Socialist Urbanism (1949–1978)

Socialist urbanism in China was created very quickly during the first three decades of Communist rule. From 1949 to 1978, cities served two major functions. First, they continued to serve as centers of national and local administration, a function that directly affected their growth. Second, cities played a passive supporting role in China’s centrally planned socialist industrialization, serving essentially as spatial containers instead of functioning as an active force, and socialist urbanism resulted directly from what is known as ‘urbanization from above’. As central economic planning precluded cities from pursuing any independent courses of action and the budget of a city was allocated from the central state, cities themselves did not play an active role in China’s socialist economy.

In terms of spatial structure, China’s socialist urbanism was marked by several distinct new features. As seats of administration, cities were designed to glorify socialism. All major cities had a political center consisting typically of a large public square used for political rallies, one or more large government office buildings, and one or more broad avenues lined with tall buildings and trees radiating out from the center. In the middle of large traffic circles, one might find the statue of Mao with his right arm raised high in the air. Unlike in the West, commercial nodes in China’s socialist cities were rarely impressive, visually or functionally, because urban consumption was severely limited.

The basic spatial and social cell of China’s socialist city was the ‘work unit’ (danwei), which might be a factory, a state agency, or a university. Each work unit had a clearly demarcated space, often walled, in which the employees of the unit worked and lived in housing subsidized by the state. Large work units were self contained, complete with housing, schools, clinics, and other facilities. Work unit housing, which constituted the bulk of urban housing, was built with standardized criteria for per capita space and building styles varied little. The presence of a large number of fairly uniform five or sixstory walk up flats, together with low personal income and low level of urban consumption and the lack of service establishments, rendered urban life and city landscape rather drab and dull. Industrial work units tended to be found in different parts of a city, despite the claim of functional zoning in socialist city planning. As industrial production was carried out without any concern for environmental protection, air and noise pollution was common in the cities.

As in other socialist states, China’s socialist urbanism was also characterized by low levels of urbanization accomplished mainly through strict control of rural–urban migration to reduce the cost of urbanization, including the cost for the construction of urban infrastructure, housing, and schools. Between 1950 and 1978, the levels of urbanization, defined as the proportion of total population living in cities and officially certified towns, hovered between 11.2% and 17.9% only. There were extremely low levels by any standards. Unlike in the capitalist world where industrialization and urbanization have gone hand in hand, the strategy of socialist development in China was industrialization with limited urbanization. To attain the goal of spatial equality in development, industries were built in many inland cities, especially during the First Five Year Plan (1952–57), including Baotou, Wuhan, Zhengzhou, and Xi’an which grew rapidly as result.

A unique phenomenon of China’s urban experience during the 1950s to the 1970s was Mao’s anti-urban sentiment that resulted in a large number of urban cadres being sent down to the countryside for a short period of time to ‘learn from the peasants’. During the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), millions of urban high school and college students were also sent to the countryside for reeducation and settlement. Such anti-urban rustifiction campaigns were initiated by Mao to re energize people’s revolutionary spirit and, during the Cultural Revolution, to root out Mao’s opponents in the state and Party machinery in the cities. The campaigns ended with Mao’s death in 1976. The initiation by Deng Xiaoping of the policy of ‘‘reform and open’’ to the outside world after 1978 has, once again, brought dramatic and profound changes to the Chinese cities and urbanism. In less than a century, Chinese urbanism has experienced three major metamorphoses, from the quest for modernity in the century after the mid nineteenth-century to socialist urban transformation during the period 1949–78, and then to massive post Mao urban reconstruction that has occurred with unprecedented large scale, breath taking speed and great economic and social complexity.