Multiplex Urbanism in the Reform Era

China’s dramatic urban transformation since the 1978 reforms is a consequence of the interplay between exogenous and endogenous forces at global, national, and local scales. As elsewhere, globalization and neoliberalism have strongly impacted the Chinese economy, but major endogenous policy shifts have been more important in effecting changes in the Chinese city, including the initiation of the policies of marketization, decentralization of political and fiscal powers to the local levels, including cities, and privatization of state housing and state owned enterprises. The introduction of urban land and housing markets and simultaneous de industrialization in the socialist sector and tertiarization in the new urban economy have been particularly important in reshaping China’s postreform urbanism.

Since 1978, cities in China have been completely overhauled, affecting virtually every aspect of the city – spatial, social, cultural, economic, and political – resulting in what can be called ‘multiplex urbanism’. Politically, reform era urbanism is characterized by the dominant role of the cities in local territorial administration. Promoted by the state as the engines of growth for national and regional economies, cities have been allowed to annex suburban counties and turn them into city districts so that a large amount of suburban land is now directly under the control of central cities.

Economically, reform era cities have attracted massive foreign capital from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other countries and lured a greater amount of domestic capital from the state sector. Thus, new industries in new industrial spaces, new commercial establishments in new spaces of consumption, and various types of new services have appeared in the cities. With increasing exports of products from China, now the World Factory, a significant urban middle class has emerged who buys cars, homes, and other consumer goods. Commercialization of urban housing has served as a filter, sorting out the urban population in different areas with different housing quality, giving rise to new spaces of differentiation and marginalization exemplified by exclusive gated communities and dilapidated migrant enclaves. Socially, the urban population has become more heterogeneous than before. Rural migrant groups, foreigners, and businessmen from Taiwan and their families are found in sig nificant numbers in many cities. Rising income gaps in urban China have led to significant social and economic polarization and inequality in housing ownership. Culturally, urban life has been greatly enriched, with a great deal more cultural activities available than before, including active night life, entertainment, high fashion, more reading materials, and a wide variety of Internet-based games and personal interactions. The lively and bustling urban scene in the reform era contrasts sharply with the subdued and simple urban life during the socialist period.

A key component of China’s multiplex urbanism is that the cities have become dynamic centers of production for the nation as well as the world, with money going to the coffers of municipal governments. Cities are no longer simply spatial containers of state industries. Their economic well being is now tied directly to the taxes and various fees that cities collect from the firms and facility users in the cities. With increasing per capita income in the cities, a subtle aura of optimism and rational exuberance about the future exists among the urbanites. A sense of pride among the urban residents can also be detected, flowing in partly from the new urban spaces that have been created, including new central business districts (CBDs), new financial districts, new housing estates, new urban expressways, and new malls and suburban shopping centers. On the other hand, the drive for modern architecture on the part of city leaders has given global architectural firms the opportunities to build ultramodern, exotic, and often highly controversial and even grotesque buildings in Chinese cities that seem out of place. As the tempo of urban construction is extremely fast and nobody seems to be concerned about building Chinese cities with some kind of Chineseness, in many respects, Chinese cities are evolving without a distinct personality. In some ways they are converging in form with cities elsewhere. However, one must not assume that the processes affecting China’s urban form are similar to those in other parts of the country because the ideological, cultural, geographical, and political contexts in urban China are so different.