Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Chinese cities you've never heard of, but should know - Part 5

The city featured in this installment isn't a city yet. It is a cluster of cities in southern China that will one day in the not-too-distant future be, at 42 million people, the largest city in the world.

From The Telegraph:

City planners in south China have laid out an ambitious plan to merge together the nine cities that lie around the Pearl River Delta.

The "Turn The Pearl River Delta Into One" scheme will create a 16,000 sq mile urban area that is 26 times larger geographically than Greater London, or twice the size of Wales.

The new mega-city will cover a large part of China's manufacturing heartland, stretching from Guangzhou to Shenzhen and including Foshan, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Zhuhai, Jiangmen, Huizhou and Zhaoqing. Together, they account for nearly a tenth of the Chinese economy.

Over the next six years, around 150 major infrastructure projects will mesh the transport, energy, water and telecommunications networks of the nine cities together, at a cost of some 2 trillion yuan (£190 billion). An express rail line will also connect the hub with nearby Hong Kong.

"The idea is that when the cities are integrated, the residents can travel around freely and use the health care and other facilities in the different areas," said Ma Xiangming, the chief planner at the Guangdong Rural and Urban Planning Institute and a senior consultant on the project.

Read On
There's no doubt that there will be plenty of people willing to populate this new monstrosity. Tens of millions of people flock to Chinese cities every year. Everybody in China wants to get in on the new opportunities city life provides.

The audacity of this plan is startling. This project in southern China makes previous large infrastructure projects - the Panama Canal, the US interstate highway system, and even the Three Gorges Dam - seem like child's play. The logistics involved with creating such a vast "city" is on a totally different plane from previous man-made ventures.

Image of Shenzhen from Reuters

Reading this story today, I immediately thought of some of the words President Obama said last night in his State of the Union address. From near the end of his speech talking about the need for the US to become a more competitive nation:

We should have no illusions about the work ahead of us. Reforming our schools, changing the way we use energy, reducing our deficit — none of this will be easy. All of it will take time. And it will be harder because we will argue about everything. The costs. The details. The letter of every law.

Of course, some countries don't have this problem. If the central government wants a railroad, they build a railroad, no matter how many homes get bulldozed. If they don't want a bad story in the newspaper, it doesn't get written.

And yet, as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn't a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.

The Entire Transcript
There's no question who these words were targeted towards. China is a challenge Obama has to deal with every day.

Obama spent last week schmoozing President Hu here in the US. He surely hears everyday from disgruntled voters out of work due to "jobs being shipped over to China." Forty-seven percent of Americans believe, incorrectly, that China's economy is the largest in the world.

I was moved by Obama's speech last night. I've seen many mock his "Sputnick-moment" rhetoric. I'm also not sure that the post-partisanship he's pushing for is going to last. But I appreciate the, to borrow a word I've already used in this post, audacity of what he said last night.

No matter what one thinks of Obama and his policies, he proved last night that he understands what has made the US what it is. His exhorting of innovation and ingenuity in the face of strong challenges from abroad was inspiring.

Is China's economy and world influence going to surpass the US in the coming decades? Most likely it will. Considering its population, it's not that surprising that it would. But even if it does, I think there's something to what Obama said in his speech.

China's economy can and will continue to boom. It will build cities and undertake projects that put America to shame. No matter how big it gets, though, China's citizenry is still not going to have basic rights that citizens of the US and other democracies enjoy. No amount of development or wealth creation will ever be able to make up for the basic freedoms denied in China.


Stephen Cronin said...

Interesting plan. I used to live in Zhaoqing, back in 2002 and 2004 and the area they are combining is one big city sprawl anyway, so I guess I can see the sense in improving the infrastructure and streamlining the governance...

Andriy Rukas said...

Thank you for this post - the plan really seems huge! About the same rapid growth is also observed in Chongqing. Could be great if a sort of a Free Trade zone could be organized there as well in order to get more overseas investors involved.

Ramesh said...

Have some qualifications to comment on this since I lived there not so long ago. Already Guangzhou and Foshan operate as one - the local Guangzhou metro extends upto Foshan. The company I worked in has already moved its offices from downtown Guangzhou to near Foshan. In some ways Guangzhou, Dongguan and Shenzhen even now operate as one city - the high speed rail link which operates every 10 mts or so already has many people living in one, working in the other and commuting. The official unification - hukou, health and education unfication may take some time, but the Pearl River Delta already operates like a massive metropolis. Include Hong Kong in the mix and this is easily the most vibrant part of the world. Amazing !!

I however do not think China will surpass the US either in economic or in political terms. Growth will not happen for ever at these rates. Increasingly growth will become more difficult - it will need great innovation, step up from manufacturing, ability to compete on more than cheap labour, etc etc - all of which are America's unique strengths. It used to be said of Japan in the 80s in the same way. China is of course different from Japan, but even here, I do not see it crossing the US anytime in our lifetimes. America's strengths are unique in the world - its innovtion, its open culture, its world beating universities, its spirit of accepting the best in the world as immigrants, the indomitable spirit of enterprise and creativity. China does not have them and for it to acquire them, the political system will have to change, which is not a likely event for sometime.

While the clarion call for America to wake up is perhaps OK for a jolt, I personally feel America's numero uno position is not in any threat for a long time.

Anonymous said...

When I read about this supercity I immediately think about how much concentrated pollution its going to produce. I certainly have no access to all the hours or research and engineering that has gone into this, but my gut tells me this is a terrible plan. I think about the water crisis we have here in Las Vegas, being dependent upon a river that is gradually drying up, and just wonder how devastating it could be to a city of.... are you kidding me... 42 million people. Any resource problem they encounter is going to be magnified and catastrophic.

Obama impresses me more with each passing month with how he is handling the incredible challenges on his plate. Instead of giving in to a lot of the fearful and vitrolic rhetoric, he has risen above and is calling on America to embrace its competitive spirit and not its history of pre-emptive strikes (not just militaristic ones) which has in my opinion created not only a more divisive America, but a more distrusting and divisive world. It may be a tougher road, but its the right road and we will be better for it in the long run.

It just shocks and sickens me when I hear so many of my fellow Americans saying he is far and away the worst President ever. They seem to be part of some Borglike automatonic mass that has been programmed to follow one mantra and one mantra only. In my eyes, he is quickly becoming the strongest President in my lifetime. Its too early in his Presidency to grade him out that high just yet, but he is getting there. Just a shame so many in this country are unwilling to even entertain the idea of being objective.

Stage China said...

Amazing plan! Went to Shenzhen and Guangzhou a few months ago. These cities are already unbelievable big.

Mark said...

@Stephen - I'm sure a lot has changed since '04! I agree with the streamlining/less red tape possibility.

@Andriy - I hear what you're saying about Chongqing. That is probably my favorite city in China to keep up with. It's a city on relatively the same scale with this proposed merging of cities.

@Ramesh - Thanks for posting your thoughts. I was hoping that you'd chime in seeing that this is your old stomping grounds.

I always feel better about my home country when I hear your opinion on it. I appreciate your optimism and hope that you're right that Americans will step up and prevent a decline.

@Hopfrog - I see where you're coming from. I don't think water will be as big of a problem there in southern China, but with that many people, who knows what sorts of resource issues they'll face in the future.

I've become more and more convinced by the way China develops its self. There are unfathomable issues with so many aspects of China's growth, but I feel as though a lot of them are being taken into account as the country moves forward.

No matter what happens, the country's experiments are wonderful theater for the rest of the world to observe.

I like Obama a lot too. I especially like the JFK-invoking I felt from his state of the union the other night. Pushing for American greatness. It's awesome stuff.

I've just stopped listening to the haters.

@Stage China - I've just been to Guangzhou. That was an impressively large place. It's crazy to think that there are eight other formidable cities in the area.

Anonymous said...

@Mark - The less rationale the haters seem to become, the easier it is to ignore. Its a shame because a lot of good fiscal arguments are out there to counter many of Obama's policies but it gets lost in the poison spitting. I no longer have the desire to even engage the other side in conversation or wade through the crap to get to the relevant arguments.

I considered myself a fiscal conservative for the longest time. At this point, I am willing to accept some fiscal irresponsibility in lieu of having anything to do with a side that has become toxic.

Stage China said...

China denies plan to create world's biggest city!

"The reports were totally false. There is no such plan," Guo Yuewen, spokesman for the Communist party's provincial committee, was quoted as saying by the official China Daily on Saturday.


Richard.李志 said...

Here ( Helen Wang is making the points Ramesh is making above although importantly she is trying to get away from the number 1 mentality, if you boys out in the old US don't see it all about challenges to supremacy and a need to maintain the no 1. spot, then in a multi-polar world the US offers a great deal. Also as an aside I watched, I think it was called, Company Men recently which tries to capture the spirit of the American worker and their ability to lift themselves and others around them. Not bad. The problem i would still have is that the heart of American society is just too unequal, the fact that one can escape poverty and achieve doesn't mean the majority can. But this is where I can't really comment further as I don't know enough about the changes going on inside the States or ones likely to happen.

Speak more soon Mark.

Mark said...

@Hopfrog - It's interesting that as a more fiscally conservative person, you have such a high regard for Obama. While not perfect, I feel like he's been an overwhelmingly positive influence on our country.

@StageChina - Thanks for posting that link.

This plan to combine these cities seems to make a lot of sense to me. I can still see it happening. Just look at the development in Shenzhen over the past thirty years.
Is it possible that the city described in the 42 million person monstrosity article is a natural consequence of Shenzhen-esque development? I think it might be.

The official rebuttal is certainly interesting, though.

@Richard - I'm a big fan of hearing Ramesh discuss America. Read what he wrote here about the Arizona shooting here. All of what Ramesh writes is really good.

I hear what you're saying about inequality. It's particularly bad right now.

The middle class in the US needs to be rebuilt. This group is the backbone of the country. It's suffering. It has been for years.

I don't believe the US system is fundamentally flawed, though. It is threatened and things have certainly been better. But I hope and think we can pull through.

America is so great in so many ways. It'd sadden me to see the day when the "Beijing Model" is seen as the superior way of governing.

Mark said...

Read what Bill Clinton said last year discussing the Oklahoma City bombing in '95 and current events:

The third lesson is, it’s always a mistake to bet against America. What happened at Oklahoma City – something that horrible, which could have just made all those people so full of anger and hatred. And you saw that monument on that gentle slope and that beautiful pool, with those 168 empty chairs, and how they responded and how we did. And you heard the former governor, George Nigh, saying nobody remembered who was a Republican, who was a Democrat. It’s always a mistake to bet against America. We tend to figure this stuff out.

And we zig and we zag, and we go up and we go down, but look, we still have a growing population with a very healthy fertility rate, which is a good thing in the 21st century. We can accommodate more. Immigrants still want to come here, notwithstanding the legislation in Arizona. It’s more true today than it was when President Kennedy said at the Berlin Wall, “Freedom has many difficulties and our democracy is far from perfect, but we never had to put up a wall to keep our people in.” And we can put up all the walls we want to try to keep them out, but as long as we are free and open and full of promise, people will want to come.

So by all means, keep fighting; by all means, keep arguing. But remember, words have consequences as much as actions do, and what we advocate, commensurate with our position and responsibility, we have to take responsibility for. We owe that to Oklahoma City. We owe it to keep on fighting, keep on arguing. They didn’t vote for me in Oklahoma in 1996. It was still a Republican state.

But I loved them anyway, and I will till the day I die, because when this country was flat on its back mourning their loss, they rallied around the employees of the national government and they rallied around the human beings who had lost everything, and they rallied around the elemental principle that what we have in common is more important than our differences. And that’s why our Constitution makes our freedoms last – because of that bright line.

@Anyone who's still reading - Watch this video here (h/t Chinageeks). Be good rabbits!

Richard.李志 said...

Pulling through shouldn't be a problem, the States is going to have the 1st to 2nd, at worst 3rd, largest economy in the world for years. It just comes down to how the business elite/ politicians see themselves in that world and how much the multi-ethnic, open, democratic, creative and versatile aspects of US society can become the lifeblood of the country, not in terms of contributors to economic growth, but as real representatives of a valuable polity.

Re-building the middle-class will as you say Mark be important but for me if we want to look at it long-term and not just try and re-balance a recent downturn, as in reality a good chunk of that middle class will have taken a step slightly back down the ladder and will in all likelihood stay there, it becomes a question of how the US as a system of governance manages that slightly lower group and the ones underneath them. The same applies to Beijing. They have both got some work to do.

Mark said...

I agree with what you're saying here, Ricardo. I guess I'm somewhat more encouraged by what's going on, though.

Hu's visit to the US was a nice test for America. Having such a positive meeting with the leader of the country that (many Americans think) is surpassing the US is impressive. I believe the meetings were a nice step forward after a year of negative relations between the two countries.

As far as "expressing the multi-ethnic, open, democratic, creative and versatile aspects of US society," I think Obama is providing great leadership on all of these fronts.

No other developed western country would've been able to elect Obama. He and his story are uniquely American. I believe he's using his tremendous opportunity to do a lot of good for the US and the world.

Maybe I'm just a delirious Obama kool-aid drinker. I'm willing to concede that. I feel like things are recovering from the dark Bush years, though.

I agree that Washington and Beijing still have plenty of work to do. Both are facing big-time challenges. But I'm bullish on both countries being able to pass the battery of tests that are surely coming.

Richard.李志 said...

I'm with you on that, I'll keep looking for the light as long as there is at least a flicker in the darkness. There's no other way is there. As the old saying goes Mark... Peace.

Anonymous said...

I've always lived in Europe, but I'd really like to have a long trip in Asia....especially in China!
It must be a really interesting place! :)