China and its Discontents

Chengdu is Construction Crazy

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China has some of the strangest development patterns in the world. The inner city is always the most desirable place to live. The migrant poor live in exurbs. Suburban tract homes are reserved as second or third homes for millionaires.

Driving through Chengdu a while ago on the way to the airport, I saw it all. There were miles of cranes. New apartment buildings not two years old that already looked shabby. The ubiquitous white tile. Ads for European style villas. Walls topped with shards of glass and cameras protected barren concrete apartments. (why?) The apparently new campus of the Southwest University for Nationalities stood alone. (the university was quite a sight – every building identical, all in red brick) On one corner of the campus, a field of yellow bok choy grew behind a small hut. Had this been the lone example in China were the local government had been unable to appropriate the land? Had eminent domain failed? The city has paved vast new roads, empty on either side, the sidewalks lined with perfectly groomed trees painted white around the base to show that they have already been trimmed. Even in this no-man’s land, special sidewalk tiles for the blind have been laid.

The development seemed to get more intense the closer we got to the airport. The temporary walls surrounding construction projects were lined with a continuously repeating poster of the airport of the future: gleaming new terminals, the roofs undulating naturalistically as the ocean waves so very far away from this inland city. The only terminal thus completed was packed with businessmen and the rising upper middle class. A few foreigners stood idly gawking at the bustle. As our plane took off, smoky haze slowly obscured my view.

I’ve seen many similar developments in Beijing – the subway lines that extend to yet-to-be-developed areas, the construction, the strange frontier where urban and rural collide. But Beijing seems almost mature and developed compared to what I saw in Chengdu. Beijing is only one side of the story; there is always somewhere else in China that is undergoing a more fantastic rebirth of construction. Nature no longer exists; it’s as if China is one big construction lot.

Written by Will

April 21st, 2011 at 8:30 am