Humphrey Hawksley on a book that explores the realities behindChina’s vision for cleaner city environments

Layers of smog shroudmany Chinese cities, blocking out the sky and tightening the chest with their filthy air. Pedestrians navigate streets breathing through face masks, and homes have air purifiers and sealed windows.

Welcome to the world of Chinese urban living, enveloped in a thick, impenetrable yellow-grey dome of pollution.

With its filth-spewing factories, China has been condemned as the world’s great polluter and, until a few years ago, blocker of global deals to clean it up and alleviate climate change.

This is no longer the case. With President Trump’s America withdrawing from international moves to reduce global warming, China, in its inimitable way, is taking a lead both with its technology and political drive.

All this is in marked contrast to the familiar refrain from Western democracies late last century that much of what China was doing would not work. The country would break up. The state-run industries were too cumbersome. The Communist Party could not hold. And so on because, after all, China was not a democracy.

Little of that unfolded. The West’s denigration became muted, and its criticism metamorphosed into praise, smoothing the path for business deals that needed China’s wealth to succeed.

In his book China’s Urban Revolution, Austin Williams skilfully draws these strands together,from the smallest detail of city planning and new technologies to a political trend in which China’s leadership qualities are now being cited more often than those of the United States.

‘Many are definitely seeing something in the Chinese model precisely because there is little to offer in the Western one,’ writes Williams. ‘It is China’s ability to get things done.’

This backdrop makes China’s drive to create a string of eco-cities even more compelling because we have a sense that however haphazard, corrupt and riddled with individual failures it might be, the broad eco-city vision will almost certainly be realised, and probably faster than we think.

‘China is building places for people to live, work, and enjoy,’Williams writes. ‘They are doing it purposively, slowly and, in many instances, badly, but they are building experimental urban centers to cater for the next influx of city aspirants.’

As associate professor of architecture at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University on China’s east coast, Williams has been well placed to track the progress of this latest Chinese dream – and some of the nonsense that goes with it.

He begins by pointing out that there is no agreed definition of what constitutes an eco-city, or even a city for that matter. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development uses the term ‘urban core’ as being between 50,000 to 100,000 people. The US describes a ‘metropolitan area’ as having a population of more than 250,000, but ‘urban’ as any area above 2,500, which, if applied globally, would transform India into being a predominantly urban as opposed to a rural country.

China’s urban populations routinely run into the multiple millions and are variously categorised as ‘mega-cities’, ‘meta-cities’, ‘hyper-cities’. Within them there are, of course,the ‘eco-cities’.

Therefore, when China claims that it already has 285 eco-cities with at least 20 more to be built by 2020, what exactly they look like and against what benchmarks they are measured can be taken with a pinch of salt.

That, however, may be beside the point. The announcements themselves underline a political will to clean up the country and with that comes a focus to invent the technologies with which the mission can be achieved.

Amid colorful examples, Williams sharpens his arguments in three key areas:the authoritarian system, the technology and the eco-cities themselves, where he quickly points out that many remain only plans on websites and glossy brochures.

One that does exist is Sanya in Hainan Province that now ranks among China’s ten most ‘charming’ cities, second in the ‘Healthy City Index’ and number one in ‘New Thinking on Environmental Issues’.  Its transformation from a fishing village to the poster boy of clean environmental living began back in 1999,whenUS architects were brought in to set it on the right path.

At that time, Lanzhou in western China was named by Time magazine as the most polluted city in the world. Ten years later, in 2009, Gansu province – of which Lanzhou is the capital – had China’s highest incidence of lung cancer.  Remarkably, by 2016, Lanzhou was listed in the top one hundred environmentally-friendly cities, a transformation that Williams advises needs to be treated with caution.

But, certainly big things were happening. Like Pudong in Shanghai a generation earlier, Lanzhou New Area was being built30 miles north of the original city, a modern, high-tech work and living area the size of Singapore where the air is cleaner, roads emptier and grass greener.

China’s Urban Revolution: Understanding Chinese Eco-Cities Williams, Austin Williams, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017
China’s Urban Revolution: Understanding Chinese Eco-Cities Williams, Austin Williams, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017

Central to the eco-city vision is technology. China has put in plans to more than double the number of nuclear reactors in operation while using its newly invented technology to sell expertise to the West, such as with its investment in Britain’s Hinckley Point power station.

China also now controls 30 per cent of the production of solar panels (40 per cent if Taiwan is included).  From sewage to lighting, it intends to lead in all areas of urban planning, frequently producing higher quality products than Western manufacturers while undercutting their prices.

In explaining how all this is possible at such a rapid pace, Williams refers to a World Bank report that, in effect, argues against the Western democratic system. The report warns that in long-term development, the election cycle was a problem because changes in leadership frequently meana loss in continuity.  This could be a line from the Communist Party Handbook, notes Williams.

The air quality in China’s cities matches that of many American cities in the 1950s, reminding us that in several areas, whether it be environment, good governance or corruption, where China is now, the West has been itself.

While he does refer to some eco-city projects outside of China, Williams’ analysis would have been lifted by showing us more on India, China’s key rival in terms of development and the democracy-autocracy debate. We know China is richer and more modern, but Williams gives us little idea as to whether India has an eco-city vision and if it did, given its democracy, whether it could be so boldly implemented.

Among the myriad of books on a rising China, China’s Urban Revolution sits among the most valuable because of the direct link Williams draws between a suburban sewage drain and decisions made by the increasingly powerful leader, Xi Jinping.

The underpinning argument of the eco-city is that it gives people a better place to live. But, mischievously, Williams leaves us with a paradoxical image from a documentary he found portraying a Chinese city with wide pavements, greenery, blue skies, a network of cycle routes and the elderly performing Tai Chi with space and clean air.

It was filmed in 1972, at the height of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution when Beijing was not the modern, overcrowded, polluted city it is now, but a backward, terror-ridden community of poverty and isolation.

The lesson for China’s eco-city advocacy, therefore, must be to check reality against the website videos.

Humphrey Hawksley is a former BBC China correspondent. His next book, Asian Waters: The Strategy of Chinese Expansion and the Struggle Over the South China Sea, is published in April 2018

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