Urban Development on a Chinese Scale

We have all heard about the scale and speed of economic development in China. The high-speed train system, the highways that crisscross the country, the construction of subway lines at a rate found in no other country, and the development of commercial and residential areas. This posting is the story of such a development in Shanghai.

Shanghai is world renowned for its skyscrapers that easily match New York City. Often, people compare the two cities for their dynamism and their desire to eclipse each other. There is one area in which Shanghai surpasses New York; the speed of economic development.

Over the last 30 years, Shanghai has seen hundreds of high-rises go up. The skyline of Pudong is world famous. The second tallest building in the world is in Pudong. No building above 3 floors existed in Pudong in 1985. What a success!

UD 1Pudong skyline. Source: http://www.dronestagr.am/shanghai-pudong-skyline/

Now a new development is taking place further upstream the Huangpu River, within walking distance of the core of the city. It is called the Dong Financial City.

UD 2Dong Financial District is near downtown Shanghai, and the Pudong financial district. Source: Photo by author, illustration by Dong Financial City.

This development will include more than 25 high-rise buildings. It will be a mixed residential, commercial and office district. The area under construction is roughly 800 meters by 600 meters, which is an amazing surface area for a large city already well developed.

UD 3Map of development area in Shanghai. Source: Google Map and the author.

This development will replace dilapidated industrial, commercial and residential areas that have seen better days. It is reasonable to estimate that more than 5,000 people will have been displaced once this project is completed.

UD 4Neighborhood that will be demolished to make space for the Dong Financial City. Source: The author

Construction is already well under way with an army of more than 10,000 migrant workers that come from all over China. Having left their spouses and their kids behind, their life revolves around the construction site, having no money to enjoy the high quality of life Shanghai offers (monthly salary of 7,000 RMB (US$1,000)). These workers toil from 7 am to 6 pm, 6 days a week, often 7, returning home once a year. They live in 20-foot containers that are piled 3 high, 10 workers per container. Nearly 7,000 workers live in an area 130 meters by 70 meters. Showers are communal, as is the cafeteria. Entertainment consists of whatever they can get on their smart phones. When the work is completed, they need to find another construction site to work on or they will need to return to their town or village as not having their hukou (local residency permit).

UD 5Workers living accommodation. Source: The author.

Infrastructure for the site is already well on its way, including the construction of a wall along the river to cope with potential water surge due to a hurricane (called typhoon in Asia). An underground highway that completes the loop around the city core is almost finished.

UD 6Protection wall against water surge. Source: The author.

Construction is on-going on 15 or so buildings at difference stages of completion. Four identical office buildings are rising in unison across more than 300 meters. In a different part of the complex, it is 3 residential high-rises, 20-floor high where workers have just begun installing the windows. In another part, four foundations are being dug side by side with yellow cranes towering over the site. Trucks lift road dust as they take the soil away.

UD 7New high-rises near existing living areas. Source: Photo by author.

The first buildings will be completed by the middle of 2018. The demolition of the remaining residential areas will begin later in 2017. All residents will be relocated to the suburbs in apartments situated in newly built high-rises. Living in new areas, the people will not be able to benefit from the strong support of neighbours or the facilities that were found within walking distance. Friends will be dispersed all over the distant suburbs of Shanghai. Buses and subways will be available, but how useful will they be to individuals in their 70’s who used to walk 50 meters to see a dear friend in need of help. What will happen to the owner of a 2 square meter shop who mended shoes or watch straps, or a 5 square meter drycleaner? It is the fabric of a multi-generation society that evaporates as a city develops. No one can oppose the development as it is done for a greater cause; the modernization of the Chinese society.

UD 8New foundations and building skeletons near existing buildings. Source: The author.

The migrant workers who have built these high-rises, and the former residents of the neighbourhood will not be able to afford living in these newly completed apartments. At a cost of 50,000 RMB per square meter, a one-bedroom apartment of 70 square meters (760 square feet) will cost 3.5 million RMB (US$510,000).

UD 9Brand new modern district by the river. Source: Photo by author, illustration by Dong Financial City.

Shanghai will have a brand new district to show the world how advanced China is. No one will remember the work of the migrant workers who toiled for years, and the people who lived for generations in the same neighborhood.

Welcome to the high speed development of China.


Ballet at a crossing

Rush hour at the Wulumuqi Road and Changle Road crossing in Shanghai in the late afternoon of a fine autumn day as pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists, cars, buses and trucks dance with one and other to get through.

3400Can I get through?

3401Going against the flow?

3403Lets go for it!

3405I know that I am on the red light.

3409Business attire required.

3412Squeezing by.

3414All means of transportation accepted.

3415Keeping the place clean.

3418We are loaded.

3420Getting through.

3427Don’t touch me.

3428Just crossing.

3432Whizzing through.

3438Let us get on with it.


Note: Photos by author

An amazing feat

Over the last decades, China has achieved a drastic reduction in the number of people living below the poverty line. In 1981, 88% of the population was living below that line. That number now stands at 4%. The poverty line is defined as a person living on less than $1.90 a day, using 2011 $ at purchasing-power parity.

This amazing achievement has been accomplished since the economic restructuring that began in 1978, and has continued uninterrupted since. Per capita annual income has increased from $200 in 1990, to $5,000 in 2010, and has continued to improve.

Poverty reduction occurred in stages. The first stage happened in the rural areas with the introduction by the central government of the Rural Responsibility System which allowed families to produce more than their allocated production quota. The additional production was sold on the open market at market prices.

The second stage was the progressive opening of the Chinese economy to foreign direct investments (FDI) that created a multitude of enterprises geared towards exports, capitalizing on the low cost of labour. This had the impact of creating a large number of unskilled positions that brought many people into well-paying jobs in an urban setting.

poverty-level*Living below $1.90 a day, using 2011 $ at purchasing-power parity. Source: The Economist

In the early 1990s, the central government privatized small and medium size State Owned Enterprises (SOE’s) removing the rigid constraints of a centrally planned economy and placing these companies in a market economy. Once subjected to the forces of the market, millions of employees were laid-off, but within a few years many more jobs were created due to the innovative needs placed on the new owners.

In parallel, in 2001 China joined the WTO (World Trade Organization), accelerating the economic development of the country. Many more foreign enterprises elected to establish a facility in China, again adding a large number of jobs in an urban setting. By now, local entrepreneurs had also started creating employment opportunities.

By the turn of the century, at least 200 million people had been lifted out of poverty. In the next 10 years, another 200 million people would follow, as the economic expansion continued. By 2014, a total of 700 million people were lifted out of poverty, leaving only 4% in economic difficulties. These last 55 million people are now the focus of the government.

The efforts to continue reducing poverty is one of the key objectives of the government 13th Five-Year Plan period (2016-2020). The goal of the central government is to eradicate poverty by focusing on the 128,000 poor villages and 832 poor counties, predominantly in rural settings, in provinces located away from the coastal zones. In addition to focusing on economic conditions, the government is aiming to increase the quality of education, health services and housing.

The prime strategy to address these challenges is to encourage the development of competitive industries such as tourism and agriculture. In regions with limited economic development potential, residents will be moved. People will be relocated to areas which have greater economic possibilities. In addition, the government will introduce a guaranteed basic living standard for people unable to work.

gansuTourism features as a key economic tool in Gansu province, which has a GDP per capita at half the national average, and 4 times lower than the leading areas. Source: chinatouristmaps.com

In spite of these successes, different challenges were created as a result of this rapid economic growth. Probably, the greatest social challenge in China is the economic inequality that currently exists. In the 1970s, everyone had roughly the same economic level; more or less everyone was poor. As economic growth accelerated, and the economy moved from a centrally planned to a mixed economy (i.e. a combination of centrally planned and market economy), inequalities emerged. People who had post-secondary education were able to command higher salaries. Entrepreneurs were able to start businesses that rapidly flourished. Others were able to benefit from the privatization of small or medium size SOE’s. These groups of people raced towards reaping the benefits of rapid economic growth while the individuals with no or limited access to these capabilities progressed at a much slower pace.

Another challenge created by the central government relates to the partially deregulated liberty of movement. The Household Registration System (hukou) or similar methods have always been a cornerstone of the Chinese government’s desire to control the internal movement of its citizens. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s people were given the opportunity to relocate but without establishing a permanent residency in their new location. This allowed this floating population of roughly 250 million people to move from rural areas to cities in search of better paid work. As these people did not have the hukou in the city where they worked, their children and at times their spouse had to remain behind. This has created a diaspora across China of broken families that are only reunited for 5 to 14 days, once a year during the Spring Festival (i.e. Chinese New Year) held in January or February.

Both challenges are being addressed by the central government but at a rate that will see these inequalities solved at a slower pace. By 2020, it is quite probable that the poverty issue will have been nearly resolved, but the problems caused by the substantial economic inequalities and the large floating population will probably take longer.


The North-East: Shenyang to Harbin

Heading out of Shenyang (population 6.3 million, capital of Liaoning province) on board the high-speed train, we rapidly cross the industrial outskirt of the city. Within a few minutes we are in an empty countryside, as it is November and the cold weather has already been here for a few weeks.

Harbin is 540 km away. At 305 km per hour, it will take us slightly more than 2 hours to reach our destination. This will allow sufficient time to observe the environment as we speed through the countryside.

shenyang-harbin-by-trainJourney by train from Shenyang to Harbin. Source: Google Map

In no time, Shenyang is a distant memory. We only see empty fields except for the dry stalks that are the leftovers of the corn and wheat harvests. The earth is dark colour indicating rich soil. Sporadically we see a person manually tending the fields. The occasional tractor shows that mechanization has reached this part of the country. But the small fields indicate that no large equipment will be used here until the fields are much larger. Horses are seen pulling small wooden carts. There are no barns where equipment would be stored. There are no animals as it would probably be too expensive to feed and house them during the long winter.

The corn collected is air dried in wired cages. No metal silos here where corn could be stored until it is taken away by trucks to the nearest scale and then shipped to market. No mechanization to handle the crop is seen.

The occasional roads that can be seen are paved, but there are few cars on them. Side roads are in hardened earth, which the rain will turn into mud. At times, a lone highway follows the train tracks. Cars and trucks trudge along in both directions. Trucks are heavily loaded with goods that are destined for the few large cities of the North-East.

A few gullies emerge to accommodate small brooks with minimum flow. No trace of any rivers here. The fields must be watered with the randomness of the rains, as there are no traces of water wells. In between fields we see the occasional row of trees that will dampen the effect of the winds on this flat land. Fields carry on as far as the eye can see. There are no traces of forests or any discerning features, with the exception of the occasional cellular phone tower.

Small villages appear every few kilometers. Their size is almost uniform, with 30 to 60 houses located on a few streets that run parallel to each other. All houses are of the same design. They are rectangular, roughly 7 meters by 12 meters. All have the same sloping rusted corrugated roof with two chimneys. There are 4 windows at the front, 2 or 3 at the back, and none on the sides. A solar water heater is located on the roof. An electrical wire is connected to the house, but no trace of satellite dishes. Smoke is coming out of many chimneys as people have already taken refuge inside.

heilongjiangFields and villages in Heilongjiang. Source: Google Earth

A small plot of land at the front or the back of the house seems to indicate a garden that provides vegetables for the family. There are no traces of cars or pick-up trucks that one would expect to see in the countryside. Maybe people have gone to work away from town, but there are no factories around. No large buildings are to be seen in these villages. Where are the schools, hospitals, stores, gasoline stations or other institutional buildings?

Suddenly in the middle of fields, twenty residential high-rises, all identical, at least 8-floor high appear. Many seem empty. There are no cars around, no activity, only lonely buildings. A few kilometers away, another series of high-rises appear, and then 10 kilometers further is Changchun, the capital of Jilin province. There was only a short transition between the fields and the city. We can’t see this city of 4.1 million people as we are in its outskirts.

After a brief stop, we are back in the countryside. We pass within 300 meters of a coal power plant that seems recently built. Its belching chimney and two cooling towers dominate the fields. There are a few piles of coal nearby; a few kilometers away, another coal power plant.

The monotony of small fields and villages is back. Some fields have been set on fire to burn the left over dry vegetation, which will fertilize the fields for the next growing season. Unfortunately, these fires will also increase the pollution, mainly particles in suspension in the air, for which China is well known.

One hour after leaving Changchun, the train rolls into Harbin (population 5.3 million, capital of Heilongjiang province). The transition from fields to the cityscape is instant. Low rise buildings surround the brand new station that remains to be connected to the subway system. The countryside is long gone, but never far from any city as almost 50% of China’s population still lives in a rural setting.

Over the coming years, the migration of tens of millions of people from the countryside to the cities will continue. It is obvious that the countryside is overpopulated to take care of the existing fields. Mechanization will progressively be used as the standard of living continues growing. What will happen to all these small villages? How will the people who migrate to the cities thrive? So many questions remain.


Metro, subway, underground, et al.

A key characteristic of a modern, well managed city is the presence of a subway system. Currently in China, 26 cities have a subway system. Some are fairly small as in Fuzhou with 1 line and 9 stations over 10 km. For 6 cities, the subway system has more than 100 stations stretching over 100 km.

For these 26 cities, a total of 2,116 stations are operational over a distance of 3,283 km. These are amazing numbers.

shanghai-metro-mapShanghai Metro map. Source: Shanghai Metro

The Shanghai and Beijing metro systems have more than 300 stations covering over 500 km each, with stations having up to 21 different exits.

On a world basis, both cities are a match to Paris (303 stations and 214 km), London (270, 400 km), New York (504, 420 km) and Tokyo (293, 312 km).

Only 3 cities compete in annual ridership above 3 billion: Shanghai at 3.1, Beijing at 3.3 and Tokyo at 3.5. These are gargantuan numbers that can only be understood by riding the subway in these cities. To keep up with the number of customers, in Tokyo, individuals were hired to “gently” push passengers into the subway cars. Shanghai has started doing the same in the last year as ridership has continued to increase.

peak-time-in-shanghai-metroPeak time in Shanghai Metro. Source: Unknown

What is the future of subway systems looking like in Chinese cities? Currently, there are 12 cities that are building a new subway system. In addition, the 26 cities that currently have a system, are adding more stations and lines. For example, Shanghai is planning to add a further 114 stations covering a distance of 226 km by 2020 (i.e. within 4 years). The plans for Beijing are even more grandiose as they plan to add 192 stations covering 368 km also by 2020.

Subways in China have become a tool for engineering a society that uses public transport. Governments (central, provincial and local) realised early on that with a population of 1.36 billion, it is impossible to have the level of car ownership that exists in the West. A high quality public transit system needed to be built to discourage car ownership.

What has compounded the challenges for the municipal governments has been the migration of hundreds of millions of people from rural areas to the cities. In China, the level of people living in cities (i.e. urbanization) has only recently reached 50%, which is low compared to an average of 78% in the West. So it is reasonable to anticipate further growth in Chinese cities, therefore more subways.


The kids want to learn

A few weeks ago, my wife and I were in Xi’an, exploring this old city. One night we got lost in the Muslim quarter. We tried asking directions for the hotel we were staying at. In spite of having the hotel card, we were not succeeding. Then, a girl from a group of 3 friends asked us if she could help. We were surprised with her willingness to assist us and her abilities in English.

She used her cellular phone to call the hotel, and got the directions. We now knew the way back through the small lanes. We thanked them and proceeded on our way. They insisted that they wanted to make sure we would find our way back properly. On the way there, we talked further. They were finishing junior high school. They wanted to practice their English with foreigners. They explained that by doing well in English, it would increase their chance of getting into a better university. We were impressed with their keenest and absence of reserve in trying their English.

xian-muslin-quartersXian Muslim quarter. Source: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

The next day, we were back in the Muslin quarter as my wife was aiming to bring a small gift for one of her students. As we wondered around, a student approached us asking if he could help. My wife asked for his opinion. It turn out that he was in a group of 5 students from one of Xi’an’s universities. They were walking around the area aiming to meet people with whom they could practice their English. After his assistance, we had a pleasant discussion in the middle of the lane where we had met them. They wanted to know where we came from, what we were doing in China, where we were living, and so on. Questions were coming furiously as they were competing to ask them. When we told them that we were teaching at universities in Shanghai, their excitement increased. They had even more questions. By the time the discussion ended, we had talked for 30 minutes or so. It was obvious that they wanted to make the most out of this opportunity.

The following day as we were walking through the Muslim quarter again, this time on our way to a temple, we were approached by another group of university students. They were from a distant province, visiting Xi’an for a few days. This group of 4 students also wanted to practice their English. As we talked one of the students was filming me, probably to replay the video in a setting that would allow them to get more out of the conversation. They were part of the English Club at their university. After 20 minutes or so, the student who was filming asked me to give advice on how best to expand their abilities in English. So I shared some ideas that were recorded. While I was talking to two of the students, the other two had focused on my wife, firing questions at her.

xian-shoppingA stall in the Muslim quarter in Xi’an. Source: Xi’an Tourist Office.

Wow! Quite an experience of keenness from students who wanted to perfect their abilities. There was no shyness, only a desire to communicate and capitalize on an opportunity. This shows the drive that inhabits many students in their desire to succeed in this highly competitive environment.