Urbanization on an extraordinary scale is happening in Asia, whose megalopolises are absorbing millions of new residents every year. Perhaps surprisingly, the character of these rapidly expanding cities reflects less their regions’ local traditions than the political conditions under which they have grown. A good example is Manila, possibly Asia’s most disorderly city, which gets bigger by the day, shantytown after shantytown. Despite Manila’s obvious vitality, the ancient Spanish-designed central city has degenerated into a seedy slum, in part because the Philippines has known only weak, crooked governments. No corruptly elected official cares about, say, saving a historic district or planning infrastructure adequately. In Manila, it’s everyone for himself—and this is true not just of the politicians but also of the wealthy elite, who have decamped to a vast gated community, called Makati, located nearer to the international airport than to the older Manila.
However, one finds the most striking evidence of how politics shapes the new Asian megalopolises in the differences between Seoul, South Korea’s capital, and China’s leading cities. After all, the Korean and Chinese cultures are similar. Both are founded on the hierarchical Confucian philosophy; both have been influenced by Buddhism. But Seoul is democratic, and the political debates of an open society have profoundly influenced its development. China’s cities, by contrast, reflect the autocratic and corrupt rule of the Communist Party.
Take Shanghai, China’s largest city, with a population of more than 19 million. Originally built by Europeans for Europeans, Shanghai has preserved some of the streets of its West-in-the-East past and boasts a lively, nearly tropical ambience that endears it to foreign visitors. But the Chinese government has, unsurprisingly, sought to transform the city into a glittering showcase of China’s rising power—above all, to lure foreign banks and investors away from Hong Kong. The tactic has yet to succeed: Hong Kong remains more attractive, though less because of its impressive buildings (Shanghai’s can compete in height, if not in architectural quality) than because of its commitment to the rule of law.
Shanghai is a “costly facade to maintain,” confesses Yan Hansheng, its deputy mayor for finance. The city’s primary financial resources are still its traditional factories, owned mostly by the government, which continue to grind out steel, cars, and textiles. These industries, located west of the city center, remain hidden behind the costly facade; few foreigners ever travel that far. To protect Shanghai’s gleaming appearance further, the government also keeps tight control over the population. Officials view the peasant migrants who work menial jobs in Shanghai as a stain on the Western-oriented city and prevent them from living there or sending their children to local schools. To live permanently in Shanghai, one must be born a Shanghai citizen. (The mother transmits citizenship—a system in effect throughout China.) There are some exceptions, based on merit—holding a university degree helps—or on securing a fake identity card. All other migrants who work in Shanghai, though, must return by night to the shantytowns or shoddy workers’ dormitories at the city’s periphery, far from the cosmopolitan city center.
The authoritarian Communist regime also shapes China’s capital city, though in a different way. Travelers to Beijing should not expect to find any traces of the ancient and beautiful imperial capital, whose debasement began immediately after the Communist revolution. In October 1949, from Tiananmen, the monumental gate leading to the imperial palace, Mao Zedong proclaimed the “liberation” of China and demanded that factory chimneys replace pagodas and temples. About 1,000 religious buildings, many of them hundreds of years old, were soon destroyed or transformed into belching factories. By the early 1960s, Beijing looked more like mid-nineteenth-century Birmingham than like the capital that European travelers had once nicknamed the “Holy City.” Unmoved by the pleas of some older scholars, Mao also demolished the walls surrounding Beijing, which had stood since the seventeenth century. The ostensible purpose was to ease traffic, but there were few cars in the city at the time.
In 1979, the Communist regime inaugurated a new era of reforms designed to bring China into the global economy. For Deng Xiaoping and his clique, Beijing’s factories didn’t look modern enough, so the regime closed them or relocated them to the city’s outskirts. But the reformers also completed Mao’s destruction of old Beijing. The old city was a maze of neighborhoods made up of one-story houses built around square inner courts and separated by narrow lanes, or hutongs .
These traditional neighborhoods could have been saved or modernized, but the reformers razed them in the name of hygiene (the official motive) and real-estate speculation (the real motive), erecting huge office towers in their stead. The hutong dwellers were moved to shoddily built, city-owned shoeboxes on the city’s edge, where rent is cheap but modern amenities like elevators and proper heating are often lacking. The government is now rebuilding a few of the original hutongs , characteristically seeking to please tourists in search of the authentic Beijing.
The office towers that give Beijing its contemporary sheen made the landowners—the Party and the military establishment—rich. But they also made the city ugly, since they were built hastily and with no concern for appearance. As a concession to history, some new buildings will incorporate a touch of the past—a traditionally tiered roof, say, or upturned eaves at the top of a high-rise—but these combinations tend to be incoherent. Here, too, a facade is in place. One-third of the office buildings remain empty because speculation outran the needs of the market.
Hoping to improve its undistinguished and often ugly cityscape before the 2008 Olympics, Beijing officials brought in some big-name architects from around the globe. The Netherlands’ Rem Koolhaas designed a new office for China Central Television; the Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron constructed an Olympic stadium (the Bird’s Nest, as it is known colloquially); the Frenchman Paul Andreu produced an opera hall, the National Grand Theater. Yet the buildings, whatever one thinks of them aesthetically, could stand anywhere in the world and bear no relation to China’s culture or traditions. (If the Chinese didn’t want his egg-shaped opera hall, Andreu said, he would sell it to Canada.) Like the office towers, these expensive international trophies are absurdly underused. The Beijing opera currently has no program—the city is a cultural void—and the Olympic stadium has idled since the end of the games.
Where Beijing’s walls once stood, roads now encircle the city. One road was constructed, and then another as the population grew, and then more. Today, seven concentric highways loop the city of 10 million. Ask a Beijing resident where he lives, and you might hear: “Somewhere between the sixth and seventh circular road.” “Beijing is more modern than Paris,” the city’s then-mayor told me some years back. “You have just one circular freeway. We have seven!” The roads are choked with nightmarish traffic (cars are no longer scarce in Beijing) under a hazily polluted sky.
Beijing is not a friendly city. There are few places to walk and almost no parks. It sometimes seems as if the city wants to fill its every void with concrete to the maximum possible height. Stand-alone shops are rare, since they take up too much space; malls have replaced most of them. As oppressive as the city feels, the police presence is not that visible. Chinese subjects know that any lawbreaker will face serious punishment, which makes the country’s urban areas safe.
As in Shanghai, and with the same legal rationale, the authorities deny rural migrants access to Beijing’s better neighborhoods. And this April, the Beijing government added another layer of control to prevent migrants from spending too much time in the city: “sealed management.” In 16 villages in Beijing’s southern suburbs, where most residents are migrants, iron gates slam shut at night and lock the population in, except for those with special permits for night labor. The local Communist Party authorities claim dubiously that “80 percent of the residents applaud this practice, which increases security.” China’s strong prejudices against the poor—reinforced by government discrimination—have also increased the popularity of American-style gated communities for the wealthy. These communities, never too far from the airport, usually have easy access to golf courses.
Beijing is a dead city after 8 PM, with the exception of a few streets reserved for the nightclubbing of the golden youth—the sons and daughters of the ruling elite. The young and wealthy make no effort to hide their money. One finds in Beijing’s core a concentration of luxury shops, dedicated to fancy cars and high fashion, whose customers are mostly these twentysomething Chinese, dubbed “young princes” by the less affluent.
All that remains of old Beijing is the imperial palace, also known as the Forbidden City. During the late 1960s, when I had the privilege of visiting it, the Forbidden City dominated Beijing. Nowadays, tall office buildings surround it, so that it seems to be sinking into the new city. True, the Forbidden City wasn’t in perfect condition 40 years ago, but the restoration work done on it since then has sometimes been sloppy—garish red concrete beams have replaced wooden ones, for example. American visitors may or may not be pleased to discover a Starbucks there.