What Happens When Authoritarians Build Cities? - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
What Happens When Authoritarians Build Cities?

Gracy Howard wrote a fascinating piece at the American Conservative about China’s new “Great Leap”:         

Chinese lawmakers will meet Wednesday to consider giant urbanization plans for the country, as the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress is apparently planning to create a city of 260 million people in hopes of spurring economic growth and consumption.

Yesterday, Forbes contributor Gordon G. Chang reported on China’s giant urbanization plan, calling it a “1950s-style experiment.” He says the government plans a massive forced migration to the cities, moving “250 million people from farm to city in the next dozen years.” They want 70 percent of the Chinese population – approximately 900 million – to live in cities by 2025.

To produce urban space for millions of domestic refugees, the Chinese government will create “20 new cities in each of the next 20 years.” Ah, the behavior of totalitarians-turned-authoritarians. Brutally violent cycles of boom and bust, but hey, at least it’ll stimulate economic growth.

That’s the reason China is forcing a majority of its population to move into cities: They’re not consuming enough. They’re clinging to their hoes and food crops. Too many Chinese subjects produce their own goods. Time to force them to buy more for the good of the people!

Such is the logic of hyper-stimulant authoritarians.

The essential problem here is the fact that a city of 260 million people is completely unsustainable. As businesses and the Chinese Community Party cooperate to build factories and gargantuan infrastructures in rural regions, bulldozing villages in the process, two grim options present themselves: death and impoverishment, or the long-term deterioration of these new cities into dying husks when the Chinese economy ceases its phenomenal growth.

To see the results of the second option, just look west: Russia displays this rather ominously in the east coast region of Primorye and its major city, Vladivostok.  

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Vladiviostok, base of the Pacific Fleet, along with the entire region itself, struggled through liberal modernization as the central government in Moscow cut defense spending dramatically. A city originally insulated from tourists because of its military secrets opened, while Primorye’s population decreased by 352,000 people over the course of 20 years.

Young people fled the area, industry collapsed, and a 2012 poll “showed 40 percent of the region’s people are looking to pack their luggage and leave.”

Over the past five years, the Russians invested over $20 billion to develop infrastructure there in preparation for last year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. Because of Moscow’s distance—4,000 miles—and the region’s shared border with China, Primorye is increasingly Chinese, as the country’s firms have created special economic zones there to invest in natural resources. In fact, in 2011, those companies invested over $3 billion, three times the amount that Moscow allocated.

When governments intentionally create new cities with public subsidies, the reality of market incentives and economic decline eventually intervene. The Chinese cannot grow forever; I wonder what will occur when their population starts decreasing by 20 million every five years in 2050. As Jonathan Last writes in his latest book, the world’s most highly populated nation may become “a declining superpower with a rapidly contracting economic base and an unstable political structure.”

Granted, these cities will be close to Beijing; Vladivostok essentially belongs to Asia, while St. Petersburg and Moscow are European cities. Yet, based on the proximity of these nations and their shared modern histories, it is still a future worth fearing. 

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