Wednesday, November 30, 2005

China's Cities: A Living Hell?

Given the recent tragedy in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province where, for five days, the city's water supply has been shut off due to an upstream toxic chemical spill, it might be an important time to point people in the direction of two recent excellent articles on China, environmentalism, and urbanism.

As a result of a decade and a half of extensive industrial growth, China's cities are among the most polluted in the world. The lack of strong enforcement of environmental protection, massive urban migration, and the centrality of polluting industries to the country's economic growth have all merged to create a pretty dire situation in many of the country's cities.

Bill McKibben, in the December 2005 issue of Harper's, has an excellent article detailing his recent trip to some of the industrial areas of the country. Download his article here (it's a very large .pdf file).

Also worth reading is a lengthy article on China's economy by Robert Skidelsky in the Dec. 1 issue of the New York Review of Books. Among the books he addresses is John Friedmann's China's Urban Transition.

China's balance of new prosperity and dire poverty is having varied and contradictory manifestations with regard to urban space. Home of the world's largest mall and cities of 4 million people with a water supply contaminated by Benzene, it certainly is rife with competing tendencies.

Of course, European and US cities of the nineteenth century exhibited these same contradictions in urban space. One of the ways in which these contradictions were "resolved" (if one argues that they are, indeed, resolved) has been through both the expansion of democratic accountability and the more recent offshoring of pollutive industries. Given China's totalitarian regime and the lack of options for offshoring industries--China is, more or less, the global "bottom of the barrel" in terms of labor costs--it seems that the China will likely have a different pattern of negotiating these contradictions.