Savage Urbanisation: the New Cultural Revolution

Very rarely do we understand the magnitude of specific events as they happen; more often than not, we look back years later and think “Ah! That was the defining moment that changed the course of history!” During the 1978 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee, perhaps only a few external observers immediately grasped the importance of the event. Today, 30 years later, it is easy to look back and pinpoint that meeting as the one that started the road to reforms and the opening up of China. By pure coincidence (or perhaps not?), at almost exactly the same time, in October 1978, on the other side of the world in Rome’s Vatican Square, the newly elected Pope John Paul II was celebrating his installation Mass. Vatican protocol states that the Pope should remain seated in his throne as each Cardinal in the procession approaches him, kneels, kisses his ring, and moves on. When it was the turn of the Cardinal Wyszyński from Poland, the Pope stood up, breaking with tradition, and smiled and warmly hugged his compatriot. Few people, if any, understood then that that was the first ‘shove’ to the Soviet empire; ten years later, one by one, all Eastern European countries peacefully broke loose and the Soviet Union eventually dissolved.
The recent press conference held by Premier Wen Jiabao, at the end of the “Two Sessions” – NCP and CPPCC – may well fall into this category, of events that make history. Only in a few years’ time will we be able to grasp its magnitude. During the session, Wen Jiabao addressed many of the problems that China faces today; as an Italian, a foreign observer, I believe that his exposition was lucid and that it was clear to the audience that his message was truly genuine, and at times I thought I could even hear his voice trembling slightly with emotion.  He mentioned that while many people have appreciated his work during the last nine years, some others – a minority – might have not, and that he has many regrets and unfinished business. A head of state should not be saddened by this, as many great leaders set ambitious plans when they start office, but sometimes the reality of things gets in the way of good intentions. Overall, I believe Premier Wen’s tenure has been very successful, and people around China have great respect for him. The most significant image that I have is of him standing in Beichuan, Sichuan, after the earthquake. I have been there several times in the last three years, and what the Chinese Government has done to support the people affected by the disaster is absolutely impressive, and the rest of the world should learn from it.
I also recall Premier Wen’s involvement in Global Warming negotiations. During a recent climate change summit, he quoted one of the main slogans of the go-green movement, that is, “The Earth is not just what we inherit from our ancestors, rather it is something we borrow from future generations,” a very powerful sentence that highlights how our actions will directly affect the people that come after us.
I believe that many people, both in China and abroad, will judge Wen Jiabao’s mandate as one of the most successful, and that his place in history is safe.
However, as Premier Wen also said, there is still much to do for China, and time is running out. In the following twelve months he will surely be busy addressing many important issues, but there is one topic I would like to humbly bring to attention.  A topic that may not appear to be major on the surface but has great impact on the Chinese people and the future of the country. During the press conference, Premier Wen expressed his worries that the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution may occur again if nothing is done to prevent it. I am afraid that a New Cultural Revolution has already begun, and this one will have long-lasting effects on China, longer even than the revolution of 40 years ago. The name of this New Cultural Revolution is ‘Savage Urbanisation.’
On one hand, the great urbanisation process that has brought millions of people from the countryside to the cities has helped increase their personal wealth. A great success, but there is a cost.
Anyone who has travelled across Europe, starting in London, for example, and then moving on to Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Stockholm, down to Prague, Vienna, Venice, Florence, Rome, Barcelona and even to the less developed Southern European cities of Seville, Palermo and the smallest villages of France and Switzerland (the list can go on forever), is likely to say that Chinese cities, while modern and functional, are not particularly beautiful. Chinese cities are impressive in terms of kilometres of urban highways, tall buildings, and other infrastructure; however, tall and modern are not always synonymous with beauty.
Due to the need to develop quickly, many cities in China look very similar to each other, with no soul of their own. One could walk on a pedestrian street in Changsha or Nanchang without noticing any remarkable difference between the two.  Most cities have no remnant of their glorious past whatsoever, as old historical buildings and dwellings are being destroyed to make room for shopping malls and residential housing. During one visit, the local government officers proudly pointed out that their city had several thousand years of history; except for a canoe stored inside a museum, everything around us was no more than 20 years old. Had I been that officer, I would have felt shame rather than pride – shame for all the history that has simply vanished.
Chinese cities are not built with people in mind. Having highways and ring roads running across them may make for a nice view if you are on a plane gliding overhead, but for people living on the ground, they are hardly convenient.  Taking a walk along Chang An Jie is not the best way to spend an afternoon in Beijing. Designers of new urban areas seem to have fallen in love with six or even eight lane roads, and have erected skyscrapers alongside them. Lack of enforcement of any traffic regulations means that a pedestrian’s life is continuously put at risk, in the name of ‘progress,’ or ‘regress,’ depending on the point of view. If I could, in order to change people’s living habits, I would close off to traffic at least the four inner rings of Beijing – a city that is rapidly losing its charm and appeal as the Capital of China.  Some people would say that ring roads and large thoroughfares improve mobility; on the contrary, I think that ‘good mobility’ is actually an indication of a failure of urban planning. The need for mobility derives from the fact that people’s places of work are far away from where they live. This creates enormous inefficiencies of all sorts, including energy, pollution, and traffic.  Building wider roads does not imply better mobility; it just means more cars. There is often traffic along Beijing’s ring roads, but never in the hutongs, and rarely in the old Beijing, what little that is left of it.
Urbanisation has been used recently as an excuse to create GDP growth and help rural-to-urban migration, at a rate of more than 10 million people per year. In some cases this has yielded positive results, but we also know that the share of personal income as a proportion of GDP has been steadily declining since the early ‘90s, implying that the majority of economic growth has ended up in the pockets of enterprises, not common citizens. In addition, local governments can easily meet their GDP targets by simply borrowing money from banks and using the funds to build infrastructure, houses, cinemas, and shopping malls. No one should be surprised at the explosion of local government debt.
In Europe we have managed to preserve city centres, even in the face of two world wars that wrought havoc on the continent. European cities have expanded, both vertically and horizontally, but mostly outwards, thus preserving the old historic centres. Even more interesting is that these historic European cities have a mix of architectures and styles that is largely the result of several centuries of foreign invasions, each of which has brought their own culture. We in Europe have strived to maintain this heritage, even if it originated from foreigners; in fact we cherish it and are proud of this mix.  Even during wartime, there has always been some kind of respect for other nations’ historic heritage, and it is reported that the Americans decided not to drop the atomic bomb in Kyoto, Japan, just because of the great number of historic building and temples. The Taliban, on the other hand, fired missiles at their own statues.
Yes, but Chinese people are too many, is the common objection to the arguments above. However, I believe China could have achieved the same progress without flattening its own history. Maintaining a few square kilometres in the core of each city would not have significantly impacted the wealth creation opportunities for the common people – it would have, however, impacted the coffers of local governments and local developers, especially as that would have constituted prime location. It is a question of whose interests come first: the future of ordinary people, or those of commercial property developers?
Maintaining a couple of square kilometres does not mean building Disney-style amusement parks like Qianmen or Lijiang, places where almost no local people live, there is no community, and frankly are not worth travelling to see. No wonder affluent Chinese people prefer to go to Europe to see history and culture.
Urbanisation is also prone to corruption, abuses, illegal evictions and other problems. Monitoring its legality is proving to be impossible. Perhaps it would be best to completely halt any new real estate development: I would suggest, for the next 12 months, that except for schools and hospitals there be no more new building in the whole of China! Zero! No more local corruption, no more local government debt, no more need for steel or concrete. Instead, one could use the money to improve the condition of existing old houses and encourage people to live there, instead of turning them into cookie-cutter souvenir shops. Would that impact GDP growth? Of course, but haven’t the Chinese people already waited 5,000 years to move into the cities? They may well wait another few months, no?
My suggestion is of course unorthodox and impractical, but let it serve as a mental concept to tackle the problem. Much damage has been done already, but something can still be saved, and this is what I would do during the next 12 months to fix it. Premier Wen is a man of culture and fond of the history of the Roman Empire; I understand he has read St Augustine’s Confessions, and so he surely knows how easy is to kill culture. Five thousand years of history and heritage can be wiped out in a just a few years, much like what was happening in China in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and now it is happening again. Paradoxically, 40 years ago there was at least some kind of ideological rationale (whether one agrees with it or not), but today’s new cultural revolution appears to be driven by money alone.
In the future, historians will not remember if GDP growth in 2012 was above or below 8%, but they will certainly remember the time when culture totally vanished from China.
“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us,” said Churchill. I say, “Culture is not something we inherit from our ancestors, rather something we borrow from future generations,” and China already owes the future quite a bit.
(This is a translated, largely expanded and adapted version of an original column published in Caixin Magazine, in March 2012)
Michele Geraci is Head of China Research at the Global Policy Institute – London Metropolitan University and Senior Research Fellow and Adjunct Professor of Finance at Zhejiang University.


  1. pirugenia Reply

    Signor Geracci, grazzie tante ¡qué artículo placentero y elegante! Architecture, the artistic management of exterior space, has a correlative in interior space, of the spirit, mind and emotions. The sacrifice of cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei will bear fruits in its due time, when the Great Architect sees fit. There will come a Leo the Great for China.

  2. vittorio Reply

    più che commenti…lei crede veramente che questo sia possibile in un paese come la Cina? Su questo nel suo articolo, al di là di un piccolo segnale, dice poco? E in Europa, in questo momento di crisi?

  3. Michael Reply

    Respectfully disagree with you concerning the Chinese people’s view of Premier Wen. Every Chinese I know sees him as ineffectual and lacking in achievements. They cannot wait for the 5th Generation to arrive, as Wen has been a true disappointment.

  4. Adriana Gallardo Reply


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