Monthly Archives: January 2011

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