Report from China

The volume of reporting on the rampant growth of Chinese cities is causing a sense of China fatigue. But the country remains fascinating nonetheless. Despite the credit crunch, economic growth is still strong. Much of the attention will shift to the countryside in the coming years, and that is badly needed since China is still a largely agrarian society, writes Harry den Hartog from Shanghai.

Family connections have brought me to China every year since the millennium and enabled me to observe developments from near at hand and far away and see the country change with great leaps. Eight years ago there wasn’t a single car in the village of my in laws, and the only transport vehicles were bikes and hand-carts. Today the thriving village is bisected by overfull asphalt roads and one-time farmers who have become crazy drivers. The population has risen tenfold to more than a quarter of a million. Retail chains and shopping malls have squeezed out the lively street traders. At the end of the last century dwellings of 50 square metres were sufficient for a family with child, and often the grandparents too. Now most of these ‘older’ homes have been demolished to make way for stacked apartments full of luxury. And of course these changes have a huge impact on the social, spatial and ecological structures.

To experience this dynamic maelstrom from close at hand for a while, I recently moved to China for a few months, and Shanghai is currently my temporary home. We were excited by the prospect of living in Pudong, a district full of rural migrants, overlooking the docks. But after only a week the stifling outdoor air – a cocktail of exhaust fumes, construction dust and factory emissions – forced us to relocate to the ‘old’ part of the city on the other side of the river, with sycamores lining the street and Starbucks around the corner.

Finding work is, despite the recession, still no big problem. Wages offered by Chinese employers may be lower, but then so too is the cost of living. After the cultural emptiness that reigned here since 1966, everything from elsewhere is warmly embraced. Dutch designers, film makers and writers are greatly respected. Even Verhoeven’s Zwartboek has been translated and is now showing in Chinese cinemas.
An expression of this tendency are the countless branches of Western fast-food chains and, even more numerous, their Chinese equivalents, which are threatening the superb Chinese cooking. Likewise, new Chinese architecture, teeming with foreign references, is often incomprehensible to us. The bookstores frequented by architecture students from Shanghai’s top university are crammed with stacks of books by Rob Krier and relatives, while modernism gets a rough deal. China is searching for a new identity for its cities.

Thanks to the eleventh five-year plan, large sums of money have been earmarked for rural development. By investing in infrastructure, the government hopes that rural areas can propel economic growth. Development with urban densities is springing up along the new lines of infrastructure and large-scale recreation parks are shooting up like mushrooms, with government support.

In rural areas in China the custom is to build together with neighbours and friends. You certainly won’t find any high-culture architecture there. The informal do-it-yourself construction methods of the more affluent farmers on the east coast lead to wonderful scenes that remind one of the Efteling attraction park. Recurring elements are tiles in different patterns and colours, and tinted glass (against sunlight), personal interpretations of classical ornaments and shiny polished fences. The dwellings are largely self-sufficient, coal-heated, fitted with solar boilers, and food is grown next to the homes. The interiors usually consist of bare concrete floors that are swept clean every once in a while. Completing the picture are a few items of wooden furniture and a big screen hanging on the spot where a portrait of the Great Helmsman once hung. The spacious plans can accommodate several families. The hope is that their child (in case he is male) will stay inside with a helpful daughter in law and sweet grandchild. But society is changing rapidly. Young people’s English is improving all the time and they tend to move away for a career in the city.

For new arrivals from rich countries who aren’t afraid to experiment and endure hardship, there are still plenty of opportunities. But they aren’t open to the twenty million rural migrants who, after the Chinese New Year (January 25, 2008), were not allowed return to the coastal cities. The Chinese media have reported on a few thousand factories, most of them in the province of Guangdong (‘the factory of the world’), that have closed owing to falling demand for exports to capitalist countries. The state television network, CCTV, is warning of the danger of regional wars. Although the government has announced it prefers to take a soft approach, the army has already been mobilised in regions where most of the migrants come from to suppress the expected social unrest. The army has also been deployed to deal with another disaster: the protracted drought that is threatening the harvest in a large part of China. Rockets with silver iodide have been launched to induce rain artificially.

The province of Sichuan, which was hit last year by an earthquake, is currently undergoing reconstruction. According to the most cautious estimates, the number of homeless people totals five million. Self-build homes in particular are inhabitable. Well-known Chinese architects are contributing to the reconstruction efforts and architectural competitions are being staged. The Chinese contribution to the eleventh Architecture Biennale in Venice, arguably the most important contribution to this cultural event, also focused on this disaster. The earthquake is viewed as a chance for renewal, just as the credit crunch offers opportunities..