Beijing makeover revives debate about
megacities By Antoaneta
BEIJING - Beijing's ambition to re-invent
itself as an ultra-modern capital of the future - in
preparation for the 2008 Olympics - has sparked a frenzy
of copycat metropolises all over the country,
infuriating preservationists and state planners, and
re-igniting an old debate about the emergence of
megacities in China.
The Chinese capital has
just announced an impressive plan to transform itself
into a "modern cosmopolitan city with unique
characteristics" - bureaucratic jargon implying that
Beijing will eventual join the ranks of global cities
like New York, Tokyo and London.
The target is
2020, when, according to Beijing Mayor Wang Qishan, the
city would be totally modernized and have the
infrastructure of a world metropolis. Once this is
achieved, the mayor told the annual session of Beijing
parliament last week, the capital would be ready to
start balancing economic growth with human development.
In preparation for the 2008 Olympics, Beijing is
already being subjected to one of the most extensive
urban re-engineering projects ever undertaken by an
existing city. Independent experts place the tag of
re-development at upwards of $100 billion.
the moment, a monumental city is rising at breathtaking
speed, with wide avenues, massive ring roads, grandiose
ministries and banks, giant stadiums, towers and
shopping emporiums. In the meantime, the remains of old
Beijing are being dwarfed and gradually demolished.
Even some of the city's top architects concede
that the record is mixed.
"The planning is a big
mess, really," says Cui Kai, a well-known architect and
deputy president of the city's planning department.
"There has been a spirit of 'we want to cut off
history'. And there has been a lot of greed behind what
is being done."
The United Nations Educational,
Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which has
declared the inner ancient city of the capital a world
heritage site, has objected to the callous disregard for
preservation on the part of greedy developers working in
tacit agreement with local authorities.
the original 6,000 "hutongs", Beijing's narrow alleys
that criss-cross the inner city, a mere 25 are being
preserved. Out of 1,000 temples, a few dozen will be
left - isolated islands within in a grid of eight-lane
expressways and overshadowed by giant steel and glass
Preservationists have long charged that
by destroying all traces of old China, Beijing would
find it hard to measure up to cities like Paris and
London, which have incorporated historical landmarks
into their urban layout.
Yet looking backwards
is the last thing China's leaders want to do. Many of
them are technocrats, sworn to developing modern science
and high technology, and they want to show the world
that the future belongs to China.
example has been so tantalizing that scores of other
Chinese cities have declared they want to become
megalopolises too. There are many beyond Shanghai and
Guangzhou - Beijing's obvious rivals in the booming east
and south coasts of the country.
Some 182, or
about a third of all Chinese cities, are contenders for
the title of international metropolis, says Yao Bing, an
official of the communist party's Central Commission for
Discipline Inspection, according to the English-language
They include Haikou, the capital of
China's island province of Hainan, which aims to be "an
open international city with tropical characteristics",
and Shenyang in the north, a city that is eager to shake
off its grim image as a communist industrial base and
wants to be a financial center for northeast Asia.
A new book, titled 2012, draws a bold
picture of a futuristic Global City in the southern
province of Hainan island, where China's urban ambitions
are being helped by a flow of international capital and
immigrants from 200 countries.
"After 20 years
of economic reforms, China has a lot of experience in
international trade and has a lot of potential to create
the Global City of the future," argues author He Han.
"Hainan, for its part, is the perfect site for it
because of its economic edge, rich resources, favorable
location and attractive tropical climate''.
the early years of China's economic reforms, started by
the late leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, the
government promoted smaller cities, believing that large
and medium-size metropolises would be destabilized by
vast numbers of rural migrants.
In the early
1990s, the government created buffer cities -
settlements with populations of less than 500,000 - that
were meant to prevent the big cities from swelling to
unmanageable proportions. More than 200 buffer cities
were established between 1990 and 1997.
alarmed by satellite photos that showed that China was
losing more than 500,000 hectares of arable land a year
to housing, roads and factories, the government stopped
encouraging the expansion of towns.
years, the urbanization trend has picked up, fueled by
projections that increasing the population of China's
largest cities would boost consumer spending while
efficiently preserving land and other resources.
"We anticipate that by 2020 some 300 million to
400 million rural dwellers would have moved to China's
towns and cities," Chen Xiwen, one of China's top
rural-sector officials, told the foreign media recently.
Government officials have also been under
increasing pressure to meet world urbanization rates.
Despite being home to 20 percent of humanity, China has
only two megacities with populations of more than 10
million: Shanghai and Beijing.
has a registered population of over 30 million, is an
artificial megacity created by the union of Chongqing
proper and the Three Gorges Basin area. The urbanized
population of Chongqing is less than 5 million people.
While the official urbanization rate of China is
36 percent, many of the country's supposed city-dwellers
are like those in Chongqing - farmers and peasants
living in the rural outskirts.
"We have to admit
that urbanization is justified," Zhang Naijian, a
researcher with the Chinese Academy of Managerial
Sciences, told the China Daily. "But if every city wants
to be in the swim of building great cities, it will
bring disaster to the country and the people."
(Inter Press Service)
Feb 28, 2004
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