The New York Review of Books published a fascinating interview with Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng yesterday. For those of you who are interested in development, here is the best part:
Do you think urbanization is beneficial to people? They can move to the city and earn more money.
No, I don’t think it’s beneficial. Right now it’s a blind urbanization. Cities grow up naturally over time. Now they’re trying to do it all at once. The main thing about urbanization now is to make the economic statistics look good—to build and pump up economic activity.
There’s nothing positive about urbanization?
I think for those who go to the city and work there’s a benefit. But the current way of villages being turned into towns—I don’t think there’s an advantage to that. People in the village often rely on ordinary kinds of labor to earn a living, like working in the fields, or raising geese or fish and things like that. So now what happens? They turn a village into one high-rise apartment building and that’s all that’s left of the village. Then the land is used for real estate projects controlled by the officials. Where are the people supposed to work? How is that supposed to function?
This is interesting for a few reasons. The first is that if you’ve read James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State, you already know that most “planned” development schemes — schemes that try to force the hand of development, without taking into account the variety of realities on the ground — have failed.
What Chen points to when he says that “[c]ities grow naturally over time,” and that the Chinese state is “trying to do it all at once,” is precisely Scott’s point: it’s virtually impossible to just develop cities and plan their development like one would plan a dinner party. There are too many unknowns.
The second reason why the above excerpt is interesting is when you consider the argument put forth by Jane Jacobs — another anti-planning thinker — in The Economy of Cities. In the early chapters of that book, Jacobs makes the point that agricultural development stems from urban development, and not the other way around.
That’s exactly what Chen is getting at when he answers the second question above. Even if you manage to develop a city, this does not mean that its economy will follow. In other words, merely building a city does not mean the surplus labor in surrounding rural areas — an old object of study in development economics – can be absorbed. Could this mean that those planned cities are really the seeds of another Chinese revolution, one which will start with rural uprisings?