Mega-City Semantics in the Pearl River Delta

Dongguan Housing. Photo by livinginchina4now.

Several people have called my attention to a recent article from The Telegraph about China ‘creating the largest mega-city in the world with 42 million people‘. The title of the piece is a bit misleading as the government is not planning a new city per se, but rather combining a group of nearby cities into one huge ‘mega-city’. The targeted group of cities make up the Pearl River Delta region in China’s southern Guangdong Province.

Home to China’s famous first tier cities Guangzhou and Shenzhen, the Pearl River Delta is already one of the most populated places on earth. It is the manufacturing powerhouse of the country, thanks in large part to it being the first economically liberalized region after Reform and Opening Up. As a result of this, the Pearl River Delta has absorbed ambitious migrants from all over China for  the better part of three decades.

In addition to Guangzhou and Shenzhen, the proposal calls for integrating smaller (albeit still in the millions population-wise) cities of Donggaun, Foshan, Huizhou, Zhaoqing, Jiangmen, Zhongshan and Zhuhai into one. Upon first reading, the proposal doesn’t make much sense as the Pearl River Delta region has done an excellent job already of linking transportation and  infrastructure among its different cities- so why the need to amalgamate into one city?

Yet the intention of the integration becomes clear when Ma Xiangming, the chief planner at the Guangdong Rural and Urban Planning Institute, articulates that:

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.

This is the key. The Chinese government still enforces the hukou household registration system for its citizens, making it difficult for people who move from one city to another to use the services offered by their new city. Restrictions for migrants to new cities are not only limited to healthcare and educational services, but to investment opportunities as well such as starting a business or purchasing a new home.

By amalgamating the cities of the Pearl River Delta into one ‘mega-city’, this gets rid of the bureaucratic restrictions of the hukou registration. Now, the migrants who have left their native homes and settled in the Pearl River Delta can move more freely around the region. This is much more than semantics- it is a huge step forward in the liberalization of movement and opportunity for its citizens. It is unbelievable that The Guardian piece makes no mention of the significance of this development.

The Telegraph: China to Create Largest Mega City in the World


Now there are reports that the story of the Pearl River Delta mega-city is false. According to an AFP report, China denies plan to create world’s biggest city.

The error made by the original Telegraph article is most likely due to a misunderstanding by the reporters. As I mentioned above, the title was highly misleading- nothing more than a sensational headline designed to get reader attention. And the consultants quoted in the original article are city planners- professionals whose job it is to make recommendations on how to go about development- not the final decision makers who approve projects.

The fact that the Pearl River Delta is not going to become one ‘mega-city’ doesn’t necessarily take away from the interest in integrating the region, making it  a place where services are shared and the ease of mobility between its cities is increased.

Kashgar: New SEZ in Xinjiang

Photo courtesy of Nicolas Marino

One rising city to be on the look out for in the next decade of China development is little-known Kashgar in the country’s western Xinjiang Autonomous Region. At just under a half a million people, Kashgar (in Chinese known as ?? or ka shi) sits at the far western part of China near the borders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, making it a strategic gateway to Central Asia.

As a matter of fact, Kashgar has more in common culturally with its post-Soviet neighbors to the west than is does with what is historically thought of as China. Once an important outpost on the Northern Silk Road, today the city is dominated by the Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic minority of Turkic origin.

This might not be the case for much longer.

The Chinese Central Government in May of last year designated Kashgar as a new ‘Special Economic Zone’ (SEZ), the  country’s first in more than 15 years. The Special Economic Zones of China are cities that have more liberal policies towards trade and investment than the rest of the country. Shenzhen, China’s most famous SEZ, has proved to be an enormous success.

Kashgar is worlds away from Shenzhen though. Whereas the latter benefited hugely from its proximity to Hong Kong and access to the sea, the former is in an almost completely opposite geographic situation: landlocked and separated from the prosperous eastern seaboard by the vast Taklamakan Desert.

Another challenge facing Kashgar is the possibility of ethnic tensions between the local Uyghurs and the incoming Han majority. With the designation of the city as an SEZ, investment and businesses from the east will be flooding the city inevitably posing a threat to the preservation of the local culture.

On a more positive note, with Kashgar becoming an SEZ, there is the potential for the city to revisit its once prominent position as a strategic trading point between East and Central Asia. From a foreign policy point of view, it is also encouraging that Beijing is taking interest in Central Asia, a troubled region that could use a bit of economic reform to help lift its people up.

For more information about Kashgar’s significance as a new SEZ, I recommend an excellent September 2010 piece from Newsweek that examines the prospects for this remote city.

Newsweek: A New Shenzhen

China a Boon for American Architects

The China World Trade Center in Beijing, Designed by American Architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

The New York Times finally caught up to what savvy architecture firms in the U.S. have known for at least the past decade: there is a lot of work to be had in China.

Now it seems that smaller firms are getting in on the action as well, and that in many cases Chinese clients are turning out to be  more adventurous in accepting new design ideas:

These firms are grateful for the commissions, and not only for the obvious reason — that the Chinese work has helped fill the void left by a listless American economy. More intriguing, the architects say, is that Chinese developers and even government agencies are proving to be better clients than their American counterparts. They say the Chinese are more ambitious, more adventurous and even more willing to spend the money necessary to realize the designs. This thrills the architects, who have artistic undercurrents that often struggle to find an outlet.”

This is certainly true to a large extent, yet the NYT piece glosses over some of the difficulties U.S. architecture offices face when seeking work in China, especially if they do not already have a presence in the country or some other kind of local connection. Sure enough, just last year (and previously mentioned on this blog), some American architects found themselves caught up in scams related to bogus projects in China, perhaps blinded by the hype promoting the country as an architectural free-for-all.

With that being said, the booming China market has been a savior for many architecture firms in the U.S., especially for more established  and larger companies like Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and Kohn Pedersen Fox, who have both done some their best work here.

For smaller companies looking to enter the China market, there is a calculated risk involved, yet as the NYT article articulates, the rewards can potentially be enormous.

New York Times: Architects Find Their Dream Client, in China

Rem Koolhaas’s OMA Relocates Asia Headquarters to Hong Kong

Construction Progress on the OMA-designed Shenzhen Stock Exchange. Photo by Shayani Fernando.

After completing what is arguably China’s most high-profile (and sometimes controversial) new building of the past decade, Beijing’s CCTV Building, Rem Koolhaas and his architecture firm, OMA, have decided to move their Asia HQ to Hong Kong.

The South China Morning Post has the details:

Architectural Firm OMA Moves Asian HQ From Beijing to Hong Kong

Olga Wong and Vivienne Chow, January 04, 2011

The Dutch architectural firm OMA has moved its Asian headquarters from Beijing to Hong Kong, saying the harbour city has more of the talented professionals it needs to handle coming Asian projects.

The renowned firm denied the move had anything to do with controversy over the CCTV “trouser legs” building in Beijing, or the furor over a passage in a book written by OMA that likened the design of the tower and the 30-storey building beside it to female and male genitalia.

Many people did not like the idea that OMA founder Rem Koolhaas may have pulled off a pornographic joke at the country’s expense.

David Gianotten, who started the Hong Kong office and is now a partner of the company, said the company had not suffered a loss of business in Beijing due to the controversy.

“We will still keep the Beijing office,” he said. “We just want a stronger presence in Asia and Hong Kong provides a convenient platform.

“We do receive positive comments on the CCTV design.”

The company’s architectural team in Hong Kong has grown to 45, up from 12 at the office’s opening in 2009, when the firm entered the final round of the design competition for the West Kowloon arts hub.

Now the company is planning to expand to 60 staff in Hong Kong, making it the second-largest branch after its headquarters in Rotterdam. To get there, the company will recruit more local professionals, including fresh graduates.

“It’s a change of strategy. We don’t aim for the China market only, but the whole of Asia,” Gianotten said.

“Hong Kong by far is the most convenient platform for hiring both mainland and international talent. It provides a good mix.”

While mainland architects were imaginative and those from Taiwan were pragmatic, Gianotten said, Hong Kong professionals were more rounded, adept not only in design, but also in engineering and technical skills.

The company plans to keep the ratio of Chinese staff at 60 per cent and to groom young graduates.

“We don’t want to be seen as a company from overseas,” Gianotten said. “It’s important to establish an office that crosses cultures and really knows and understands the local context.”

The company would soon start projects in Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam and would also set up an office in Middle East.

Arts and design industry insiders said OMA’s retreat from the mainland was not surprising, as many international firms had been experiencing trouble operating businesses there.

“There’s a huge cultural difference,” one industry veteran said. “The mode of business operation in China is very different from where these companies came from. And they have to look up to the mainland government officials, which is certainly not what they are used to.”

In August 2009, mainland media reported that a book written five years earlier by OMA had included an off-colour description of the CCTV building. Koolhaas may have just been having some fun. At other times, he has spoken seriously about the tower’s intent to “generate a space and to define a space” for the state broadcaster.

It’s unlikely that an architect like Koolhaas, who thrives among contradiction and chaos, would decide to relocate to Hong Kong due to controversy over the implied iconography of the CCTV Building. Rather, the decision is probably based more on the city’s geographic centrality to the rest of Asia, where OMA rightly sees a growth market for its future projects.

Beijing Roads Headed Toward Maximum Capacity

2,000 New Cars Hit Beijing Streets Everyday

As the government and cultural center of the country, Beijing is a worthy capital of a rising China. The city’s infectious aspirations have led it to become a prime destination for ambitious Chinese from all parts of the country (and foreigners from all parts of the world). Unfortunately, this has not been without consequences to the city’s transportation network.

The massive growth of Beijing has put undue strain on the city’s roads. And though there has been a proliferation of new roads built in and around the city, the construction has not kept pace with the amount of new car owners.

Beijing’s traffic problem is a well-documented phenomenon in the international press. Most recently, the New York Times laid out the city’s struggles in a piece called ‘Multiplying Drivers Run over Beijing Traffic Plan‘.

The pull of car ownership is very strong for China’s exploding middle class. The promise of access to the ultimate form of personal mobility means that Chinese citizens are not going to see an end to their desire for purchasing new cars.

Car companies are elated. Nowhere but in China have I seen the variety of car makes on the road: manufacturers from the U.S., Japan, South Korea, Germany, France, Italy, and the U.K. are all represented. And of course let’s not forget China’s domestic brands.

With consumer demand for cars only increasing and automakers more that happy to satisfy this demand, the Chinese government is left to deal with the effects of evermore cars flooding the roads. So far the nonstop road construction and subway expansion has done little to abate the traffic problem.

So what to do next? Regulate.

And that is what Beijing’s government has done. Last month the Beijing municipal government said it would limit new car registration in the city to 240,000 in 2011, about 1/3 the amount of the previous year! How’s that for top-down planning?

Beijing’s government has also implemented various restrictions on driving within the city center on certain days during rush hour times. Outside the city center (and around the entire country), tolls are in place to help maintain new highways and expressways. This is in contrast to the United States, where traffic cures such as congestion pricing and toll roads are still being argued about after years of debate.

One thing is for sure, no amount of government restriction is going to put a stop to the Chinese newly discovered love affair with the personal automobile.

The New York Times: Multiplying Drivers Run Over Beijing Traffic Plan

The Wall Street Journal: Beijing Cracks Down on Car Buyers

China High-Speed Rail Tracks In Trouble?

Photo by Matthew Felix Sun

The South China Morning Post has a worrying article about rail track construction quality for China’s new high-speed train network. The piece posits that the fast pace at which the system is being built means that quality is being sacrificed. Here is a reproduction of the article below:

Judgement Day Fears for High-Speed Rail Tracks

Stephen Chen, January 10, 2011

Construction of the mainland’s massive high-speed rail network is in danger of becoming a victim of its own success.

The breakneck speed at which track is being laid means engineers are likely to have to sacrifice quality for quantity on the lines’ foundations which could ultimately halve their lifespan.

The problem lies in the use of high-quality fly ash, a fine powder chemically identical to volcanic ash, collected from the chimneys of coal-fired power plants. When mixed with cement and gravel, it can give the tracks’ concrete base a lifespan of 100 years.

According to a study by the First Survey and Design Institute of China Railways in 2008, coal-fired power plants on the mainland could produce enough high-quality fly ash for the construction of 100 kilometres of high-speed railway tracks a year.

But more than 1,500 kilometres of track have been laid annually for the past five years. This year 4,500 kilometres of track will be laid with the completion of the world’s longest high-speed railway line, between Beijing and Shanghai. Fly ash required for that 1,318-kilometre line would be more than that produced by all the coal-fired power plants in the world.

Enter low-quality fly ash.

Professor Wang Lan , lead scientist at the Cement and New Building Materials Research Institute under the China Building Materials Academy, said that given poor quality control on the mainland, the use of low-quality fly ash, and other low-grade construction materials, was “almost inevitable” in high-speed railway construction.

And that could have fatal consequences, Wang said. With a catalytic function almost opposite to that of good fly ash, the bad fly ash could significantly weaken railway line foundations and shorten a railway’s lifespan by about half. That would mean China’s high-speed rail tracks would last only 50 years.

But Zhu Ming – a researcher at Southwest Jiaotoing University’s School of Civil Engineering who experimented with fly ash at a Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway construction site last year – was even more pessimistic.

The use of low-quality fly ash would threaten the safety of rail passengers and “judgment day” might come sooner than expected, Zhu said.

“Quality problems with Chinese high-speed railways will arise in five years,” he said. “I’m not talking about small problems, but big problems. Small problems such as occasional cracks and slips that delay trains for hours have already occurred. Big problems that will postpone an entire line for days, if not weeks, will come soon.

“When that happens, the miracle of Chinese high-speed rail will be reduced to dust.”

The 2008 study conducted by Yin Yaxiong , senior engineer at the First Survey and Design Institute of China Railways, concluded that though China produced more than 100 million tonnes of fly ash a year, only a small fraction of it would meet the quality requirements for high-speed rail construction.

In high-quality fly ash, the presence of unburnt carbon is extremely low. Coal-fired power plants with large, advanced furnaces are the main producers, but on the mainland, especially in less developed provinces, there are few such power plants.

Most fly ash on the market comes from small or medium-sized plants whose furnaces cannot achieve full combustion, therefore producing low-grade fly ash with higher levels of carbon.

The unburnt carbon in fly ash seizes water molecules. Cement needs lots of water for the chemical reaction that makes it set and harden. Wang said that the bad fly ash competed with cement for water and messed up the reaction.

“Without an adequate … reaction, high-speed rail is lying not on a concrete foundation, but sand,” he said.

Reports about the widespread use of low-quality fly ash in high-speed railway construction began surfacing in mainland newspapers in 2007. Undercover journalists followed fly ash convoys from power plants to railway construction sites in various provinces. Their reports generated a public outcry, prompting the Ministry of Railways to team up with the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department in ordering newspapers to kill all reports about low-quality fly ash related to high-speed railways. Some journalists received threats. Some lost their jobs.

Since the 1950s, Chinese civil engineers have tried to use fly ash in building construction, and the dangers of low-quality fly ash are widely known.

In a bid to ensure that only high-quality fly ash is used, the Ministry of Railways has set up testing laboratories at major construction sites. But fly ash suppliers sidestep the testing process, according to a Beijing-based journalist who spent three months investigating them during construction of the Guiyang to Guangzhou high-speed railway line last year. He requested anonymity.

Arriving at a railway construction site on the Guizhou-Guangxi border with a convoy of trucks carrying low-quality fly ash produced by a small coal-fired plant, the journalist said he saw the trucks drive directly to a cement mixing facility and unload straight into it.

“No sampling, no testing and no questions asked,” the journalist said.

When that was completed, the convoy leader entered a building nearby with a bag of fly ash that he had in his pocket.

In the temporary building was a small laboratory and in the bag was high-quality fly ash. The man handed the laboratory clerk the bag for sampling – with an envelope containing a bribe – usually 10 to 20 per cent of the fly ash price, the journalist said.

Zhang Shuguan , deputy chief engineer for the Ministry of Railways, told Xinhua last month that the speeds on high-speed railways would reach 500km/h by 2050.

But Zhu said the average speed of trains on Chinese high-speed railways would probably decrease.

The system must endure the daily, if not hourly, grinding and twisting of heavily built passenger trains travelling at 350km/h, Zhu said.

Such operations would significantly speed up ageing of the railways. Some people had already urged that operations be slowed down to save the lines.

“We will need luck to maintain 250km/h for long.” he said.

Let’s hope the warnings by the engineers and materials scientists quoted in the article are taken into account by the authorities in charge of building the new rail lines. While corruption is still rampant in many areas of business dealings in China, the high-profile nature of the country’s high-speed rail network means that shortcomings in construction quality are unacceptable.

Defining Western Bias

Architecture critic Guy Horton has an excellent essay on ArchDaily about redefining the way we judge and evaluate Chinese urban development.

China’s unique history and special set of circumstances at this time means that Western methods of analyzing urban issues are not sufficient for understanding the entire scope of Chinese development. Horton summarizes his point in the conclusion:

“How the discipline of architecture filters and distorts the non-west through “theory” and narratives of development plays into the West’s textual tradition of Orientalism. The architectural discourse on China, for example, is a glaring example of the continuation of old modes of coming to terms with the Other. In order for architecture to grasp China’s present it must shift its narratives away from tendencies which “traditionalize” China’s unique modernity.”

Horton’s piece may require multiple readings before his point is fully digested, yet the message is a timely reminder of the need for cultural relativism, even when applied to something as seemingly universal  as modern forms of architecture.

In fact, the China Urban Development Blog strives to promote the same method evaluating Chinese urban development articulated by Horton. I appreciate his effort to see beyond tired and biased characterizations.

ArchDaily: Defining China