Like an artist painting on a canvas, entire new cities, sprawling new districts, and colossal infrastructural projects are spreading across China in a development boom that’s been unprecedented in human history.
Since the beginning of the economic boom, 16,000km of high-speed rail lines have been created; the largest highway network in the world had been laid; 800 skyscrapers have been erected; and over 129m new homes have been built. China is consuming over 50 per cent of the concrete, 35 per cent of the steel, and 30 per cent of the coal supplies in the world.
But where there is a story of construction, there is a story of demolition, too. There are often entire neighbourhoods, towns, and villages standing in the path of this rampant development – and before anything can be built the land must first be cleared.
To these ends, mass land grabs, forced evictions, and wholesale demolition have become almost ubiquitous across the urbanising spheres of a rapidly changing China. At the height of the country’s development bonanza, a time when nearly every city in the country was expanding exponentially, upwards of 2,000km2, roughly the size of the island nation of Mauritius, was being expropriated across the country each year. According to research firm GK Dragonomics, China demolished 16 percent of its housing stock between 2005 and 2010.
To venture out into the urban outskirts of this country is to frolic in the relics of demolition. Here you will see once vibrant neighbourhoods, towns, and villages that have been reduced to chunks of concrete and shards of ceramic tiles.
You can look through these remains like a temporally displaced archaeologist, and see the vestiges of modern life stopped dead it its tracks – a corner of a bathroom left standing, a jagged section of wall that still has calendars and family photos stuck to it, a door laying askance upon the ground with religious ornamentation still attached. These places look as though they were run through a blender and poured out evenly over the land, rolling seas of rubble extending out to the horizon, sometimes for miles.
The sheer scale of these demolished areas is almost beyond comprehension. According to a report by Charlie Q.L. Xue et al., from the City University of Hong Kong, new towns in China typically range between 50 to 350km2, potentially larger than Inner London. These urban expansion projects in China are often the size of substantial cities in and of themselves.
Chenggong is a new city being built as a suburb of Kunming. To give you a sense of its scale, here it is, super-imposed on London. Image: Warner Brown/Google/MapFrappe.
Warner Brown, a China-based writer and urban researcher, found himself taken aback in Baotou when he set out to explore a section of the city that he was researching via satellite imagery. The area of interest was a large-scale, sprawling, traditional style neighbourhood of one story houses – but by the time he arrived the entire place was gone.
“My first response was total discombobulation,” he later stated. “I knew there was supposed to be a sprawling neighbourhood there, but instead there was dust and rubble nearly as far as I could see. It was absolutely quiet except for the occasional rumble of a lone car or motorbike passing through the desolate plain.”
In just a year’s time Baotou had evicted 5,000 people and demolished an entire neighbourhood that’s a good chunk of the size of downtown San Francisco for yet another redevelopment project.
Chenggong again, this time super-imposed on San Francisco. Image: Warner Brown/Google/MapFrappe.
In the early 2000s, the bosses of Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, sought to expand their city. What they did was almost incomprehensible outside of the context of China: they added on a 150km2 new district, a new area larger than the entire preexisting city (133km2).
“In the normal sense of development, such a large scale plan is difficult to understand,” wrote Charlie Q.L. Xue, et al. in a case study on the new district. “From the official document, the intention of planning Zhengdong was to ‘build a national central city’ and put Zhengzhou in a focal position in Central China.”
Leading key urbanisation initiatives is a prime mechanism for government officials to get promoted within the Communist Party. This is often done through the initiation of large scale new development areas, such as new towns, districts, or sub-cities – the bigger, the gaudier, the more grandiose, the better.
A shining testament to this is Li Keqiang, the main driver behind the creation of Zhengdong New District. He is now the Premier of China, number two on the Communist Party’s depth chart, trailing only President Xi Jinping himself.
“Tearing something down adds to GDP, just as building something anew,” China-based travel writer Michael Meyer explains. “And the only way to advance in the Party hierarchy is to show results, which means developing the new, not preserving the old.”
Another prime reason for China’s excessive urbanisation drive is starkly financial: local governments in China make massive amounts of money selling land. According to the World Bank, China’s cities must fend for 80 percent of their expenses while only receiving 40 percent of the country’s tax revenue, and this deficit is often made up through land sales.
And the spoils are huge. According to China’s Ministry of Finance, profits from land sales made $438bn for local governments in 2012 alone. It is not unheard of for cities to sell expropriated rural land for up to 40 times more than they pay for it.
As landsales account for up to 40 per cent of some municipalities’ total revenue, the impetus for cities to continuously push their boundaries is often a matter of solvency. In many ways, urbanisation in China has taken on the attributes of a runaway train.
And what the heck, here's Chenggong super-imposed on New York City. Image: Warner Brown/Google/MapFrappe.
For a country that can boast 4,000 years of history there is a conspicuous lack of antiquity in the cityscapes of modern China. Outside of restored and clearly designated tourist areas and a select number of famous locales, China has been rapidly sanitising itself of its architectural legacy. Even cities that have been continuously inhabited for thousands of years often only show their age with a random pagoda or an ornate neighbourhood gateway that, for some reason, wasn’t smashed to bits like everything else.
“Before I lived in the hutong [a particular type of historic district], I would argue for the preservation of historic neighbourhoods on architectural and aesthetic grounds,” Michael Meyer explains. “After living and teaching in Beijing's oldest neighbourhood, however, I came to see their value as civic. They incubate good citizenship, absorb immigrants, reward small businesses and entrepreneurs, and provide children with a safe, social environment in which to grow.”
Forced demolitions have become so common across the country that it has become a common quip on Chinese social media to transliterate the English name of the country as chai na, which means “in the process of demolishing”. Nonetheless, the country’s mainstream media rarely covers stories about even the largest mass demolitions, and this is for more reasons than the routine muzzling of censors: it’s something that’s just so common that it no longer even qualifies as news.
“There’s so much demolition,” said Yan Lianke, a well-known Chinese author who experienced this demolition first hand when his entire neighbourhood in Beijing was completely destroyed. “If all the demolitions were reported, maybe there wouldn’t be enough space in all the newspapers, television and radio stations in China.”
Wade Shepard is the author of "Ghost Cities of China".