The Concrete Dragon: China’s Urban Revolution and What it Means for the World by Thomas J. Campanella
Reviewed by guest blogger, Dave Atkins.
Thomas Campanella’s book is a timely, eye-opening analysis of the wrenching urban revolution transforming China. Written in a clear, conversational tone, but packed with data and anecdotal stories that demonstrate the author’s insight into China, this book will amaze, confound, and challenge all those who seek to plan and manage urbanism.
The first chapters describe the scale of urban transformation underway in the Pearl River Delta, Shanghai, and Beijing. For those unfamiliar with China, it is an exciting story of rapid progress, amazing growth, and boundless ambition. But after laying the historical and political contexts, Campanella begins to systematically detail the human costs of growth–principally the destruction of neighborhoods and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. It is ironic that the Chinese character for “demolition,” Chai, has become a symbol of resistance–whereas in the west, it is a yuppie tea at Starbucks.
This is NOT a protest book. But the stories of displacement, the sacking of architectural history, and the value systems underlying this march to progress speak for themselves. Apart from being appalled at the human costs, what can westerners take away from all this? Three themes emerge:
- Scale - Everything good and bad about western urbanism is amplified by several orders of magnitude. We begin from the sheer size of Chinese urbanism: 102 cities in China have more than 1 million people; compared to 9 in the United States.
- Distinctions - urban “renewal” in China is nothing like that in US history. Understanding it is complex, especially in regard to suburbanization:
- The city remains the dominant political unit and administrative unit, with suburbs possessing little relative clout. In the US, suburban communities taxed their wealthier base and built better schools and infrastructure, strengthening the cultural bias against cities. In China, cities have long been the ticket to stability for people, with mobility restricted and city-dwellers guaranteed food while the rural population starved.
- Suburbs have a completely different context than in the US. In China, suburbs are populated with gated, self-contained communities. Buyers choose from all inclusive lifestyle estates with Anglicized (and intentionally bourgeois) names like “Latte Town, Glory Vogue, Yuppie International Garden, Wonderful Digital Jungle, and–cutting to the chase–Top Aristocrat.”
Jobs have followed more or less in sync with the development of housing, so these suburbs are not “bedroom communities,” but more like mini factory towns. The concept of danwei–the communal work-unit model, and the housing form of siheyuan – courtyard-based living compounds–permeates development practices in sharp contrast to more open community development models in the US. In China, in the midst of extreme density, there is a tendency to organize into self-contained units. In the US, for all our proclaimed individualism, there is a bias towards community integration and an assumed role of government that is very different than China–a country we might assume would be much more communal.
- The automobile is rapidly becoming central to Chinese experience. In the US, bicycles are a symbol of sustainability, recreation and fitness. In China, they are rapidly becoming associated with an image of a backward past.
- Timeliness - August 8, 2008 will mark the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Beijing. The urban revolution is part of a national drive to present a shockingly modern China to the world in time for the Olympics. After reading this book, I come away with the impression that what is going on with Chinese urbanism is more significant, more focused, and more imperative than even the US drive to land a man on the moon in the 1960s. It is impossible to understate what 8/8/8 means to China. Other books, such as China Shakes the World: A Titan’s Rise and Troubled Future — and the Challenge for America by James Kynge describe the implications of China’s economic growth and associated social problems, but Concrete Dragon puts things in an infrastructural context, literally describing the architecture of supremacy.
I am not a professional urbanist, but I found the depth of this book impressive and the themes thought-provoking on many levels. The culture is so different from the west and yet the same types of changes are being attempted–on a massive scale–yielding unpredictable results. As an intellectual laboratory, it challenges our perspectives. As practical history, we are about to witness the birth of something spectacular.
Reviewed by guest blogger, Dave Atkins.