Chinese urban transformation: A tale of six cities, by Chen Yuanzhi, Alan Hudson and He Lisheng

Journal of Urban Affairs > Book Review > Chinese urban transformation: A tale of six cities, by Chen Yuanzhi, Alan Hudson and He Lisheng

Eric Petersen (2021) Chinese urban transformation: A tale of six cities, by Chen Yuanzhi, Alan Hudson and He Lisheng, Journal of Urban Affairs, 43:6, 910-912, DOI: 10.1080/07352166.2020.1847880

Chinese Urban Transformation: A Tale of Six Cities is focused on governmental responses in resolving two issues that might impede future economic growth: (1) resource constraints, negative environmental impacts, and general ecological threats and (2) a variety of social conflicts. According to the introduction, the national government stresses the importance of addressing these issues; there is then latitude given at lower levels of government to implement these policies in ways that reflect the local context. The case studies have been selected to explore different pathways that local governments have taken to meet these admittedly ambitious goals.

The book can be broken into three sections: chapters 1–5 present a very compressed history of key trends in Chinese urbanization and national government policy in directing urban growth; Chapter 6 focuses on an “urban transformation” score that the authors have derived and their scores for 289 Chinese cities; and chapters 7–12 comprise six brief urban case studies and a short conclusion. While the first sections are useful for a reader coming to these case studies with absolutely no background in Chinese urban policy, it is a missed opportunity that these chapters, and indeed Chapter 6, do not do a better job of setting the stage for the six case studies. Although it is clear that the case studies were chosen to demonstrate different development paths (e.g., “green” development, maximizing the use of the waterfront, building up a science park) it is not clear why these particular six were chosen. This is particularly true of Hefei which, as the text of Chapter 12 admits, is a little-known city not appearing in any of the top-10 charts in Chapter 6. Conversely, Beijing, which consistently tops the charts in Chapter 6, does not merit a case study chapter.

While the cities selected as case studies were chosen in order to highlight different governmental policies (such as working toward global city status or pursuing a low-carbon economy), the case studies would have been stronger if they had followed a common template. There is a somewhat haphazard feel to the case studies, as if the authors grabbed the charts and occasional maps that were available without attempting to standardize them. Many of the case studies report confidently on what the growth pattern will be in 2020 or even 2035 (perhaps somewhat easier to do in a command economy), but at the same time there are historic tables reproduced in the book (such as the growth plan of Nanchang in Chapter 8 originally released in 2006) where there is no attempt to check if the 2010 or 2015 targets were actually met. Tracking the growth (in population and land area) from 1960 to 2015 and then, if desired, the projected growth out to 2025 or 2030 across all six case studies would have strengthened the overall book. Several, but not all, of the case studies report on the GDP growth in the urbanized area, as well as high-level statistics on what proportion of industry was in the primary, secondary, or tertiary industrial sectors. If these statistics were available and applied to each case study, it would have made comparisons much easier and allowed the authors more scope to assess the success of different industrial strategies. In fact, it appears that the China Statistical Yearbook does have a raw count of all businesses by sector for each region of China (Table 1–6), though this does not take into account firm size or earnings of these businesses, which is more useful than a simple count of businesses (National Bureau of Statistics of China, 2020).

One curious decision taken in Chapter 6 becomes a significant shortcoming. The authors engage in a lengthy discussion of the factor analysis behind their “Urban Transformation and Upgrading Capacity” metric. This metric ultimately incorporates 28 variables, such as GDP growth rate, [government] expenditure % of education, employment rate, air quality metrics, and so forth. These variables are ones available at the region level from the China Statistical Yearbook. Then the authors produce a nine-page table showing the 2013, 2014, and 2015 values of “Urban Transformation and Upgrading Capacity” for 289 Chinese cities. As one would expect, the values do not change dramatically in three years’ time. Even when they do change, without knowing more about the changes in the underlying variables, one cannot assess whether a city moves up in the “rankings” because of improved productivity or better environmental conditions. Looking at the on-line availability of Chinese statistics, it appears that data is available going back to 1999 (National Bureau of Statistics of China, 2000), though presumably some variables are not available over the entire period, particularly at the regional level. Nonetheless, it should be possible to identify those variables that are available for a time-series analysis, and then produce a table with 2000, 2005, 2010, and 2015 data in order to show meaningful trends. While an updated “Urban Transformation and Upgrading Capacity” score could be included, most urban planners and researchers would prefer having at least some of the raw data on per capita GDP and other direct measures (rather than a factor score) even if this meant restricting the table (or set of tables) to the top 50 or even 25 cities. Presumably the case studies could then be drawn from the top cities (or at least establish a very strong justification for including a more obscure city such as Hefei), and the case studies could link back to these tables showing how they performed relative to all top-performing Chinese cities.

A map to help the reader locate the top Chinese cities from Chapter 6, along with all six case study cities, would have been quite useful, as well as more focused maps indicating the cluster of cities in the Pearl River Delta and other megalopolises. For a book that appears aimed at planners, there are surprisingly few maps in the book, with only a map showing the province of Chengdu in Chapter 11 and then a series of maps helping the reader locate Hefei in Chapter 12 (though unfortunately not labeled in English).

The target audience for this book is unclear, making it challenging to assess whether it succeeds on its own terms. One page in, there is a notice that the book has been sponsored by the Chinese Fund for the Humanities and Social Sciences and that two of the three authors are members of the Chinese Executive Leadership Academy Pudong (CELAP), which trains senior government leaders and top business executives. However, the level of technical detail in the book, particularly in Chapter 6, suggests that urban planners are the real audience for the book, rather than politicians or business leaders. While not worth dwelling upon at great length, as one would expect from a book sponsored by the Chinese Fund for the Humanities and Social Sciences, this book does not engage in any meaningful critique of Chinese urban policy. The case studies do not provide sufficient justification for the assertion that the Chinese development paradigm has shifted to be “people-centred” (p. 137) or that the transformed cities will deliver on “environmental protection, economic efficiency, and social justice” as claimed in the concluding chapter (p. 138). Without a sense that environmental problems or social conflicts have actually been addressed in a meaningful manner, it makes little sense to probe whether any particular pathway taken by one of the case study cities is a promising one to follow. In that sense, Chinese Urban Transformation did not deliver on its stated goals.



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