Grey, Ugly and Congested: Why are so many Chinese cities so horrible?

Tom Miller is managing editor of the China Economic Quarterly and a former Beijing correspondent for the South China Morning Post. He has lived in China for over a decade and has recently published China’s Urban Billion: The Story Behind the Biggest Migration in Human History. This book, released in November 2012 in the ‘Asian Arguments’ series published by Zed Books (London and New York), examines urbanisation in China, its causes and consequences. Based on Miller’s own on-the-ground research and range of statistical information and academic research, China’s Urban Billion succinctly describes the major problems facing Chinese cities, and the rural areas that migrants are abandoning for them.

An excerpt from the book is published here with the author’s kind permission. Minor changes have been made in accordance with the in-house style of The China Story Project. For more on cities, see Carolyn Cartier and Luigi Tomba’s chapter, ‘Symbolic Cities and the “Cake Debate”‘, in our China Story Yearbook 2012, Red Rising, Red Eclipse.

Jeremy Goldkorn of CIW-Danwei and Kaiser Kuo interviewed Miller for the Sinica Podcast series on 18 January 2013. You can buy China’s Urban Billion via Amazon.—The Editors


Grey, Ugly and Congested: Why are so many Chinese cities so horrible?

Tom Miller

Ordos, Linyi, Zhengzhou and Kunming all have one thing in common: they are attempting to create new city districts with a pleasant living environment. This brings us to a conundrum that puzzles most outside visitors to China’s cities. Even allowing for China’s enormous population and still-moderate level of economic development, why are so many Chinese cities so horrible? And why do they all look the same?

The typical Chinese city is grey, ugly and congested. It has pointlessly wide roads and squares, and functional, boxy buildings clad in grimy concrete or dirty white tiles. The old parts of town have been demolished, save perhaps for a solitary pagoda, rebuilt and sucked dry of its historical sap. Its roads are jammed, the air filthy, the streets often unwalkable. Pavements and public entrances are blocked by private vehicles, whose owners scream abuse at cyclists and pedestrians for getting in their way. It is, in short, anything but ‘liveable’.

China’s leaders are not totally unaware of this depressing fact. In 2007, Qiu Baoxing, then Vice-minister of construction, launched a tirade against the dreary monotony of China’s urban landscape. He lambasted local officials for the ‘senseless’ destruction of the country’s architectural and cultural heritage as China pursues its headlong rush towards modernisation. Lamenting the ugly, uniform buildings casually erected on old temples and ancient streets, he put his finger on the most depressing aspect of modern Chinese urbanism. ‘It is like having a thousand cities with the same appearance’, he complained.

China’s vision of modernity is narrow, bloodless and disrespectful of the past. Government planners tear down old neighbourhoods in the name of ‘development’ and ‘civilisation’. Aside from a few exceptions, such as Beijing’s dwindling ancient alleyways and Shanghai’s colonial buildings, urban China has been almost entirely rebuilt since the 1950s. Most buildings today are less than thirty years old — typically square, six-story apartment blocks made of bricks or cheap concrete. The few historical structures that have survived are invariably fenced off from the rest of the city and repackaged as an ersatz tourist experience. Often crudely reconstructed, they lose any evocative appeal they once held.

Even some of China’s most celebrated cities are in danger of losing their soul. In Chengdu, locals wax lyrical about how their city is relaxed and liveable — but it is actually as grey, polluted, car-ridden and ugly as most other big Chinese cities. Many of its famous outdoor teahouses have moved into sterile shopping malls, and food stands are banished from the streets. Chongqing has done a better job of maintaining local character. Its side streets still buzz with stalls serving spicy noodles and other fiery local delicacies. After dusk, locals huddle on the street around cauldrons of bubbling oil, fishing out slippery cubes of tofu and spicy jellies of pig’s blood with glistening chopsticks. But Bo Xilai’s attempts to ‘civilise’ Chongqing forced roadside hotpot joints out of the commercial district, and the city is noticeably less chaotic than it once was. Soon Chongqing’s street life will be as dull as everywhere else.

Almost any Chinese official you meet can reel off a list of facts about his local city’s magnificent history. In the same breath, he will tell you how many square metres of construction were completed in the previous year. Privately, many officials are fond of comparing their modernised cities favourably with the dilapidated slums they see in that other large and ancient Asian land — India. India’s cities may be less modern than China’s, but almost any Indian city you care to name has done a far better job of preserving its historical heritage. Indian cities, like those in Europe, possess the one element that so many of China’s cities singularly lack: character.

China’s urban landscape reflects its authoritarian system of government. During the Mao years, ancient cities were torn down and reconstructed on Soviet lines. The Soviet urban planning system used bold city master plans to create cities of inhuman scale: urban design was designed to project Communist Party power. In the 1950s, Beijing’s city walls, a symbol of the hated feudal past, were demolished. The square in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace — Tiananmen — was turned into the largest urban open space in the world. And historic courtyard homes were bulldozed to create avenues 100 metres wide. Similar destruction and rebuilding occurred in cities across China, albeit on a smaller scale.

China’s cities continue to suffer from the legacy of Soviet-influenced urban planning, which focused on boosting industrial productivity and ensuring social control at the cost of all else. Local governments built vast new roads and public squares, compounds to house factories and workers, and universities to educate engineers and technicians. Cities were essentially regarded as massive factories, or ‘producer cities’, rather than as social spaces. Function was everything; there was little interest in making cities pleasant places to live. This resulted in a uniformity of urban design that still shapes how cities look today.

The influence of Soviet design is one reason why Chinese cities look so alike. City planners still view Beijing as a model, whether consciously or not. The capital’s power aesthetic is apparent in many new buildings across the country, especially those erected by local governments. Visit any Chinese city and you will find grandiose government buildings and expansive boulevards on the Beijing model. Some ordinary intersections in Chenggong, Kunming’s new satellite city, are fully 200 metres wide. The central public square in Kangbashi, in Ordos, is nearly as large as Tiananmen Square. Buildings and cities across China are routinely built and laid out on a scale that is designed to shock and awe, not to produce a comfortable living environment.

Top-down planning does have its advantages. It ensures that houses are built, bridges constructed, subways dug. Hangzhou’s master plan for 2001-2020, for example, envisages moving all industry out of the city proper, building a 171-kilometre metro system, and expanding the airport to accommodate thirty million passengers. If officials say they will build something, they invariably do. ‘The most striking difference between Chinese cities and cities almost anywhere else is that they build ahead to anticipate growth’, says Greg Clark, a London-based expert on city development who advises the municipal governments of some of the world’s largest cities. ‘In cities like São Paulo and Johannesburg, social and economic development is ahead of the physical infrastructure, which is constantly trying to catch up. In China it is the other way around.’ By building infrastructure ahead of demand, Chinese planners are able to help direct the physical growth of the city. This is one reason why so many Chinese cities appear to have a surplus of housing and infrastructure, and also why fears about ‘ghost towns’ are so often overblown.

But top-down planning also has its limits. Long-term plans can fail to anticipate the messy reality of rapid development and may lock in planning errors. One example is Beijing’s Third Ring Road, which planners thought would serve as an efficient artery circling the core of the city. With few cars on the road in the early 1990s, planners followed the already outdated American practice of merging entrance and exit lanes. But as the number of private vehicles in Beijing exploded from one million in 1997 to more than five million today, these ill-designed (not to mention dangerous) junctions became a major cause of congestion. Beijing’s Third Ring Road is consistently more jammed than other major arteries in the capital.

CHINA’S URBAN BILLION – Table of Contents
Introduction: The Biggest Migration in Human History
1. By the Sweat of Their Brows: The People Who Built Urban China
2. Passport to Purgatory: Fixing the Hukou System
3. Farm versus Factory: The Battle over Land
4. The Constitution Orgy: Paving the Fields
5. Ghost Towns in the Desert: How China Builds Its Cities
6. A Billion Wallets: What China’s New Urbanites Will and Won’t Buy
Conclusion: Civilizing the Cities


Long-term planning inevitably produces more uniformity than allowing cities to evolve organically. All municipal governments are required to produce a twenty-year master plan outlining general development goals, land-use patterns and a transport scheme. These are supposedly designed to address local needs, but one city’s master plan often looks suspiciously like another’s. Moreover, when city planners draw up designs for new districts, they must conform to certain national planning standards. The width of all new city roads, for example, must accord with regulations set in Beijing. The result is that dozens of new city districts all look the same.

Perhaps most damaging, China’s cities often seem to be playthings for local officials rather than places for people to live. Power is concentrated in the hands of a few officials who are rewarded for boosting economic growth rather than providing public goods. Officials have a clear incentive to push for more development, however unneeded or badly planned, yet little incentive to listen to the concerns of residents. The result is unhealthy competition between cities, over-investment and endless construction: more roads, new industrial parks, unnecessary airports, bigger government offices. Every city aspires to be a mini-Beijing, rather than catering to local needs.

This problem is exacerbated by China’s system of government, which allows almost no public debate about how cities should develop. Residents are rarely consulted during the planning process for large development projects. Public monitoring only occurs once construction has started, or even after it has finished, by which time it is too late to turn back. ‘The facts only emerge through disclosure by the mass media or public outcry’, says Xiaoyan Chen, a former urban planner at the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design. ‘By then, negative social impact and economic loss are hard to alter.’

Local governments routinely spend grotesque sums on municipal vanity projects, often employing teams of international planners, architects and consultants. Competition with other cities means that if one city builds a swanky theatre or museum, theme park or Ferris wheel, other cities will want one too. Every major Chinese city today has its marquee, foreign-designed building — from Guangzhou’s much-admired Opera House to the striking new headquarters of China Central Television in Beijing. When smaller cities and districts turn to supposedly superior international planners the results can be positive — but they can also encourage grand designs and gimmicky projects that do more to fan officials’ egos than serve local people.

Nonetheless, after half a century of soul-sapping utilitarianism, the pursuit of design is cheering in itself. The problem is that China’s striking new buildings typically find themselves drowning in a sea of architectural dross. In a country that must house millions of new residents every year, cities and developers are under enormous pressure to build millions of apartments as quickly and cheaply as the can. City planners concentrate on nailing down a land-use plan, while developers roll out the same cookie-cutter apartments across the country. Aesthetic considerations are not high on the list of priorities, especially in a country where many people have become inured to unremitting ugliness.

As China becomes wealthier and people begin to demand better, urban design will improve. For the moment, however, most urban residents are far more concerned about price and comfort than aesthetics. The reality is that the urban landscape of a country that must house one billion people is never going to be beautiful.