domination of both economy and thought.

The drive to create physically impressive cities requires ever-greater segregation among classes. Many older, economically diverse urban neighborhoods have been destroyed. In some cases, more than 100,000 people at a time have been displaced in the state’s project of turning China’s cities into grand imperial metropolises. In Maggie Shen King’s novel An Excess Male, which takes place in the near future, China’s cities have been cleansed of much of their history. This vision of the future Beijing is stark, a triumph of brutal displacement and massive investment in urban infrastructure:

Stately eight- and ten-lane boulevards crisscross our city, and we rarely walk down one without . . . pointing out that countless properties were seized and lives disrupted and, in the most egregious cases, cut short to make possible their construction. Relegated to tiny, stacked boxes, ordinary citizens pour into parks and scenic streets, thirsting for open air and elbow room, so that our leaders could have their show of grandeur.

China’s profoundly uneven development is also undermining the traditional unit of society: the family. Indeed, concerned about the impact of deteriorating family relations, some Chinese authorities have even started a campaign to push the ideal of “filial piety,” a surprising embrace of venerable Confucianist ideals from a state that once attempted to liquidate China’s historical traditions.

The problem is particularly severe among urban migrants. Researcher Li Sun estimates that rural areas contain some 60 million “left-behind children” and another 58 million “left-behind elderly.” Stanford professor Scott Rozelle found that most kids left behind in the rural villages are sick or malnourished, and up to two-thirds struggle with combinations of anemia, worms, and uncorrected myopia that set them back at school. More than half the toddlers, he predicts, are so cognitively delayed that their IQs will never exceed 90.

But perhaps the most precipitous damage to the country’s demographic future is taking place in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, which have fertility rates almost one-third of that necessary to replace their own populations. The rates are lower even than in other East Asian cities, such as Hong Kong and Tokyo. China’s demographic disaster could be at hand: some experts project the overall fertility rate of the country to be a mere 1.2, well below replacement level for the current generation. Future prospects are made worse by a huge unbalance, reaching 33 million, of marriage-age boys over girls. By one estimate, 37 million Chinese girls were lost to abortion or infanticide since the one-child policy came into force in 1980. The Party has relaxed the one-child policy, but rising housing costs and women’s labor participation have made having even one child, let alone two, almost impossible in China’s cities. No Chinese equivalent of a Westchester, North Dallas, or L.A.’s Inland Empire yet exists to support family formation.

As a result, China could experience a reduction of 60 million people—approximately Italy’s population—under 15 years of age by 2050. It will gain nearly 190 million people—approximately the population of Pakistan, the world’s sixth-largest country—65 and over. By then, China’s ratio of working to retired people is expected to have more than tripled, one of the most rapid transitions in history, but without the wealth that a country like Japan has accumulated to get it through the approaching demographic winter.

Given these tensions, social control is likely to become a greater priority. With the decline in the Chinese family, the state may feel compelled to extend its role over even the most private details of personal life. China’s rise as a technological power makes advanced surveillance technology even more threatening, particularly as China enlists American tech firms, including Apple, to help perfect it. Chinese officials enjoy untrammeled access to data in a country with few privacy protections. This includes the experimental use of devices to monitor workers’ brains, while other machines scan for changes in mood. The Communist Party is already invested in a high-tech scheme to determine every Chinese person’s “social ranking,” which includes everything from creditworthiness to political reliability. China is also putting artificial intelligence to work in monitoring businesses, in part to ensure that their activities square with Party priorities.

In western China, where Muslim dissidents pose a perceived threat, Chinese authorities are testing a facial-recognition system that alerts officials when targets stray more than 300 meters from their home or workplace. In this region, wearing a beard, giving your child a Muslim name, or failing to celebrate the Lunar New Year by eating pork and drinking alcohol can draw the attention of police and end in internment in Sinicization camps. Once one gets caught up in the criminal-law system, chances of acquittal are estimated at less than one in 100.

Such facial-recognition systems, designed to modulate behavior in ways approved by the state, are being implemented throughout the country, making it hard to express dissent or, for that matter, to cross the street against a red light. By 2020, China is expected to deploy more than 400 million surveillance cameras in cities around the country. The government is also making efforts to harvest biometric data, track smartphones, and install compulsory satellite-tracking systems for vehicles.

Though widely applauded by Western density advocates, the Chinese model of city-building will soon face powerful environmental pressures. China has no dissenters on its stated climate policy, and some progressives even tout its environmental approach as testament to its right to world leadership. But China is the planet’s leading and fastest-growing emitter of greenhouse gases—bigger than the E.U. and U.S. combined. China’s middle and upper classes may share the green inclinations of their Western counterparts, but the country keeps building coal plants at a rapid rate and remains economically dependent on a large and generally dirty industrial sector.

China’s cities also face a potential real-estate bust, which demographic trends may worsen. Chinese citizens tend to invest in real estate rather than in stocks, leading to the building of as many as 65 million vacant (but owned) units in China’s cities, accounting for 20 percent of the housing stock. Even when located in remote areas, these places have yet to see the kind of “creative destruction” one might expect in the West. Instead, there is a growing trend toward expensive rental housing that eats up as much as 60 percent of household incomes.

Chinese cities once were filled with courtyard houses in warren-like neighborhoods that American city planner Edmund Bacon called “possibly the greatest work of man on the face of the earth”—but it’s doubtful that he’d heap such praise on contemporary Beijing, where these human-scale historical relics are increasingly scarce. In old colonial redoubts like Shanghai and Tianjin, the former foreign concessions—largely two- or three-story buildings—hint at the kind of vibrant urban life one finds in New York or Paris. Chinese metropolises have developed “edge cities” (commercial centers outside the downtowns) but with few single-family homes or other amenities associated with suburbs elsewhere. These outlying areas combine dispersion with high densities, making them little different from the cores but with even less charm.

“No one in China knows where the society is going,” one urban-policy expert told me in Beijing. “We live in high density that is too expensive and spend all our energy trying to pay enough to stay in the city.” This disquiet was shared particularly by the younger Chinese with whom I spoke. They were intrigued by the idea of a more humane urbanism.

China is taking steps to address these problems. One has been the decades-old policy of “moving west,” with new growth shifting to the less populated, less expensive, and vast section of the country. Already some smaller cities are luring skilled workers from places like Shanghai, where high housing prices, adjusted for income, are as much as three times those in smaller cities like Xi’an and Wuhan. The limits on migration to the prime cities could engender a new “back to the country” movement, as more migrants return either to their home villages or nearby larger cities; the government is backing this trend by offering credit to returning rural residents to start businesses. Progress in rural areas may provide individuals, as well as the government, a chance to alleviate the class chasm.

Ultimately, China needs to rethink its approach to urbanism and shift to a more human, family-friendly scale. Its enormous land area is comparable with that of the United States, but its density and settlement patterns limit opportunities to spread out to smaller cities and to build the family-friendly housing—only a small fraction of construction is single-family—that attracts so many Chinese migrants to buy residences in U.S. cities, Canada, and Australia. The migration has grown so massive as to spark attempts to control capital flight.

As it copes with new demographic and economic changes, China needs to move beyond vainglorious display, algorithmic efficiency, and uniformity, and focus instead on quality of life. Creating a more humane, less hierarchical, and more affordable urban future may prove more important to the fate of Chinese civilization than trade deals or perfecting technology. To thrive in the years ahead and avoid a Japan-like decline, China should reinvent its cities as places both of economic opportunity and flourishing families.

This article first appeared in City Journal.

Joel Kotkin is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. He authored The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, published in 2016 by Agate. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He is executive director of and lives in Orange County, CA.

Homepage photo credit: Aldas Kirvaitis via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.