Modern like China

If it keeps growing, it could craft many novelties. But is it overbuilding, and who bears the cost?

It is hard to escape a sense of awe in Shanghai. On one side of the Huangpu River stand the elegant buildings that remind one of Paris from the Seine. On the other side rise the tall towers of Pudong, kissing the sky and lighting it up in considerable splendour at night. Of the cities of India, only Mumbai, especially its southern parts, can possibly achieve such grandeur, if squalor can somehow be kept away. With a centuries-long history, Delhi's character is more akin to Beijing's.

Located on the eastern side of the river, Pudong was a village, at best a small town, until 20 years back. A mini New York has now arisen. An adviser to the Shanghai government tells me that New York was indeed the source of the city's new imagination.

But does that make sense? When New York was rising in the late 19th century, it could have emulated London or Paris, the leading cities of the time. It chose not to. Looking at its own geographical specificities, it redefined what is meant to be a city. It kept going up — tirelessly, imaginatively — producing over time some of the most awe-inspiring urban architecture the world has ever seen. The city also bred a new cosmopolitanism that allows so many ethnicities in the world to call New York their home. Combining architectural grandeur and behavioural capaciousness is what New York is — or came to be — all about.

In terms of consciousness, New York will be a hard act to follow. The US is a migrant nation; its relationship with migrants is not always perfect, as the Wisconsin shootings make clear. But the US is fundamentally open to the idea of turning migrants into citizens. In principle, anyone can be American.

In contrast, China's national identity comes from its indigenous Han majority. Under Mao, communism was another source of identity; that is no longer true. China is communist politically, but capitalist economically. As China grows further, it will not only have to figure out how to deal with millions of migrants from the Chinese interior, but also migrants from overseas. In part because of the way national identities get embedded in history, citizenship in Japan, Germany and South Korea, even after their massive economic transformation, remained racially sticky. Will a richer China's national identity also remain tied to its overwhelming Han majority?

If China continues to grow — less rapidly than in the last three decades, but still substantially — it will also have the potential to craft many novelties. So the question is: why emulate New York? Why not try and construct a new modernity with Chinese characteristics? Shanghai, China's premier city, will be the crucible of that thrust, if it does emerge. The city's Yu Garden architecture suggests that something beautifully and distinctively Chinese is possible. Architects, urban planners, politicians, intellectuals and entrepreneurs will have to rise to the challenge of defining a new kind of architectural grandeur and modernity.

Of course, China may not get there. It may fall into what economists call the middle-income trap. Many poor economies in the world took off, only to slow down when the supply of cheap labour ended, the technological complexity of economic tasks increased, and innovation became a necessary condition for further progress.

In the meantime, of course, China since 1980 has witnessed one of the most formidable economic transformations of human history. If one looks for comparable examples, one will have to think of the US in the late 19th century, the USSR after the Soviet revolution, Germany after its unification in 1871, Japan after 1950 and South Korea after 1965. In the end, however, all comparisons pale. None of these examples parallels China's scale. A rich China will radically redefine international politics, economy and security. Size will matter.

The evidence of China's transformation, at least on the east coast, is everywhere to see. To step out of a big city environment, I went from Shanghai to Qidong, where the main town has a mere 400,000 people. Greater Qidong — including the surrounding villages and towns — has about 1.4 million people. Though an industrial park, still only partly occupied, has been created, Qidong is best known for its exports of fishery.

Qidong is 100 km from downtown Shanghai, but two islands come in between. Over the last few years, China has built a 10-km-long tunnel through the first island and two bridges, running into 6-7 km each, on either end of the second island. The entire distance can be covered in an hour. Before the new construction, it used to take 10-12 hours. Tunnels, bridges, roads — all with six to eight lanes — take this highway from Shanghai all the way to Nanjing, a city in the province of Jiangsu, with the tiny Qidong falling in between.

I have driven in many parts of the world, especially in the US, Europe, Malaysia and South Africa, all known for their infrastructure. The Shanghai-Nanjing highway is among the most breathtaking pieces of infrastructure I have ever seen. Of course, in China today, it is one of many such. Examples abound.

But that raises two questions for a student of political economy. Is China overbuilding? And who is bearing the costs of such development?

Concerns about China's over-construction have often been aired. At $4,000-5,000 per capita, nominally one-eighth of the US, China is building American-style infrastructure, if not better. Isn't that uneconomic? Rich societies build world-class infrastructure; China is still a middle-income country. But China appears to be saying that supply does not have to follow demand. Rather, supply will create demand — investment will flow if the infrastructure is good.

On who is paying for China's transformation, one needs to go back to a classic issue of political economy. Barrington Moore, who worked on the transformation of agricultural into industrial societies, famously argued that peasants have always paid the price of development. Has that happened in China, too? Not easy to answer, this question requires considerable reflection.

The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and Social Sciences at Brown University, where he also directs the India Initiative
express@expressindia.com

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