When I first visited China 30 years ago, Beijing and Shanghai did not seem big to me. I was born in London, England, so I was used to life in a large city. To my eyes, Beijing was a little crowded, but then so was London. Shanghai had lots of tall buildings but, again, so did London. I saw many things that surprised me on my first ever trip outside Europe – but the scale of Chinese cities was not one of them.
But things have changed in the last 30 years. While London has grown a little, and now has a population of around 8.5 million, Beijing and Shanghai have become megacities, nearly three times that size. The transformation of Guangzhou is even more astonishing. When I was there in 1989, Guangzhou was smaller than my home city – today it has grown and merged with other cities along the Pearl River Delta to form the most populous conurbation in the world. With nearly 50 million people living here, it makes London seem like a mere village.
This massive growth in China's cities has been fuelled by one of the most revolutionary forces in the world today: migration. There are now more migrants in China than ever before. According to the National Bureau of Statistics of China, last year more than 286 million people left their homes to find work elsewhere. Many of these migrants came to the city for temporary work, but many more came to stay. They will join other, recent waves of migrants, who together have created one of the most dramatic demographic transformations in history. When I first came to China in 1989, only around a quarter of the population lived in cities; today that figure is more than 58 per cent.
No place, no matter how well-organised, can possibly keep up with such large and sudden influxes of people. The rapid growth of Chinese cities has caused all kinds of problems, including environmental pollution, traffic congestion and terribly overcrowded housing. Public services have sometimes struggled to keep up with demand. Resentment and prejudice towards migrants has also been growing.
This is not a new story. It has happened before in many countries, including my own. By looking at the history of what happened elsewhere, perhaps it is possible to predict how the situation in China is likely to develop in future – and also to avoid some of the mistakes that other countries have made.
Britain was probably the first country to experience rapid industrialisation and urbanisation. In the 19th century, during the British industrial revolution, the number of people living in London grew six-fold, making it for a time the largest city in the world. Other cities grew even faster. Workers flocked to the cotton-mills of Manchester, the shipyards of Newcastle and the factories of Birmingham, expanding the population in each of these cities eight-fold. In 1800, less than 20 per cent of British people lived in cities, but by 1900 that figure had grown to more than 67 per cent.
As in China today, urbanisation came at a cost. London became infamous for its slums and its smog: one need only read the novels of Charles Dickens to understand how filthy and overcrowded life in English cities was at this time. The arrival of so many migrants put an unprecedented burden on public services. London’s transport system, for example, was so paralysed by congestion that the city authorities resorted to an extraordinary measure for the time: they built the world's first underground railway. The sewerage system was also stretched beyond its limits. By the 1850s, so much effluent was flowing into the River Thames that the government was forced to pour huge quantities of chloride of lime into the river to ease the stench. The summer of 1858 was particularly bad: it has gone down in British history books as the year of the “Great Stink”.
American cities followed a similar pattern towards the end of the nineteenth century. The growth of New York, for example, was even more dramatic than that of London: it doubled in size in just ten years during the 1890s. Once again, this caused huge social and environmental problems. New York's slum district was so notorious that it won the nickname “Hell's Kitchen” (on the grounds that it if conditions in “Hell” were bad, then “Hell's Kitchen” must be even more unbearable). Today, New York's Tenement Museum bears witness to the kind of conditions suffered by immigrants to the city at this time. As in London, new technologies had to be invented to cope with traffic congestion: in the 1920s, New York developed the world's first interconnected traffic light systems. New schools were built at a frantic rate, sometimes with playgrounds on their roofs, because of a lack of space. Nevertheless, according to the Board of Education's annual report in 1896, “The unprecedented growth of the city, together with unexpected movements of population, rendered it impossible to keep pace with demand.”
All of the problems encountered by British and American cities during this time are early examples of what we now call “Big City Disease”: the toxic combination of environmental pollution, overcrowding and struggling public services. City administrators soon learned that the only answer to these problems was redevelopment. After 1945, the British authorities embarked on a massive redevelopment campaign, much as the Chinese authorities have in recent years. Whole districts of London, Manchester and Birmingham were bulldozed and rebuilt. Slums were cleared away. New suburbs, and whole new towns were built outside the major cities, with modern housing and modern facilities. The bomb damage caused during the Second World War was the perfect opportunity not only to replace what had been destroyed, but to re-plan British cities as if from scratch. American cities, which were not damaged during the war, did not have this incentive. Nevertheless, they too followed a similar path of re-design and re-building.
However, this massive redevelopment also caused problems. The clearance of slums broke up communities that had lived together for generations. The new towns and suburbs lacked history, identity and personality. Those who moved into new, spacious, healthy housing often felt strangely depressed, and a new sense of alienation grew up, known as “new town blues”. While redevelopment could cure “Big City Disease”, it seemed to be creating a new problem in its place – not a disease of the body, but one of the soul.
I myself have witnessed this, in a small way. I have always thought that it is important to share stories and memories about my community with my children. I like to show them the parks where I once played, the school I attended, and the cafés and restaurants that I used to frequent with their mother when we were younger: these places are a part of our family history. But what happens when the parks and the schools and the restaurants are all gone, swallowed up in a tide of redevelopment? What happens when the community in which you grew up is flooded with newcomers with different stories and memories? This has happened in the Docklands area of London, which was redeveloped in the 1980s and is now unrecognisable from the place I knew as a child. It is difficult to feel a sense of belonging in a city that changes so rapidly.
The final development that has taken place in western cities is one of globalisation. Migrants still flock to London and Paris and New York; however, nowadays they are not domestic migrants, but immigrants from other countries. In Europe, this trend started after 1945 when foreign workers travelled from different parts of Europe's crumbling empires to help rebuild Europe's war-torn economies. Gradually, however, this developed in a more general movement from the impoverished southern countries to the industrialised countries of the north.
This has had a profound effect on the cities of Europe, Australasia and North America. The statistics speak for themselves. Seventy years ago, only about 10 per cent of the Australian population had been born overseas, and the vast majority of those immigrants were English-speaking. By 2015, this proportion had soared to more than 28 per cent, with the biggest growth coming from Asian immigrants.
Similar proportions of immigrants can now also be found in many countries in Europe. According to the OECD, by 2013 more than 28 per cent of the Swiss population had also been born elsewhere. In the Netherlands, the foreign-born population is only 11.6 per cent, in France it is 12 per cent, in Germany almost 13 per cent and in Austria approaching 17 per cent. But these figures do not take into account the children and grandchildren of immigrants who first came to these countries after the Second World War – people who are still often treated as outsiders. Meanwhile, in the USA, more than 13 per cent of the population was born in a foreign country. The fastest growing demographic is people of Hispanic origin: indeed, Spanish is quickly becoming the nation’s second language.
In all of these countries, the prejudice that was once reserved for “country bumpkins” is now directed at newcomers from other nations. This is something that China has not yet experienced on a large scale. It is much easier to resent outsiders than it is to resent one's own countrymen, especially when those outsiders are immediately identifiable because they wear different clothes, worship different gods, have different colour skin, and speak a different language. Today, resentment towards immigrants is one of the greatest political pressures in Western society.
In recent decades China has experienced many of the same processes that other countries have already been through: industrialisation, massive internal migration to the cities, urbanisation and astonishing redevelopment. These processes are likely to continue. China's urban population accounts for 58 per cent of the people, but nations like the USA have urban populations of more than 80 per cent. The Chinese government has announced a cap on the populations of Beijing and Shanghai, but other cities will continue to grow.
As an outsider, I cannot tell whether people in today's Chinese cities have begun to experience the sense of alienation and depression that many in my own country experienced after the rapid redevelopment of their towns and cities. The headlines are not all bad. For example, according to data from Tsinghua University, the growth of Chinese cities might even have had some positive benefits on mental health: during the last twenty years, the suicide rate in China has plummeted. But I suspect that beneath the surface there are still many problems. It is impossible, even in this most dynamic of countries, for so many people to leave their communities and make a new life far away from home without sacrificing a certain sense of belonging.
I also suspect that in future years, as China grows more prosperous, it will begin to allow more foreign immigration to its cities. China will do this simply because it will make good sense. Despite our prejudices against migrants, they are the life-blood of our cities. They certainly bring problems such as overcrowding, but they also bring new ideas, new energy and new opportunities. Migrants often do the kind of jobs that local residents refuse to do because they are too hard, too dirty, or too badly paid. But most importantly of all, migrants bring wealth. According to a study carried out by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the McKinsey Global Institute, while only 3.5 per cent of the world's population are migrants, they produce around 9 per cent of global GDP.
In the words of William Swing, the Director General of the IOM, migration “is not an issue to be resolved, it is a human reality, as old as humankind, that has to be managed”. Managing migration well – taking advantage of its energy, but not allowing it to become too overwhelming – is one of the greatest challenges facing Chinese society today.
It will not be easy. Migrants have already transformed China's cities beyond recognition over the last thirty years. But if the history of other countries is anything to go by, then the transformations of the next thirty years could be even greater.