A little over a year ago, I was in Beijing during an extreme toxic event. After hacking in the leaden air for days, I was forced into bed, gasping for breath and gulping down antibiotics and herbal elixirs. Although the weather and the landscape aggravated the problem, nobody—not even the Party—could deny that the polluting particles were being disgorged by local factories and power plants and the cars choking the Fourth Ring Road. This was an anthropogenic nightmare, a symptom of planetary disaster and a byproduct of the headlong development in China that has both lifted hundreds of millions from poverty and fouled their new nests.
China has a history of such nightmares, the consequences of headlong transformations. The Japanese invasion, the civil war, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution spread death, destruction and deformation on an industrial scale. Modern China fascinates for the intensity of its becoming, for its role as a secondhand hothouse for modernity, and for the weirdly thick but emblematically hybrid character of where it has arrived. To think about China is to be immersed in the “How Chinese is it?” debate, a longstanding turbulence that has coughed up formulations like “socialism with Chinese characteristics” or “one country, two systems.” Clearly, the genetic engineering of these splicings has produced its fair share of freaks.
For an urbanist like myself, China is by far the most overwhelming game in town. In the span of a few decades, the country’s population has gone from being predominantly rural to majority urban. The Chinese government has announced its intention to relocate 250 million people from the country to the city in the next eleven years. China is on track to build the equivalent of the entire urban housing stock of the United States in the next decade, and the vast movement of its people from farms to towns is the largest mass migration in history. Pick your statistic: the amount of cement poured and the number of cranes in use in China approaches half the planetary total. China leads the world in net greenhouse emissions. The Chinese buy more cars annually than people in any other country. The “illegal” population of its cities is nearly as great as the population of the United States. Just as the Peloponnesian War was for Thucydides, the subject of China’s development is irresistible because it is the biggest thing that’s ever happened.
But coming to terms with the subject is tough. At once a miracle and a disaster, the urbanization of China and the ubiquitous infusion of “Western” forms and mores surely amounts to another Cultural Revolution, with impacts at least as broad and distorting as the first, if less savagely lethal. And like Mao’s weird farrago of catharsis and hysteria, it begs the question of the alien gaze. A critical industry has arisen (both within the country and without) that seeks to explain or rationalize its “modernization” while avoiding freighted colonizing categories. For example, China is awash in—choose your nuance—appropriations, simulacra, copies, fakes or “sinicizations.” The streets are lined with shops selling knockoffs of running shoes, designer clothes and electronics for which most of the originals are also produced in China. Armani becomes Armany. Poof!
Across the country, the architectural landscape abounds with Disney-esque pastiche—ersatz White Houses, Versailles palaces, Eiffel Towers, Venetian canals and Chrysler Buildings—not to mention more preening “starchitecture” than the Persian Gulf. Perhaps most legendary among those with a tooth for such spectacle are the nine new towns surrounding Shanghai, each of them planned to house tens to hundreds of thousands of people and meant to be a “complete” version of a Dutch, German, Italian or other European city. Best known is Thames Town with its red pillar postboxes and telephone booths, its pubs, beefeater-style security personnel and, especially, its preternaturally reproduced little chapel (modeled on Christ Church in Clifton Down, Bristol, and the scene of countless photos of brides in white and grooms in cutaways), as well as a fish-and-chips shop based on one in Lyme Regis. Some days, cruising the mall-clotted downtowns, it looks like the entire national aesthetic was bought from the outer galaxies of basic cable: call now and we’ll double the offer!