Xinhai Revolution

'Redevelopment fever' sweeps through cities

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 November, 2010, 12:00am

Better City, Better Life', the omnipresent theme of the World Expo, which ended yesterday, is certainly etched in the memories of over 73 million visitors to the displays of culture and technology at the six-month-long extravaganza.

Out-of-town visitors are also surely impressed by the skyline and cosmopolitan feel of the host city, which reportedly spent up to 400 billion yuan (HK$464 billion) to spruce up the infrastructure.

Indeed, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon probably voiced the opinion of many millions of people by noting Shanghai had 'secured its reputation as one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities'.

The praise will be music to the ears of not only the mainland leadership and Shanghai municipal officials but also bureaucrats nationwide.

Following the close of the expo, the baton will go to Guangzhou - the host of the Asian Games, which starts in 12 days - which equally yearns for international cosmopolitan status after spending 120 billion yuan on its infrastructure.

Everywhere on the mainland, cities large and small are finding pretexts, valid or not, to roll out ambitious urban development plans. They bulldoze old towns and force peasants to sell their farmland cheaply, often in the menacing presence of police or hired thugs.

According to some estimates, about 655 mainland cities have reportedly set their sights on international standards in terms of urban development, and 183 other cities have aimed to become 'international metropolises'.

Will they become 'better cities' which deliver 'better life'? At first glance, overseas visitors to any mainland city are likely to be dazzled by big plazas, wide boulevards, and gleaming steel and glass office buildings and luxury condos boasting a mixture of various European architectural designs of various periods in the downtown areas - landmark signs of rising economic power and affluence.

But the longer they look, the more they'll realise that almost all the cities look increasingly the same, boasting identical skylines and architectural designs and layouts.

Amid the dash to better one another with grandiose and overseas-style projects, more and more cities risk forever losing their cultural heritage, identities and individualities by bulldozing ancient temples, historical sites and old buildings. Beijing is an obvious example. It likes to boast in tourism brochures that the city is the ancient capital of dynasties lasting thousands of years. But except for a number of landmarks preserved to this day such as the Forbidden City and Summer Palace, can any Beijing resident, like their brethren in Paris or London, proudly point to a building and rattle off its historical lineage? Hardly. The old city walls are long gone, and most of the signature hutongs and siheyuan are torn down to make way for grotesque buildings like the tomb-like National Theatre or the new CCTV Tower, which is known as 'the Big Underpants' among locals.

With Beijing or Shanghai leading the way, other localities are merely playing catch-up. Finding a good pretext is a must for wild spending, even better if it is politically charged. While hosting the Olympics or Asian Games or the World Expo is a rare opportunity, local officials try to be creative.

The mayor of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, caused a stir earlier this year by announcing the city would spend 20 billion yuan to celebrate the centenary anniversary next year of the Xinhai Revolution, which marked the beginning of modern China. Of course, the celebration is politically important as the mainland tries to strengthen ties with Taiwan as the 1911 revolution played a critical role in the histories of the Republic of China and the People's Republic of China. But 20 billion yuan for a celebration bash? It seems the city is merely using the event as an excuse to splash the bulk of the money on bulldozing the old towns and erecting grandiose buildings.

Some impatient officials don't even want to bother with pretexts. Funing, a less developed county in Jiangsu province, recently made headlines by planning to build a copycat Sydney Opera House at a reported investment of 50 million yuan.

It is not hard to understand why officials are so keen on bigger or grander projects. They are dubbed as vanity or trophy projects for a reason. They are not only feathers in the caps but also help advance officials' careers. Publicly, officials' high-toned arguments are that those projects create jobs, boost a city's image, and attract more investment. The unspoken truth is that the bigger the projects are, the more kickbacks and misappropriations corrupt officials receive.

Any visitor willing to check beyond the splashy downtown area of any major city only needs to drive no more than 50 kilometres in any direction to see another side of China: walls of untreated garbage surrounding the city due to lack of treatment, and villages or towns that lack even basic infrastructure and utilities like tap water, sewage treatment, roads and heat.

That is about to change for the worse. In the name of undertaking the world's largest urbanisation drive, many cities are forcing peasants to give up their farmland and move into new towns boasting wide boulevards, big plazas and so forth. But because of bad planning or lack of public transport, more and more of those new towns are fast turning into ghost towns.