Houses of Cards

June 27, 2012

A short while ago, an email came in with a link to an article that is an interview with Chen Guangcheng on the New York Review of Books’ blog.  Chen is the blind dissident who left China recently to study at NYU Law School in New York and is actually from Linyi.  To be more accurate he is from Dongshigu, one of the villages that is overseen by the Linyi city government.  When I write about all of these new high-rise towers that keep sprouting up further and further from the center of the city, the land for the towers were formerly villages annexed and cleared by the city government to continue the city’s growth.  Before Linyi grew into the city that it is today, it was really a collection of small villages with the town of Linyi at the center.  To fuel economic growth and boost the profile of local leaders, villages began being annexed and the high rises you see in my pictures are the result of the city’s growth.

There were some things that really stood out in the interview because of the fact that I am sitting here writing from a hotel that was probably built on part of a village that no longer exists.  The massive Linyi University campus was probably also one or more farming villages at some point in time, but are not part of the city proper.  The interviewer asks Chen if he thinks urbanization is beneficial because then people can move off the land to get jobs in the city and earn more money.  This was his response:

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.

Chen basically backs up a lot of what I have been thinking and writing about when I look at Linyi’s development, especially versus cities like Shanghai or Beijing that have a more solid economic foundation because they are home to headquarters of large companies, the creative classes, or are seats of government power.  He continues on saying that many times when these villages develop into towns and cities, the people who resorted to more traditional ways of making a living are often left out in the cold as the real estate developers, banks, and government officials profit:

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?

I often wonder what people do in a city like Linyi.  Aside from the typical service jobs that exist in any city – salespeople, waiters and waitresses, tellers, barbers, etc. – there are only so many people who work in offices who would earn enough money to be able to afford the thousands of new apartments being built.  Others I have spoken to here say that businessmen who travel to Linyi for work will purchase an apartment to stay in rather than stay in a hotel and those people with enough money will buy two or three apartments as investments.  Fine.  Even with those people purchasing apartments, the fact remains that such housing remains out of reach for many who used to live in a village and are now having urbanization shoved down their throats.  I think of the manager in the Binhe Hotel, where I stayed last time I was in Linyi and his tale of how he works multiple jobs and still did not have enough money to buy an apartment.  There must be many more like him than the people who can afford two or three apartments or the businessmen who fly in from Shanghai or Beijing and would rather stay in an apartment than hotel.  I read Chen’s words as a warning that this haphazard urbanization without the necessary jobs to support it could be a disaster as people become increasing disgruntled about being shut out of life in the place where they are supposed to be living.  

The corollary to this point is the number of shopping malls being built.  If people cannot afford apartments, how are they going to shop in all of these luxury malls that are springing up all over the city.  Just coming off a weekend in Shanghai, my mind is boggled by the amount of conspicuous consumption in that city, but at least the jobs are there to support that consumption to some extent.  I am not saying that there is not money in Linyi, just not the type of money to sustain the level of future development envisioned for this city.  I even wonder if Shanghai can support all the new malls that are going to come into existence in the coming years.  As my friend Paul put it, part of the gamble as a retailer is picking the mall that is going to be a success.  With more and more malls that increasingly look alike, we begin talking about high-stakes Vegas odds because the development is not being carried out with any thought to the local population and what the people may want.  It’s still very much a “build it and hopefully they will come” mentality.  

The building of malls divorced from what makes business or economic sense is a problem in the Chinese economy at large and something I’ve thought about since college.  Many economic decisions made at the top are divorced from what may be good for the macro-economy.  Rather these decisions are made because of political forces that trump the economic, thus there is a heightened likelihood of a degree of failure.  At the most basic level, the need to maintain a certain level of economic growth to ensure that the population remains happy, the implicit social contract that drives China’s economy, is a policy for political survival that does not always jive with economic realities.  How many new airports, coal mines, highways, and train stations does this country need?  The Linyi airport is lovely, but barely has any flights to justify what I am sure was a hefty price tag.  However, the airport is a fixed asset investment and can be counted in the GDP numbers reported by local officials, which in turn get reported up the chain to Beijing and make the economy look like it is humming along.  We were actually joking at dinner last night that the speed and quality with which these projects are constructed ensures that they will have to be rebuilt in a few years so then the government can just count the project again.  That statement was made slightly tongue-in-cheek, but it’s kind of true.  It may take ten years or more for a new airport to be built in the States, but at least when that airport is up and running, it is built to last 50-75 years or longer.  In China, so many new buildings begin to look like they should be condemned only a few years after going up.  I think of the campus of the university here.  It was only a built a few years ago and already the fixtures outside the buildings are rusting, the doors inside are warped, and there are cracks in the walls all over the place.  I can only imagine what a lot of these new apartment towers look like, especially those that are half empty.

Economic policy divorced from economic reality is not sustainable.  It’s easy when you have money to pump into capital improvement projects, but it’s much harder when you need to affect rational human beings.  It’s why the authorities in Beijing have been more successful at building high-speed trains (success in building them, but not necessarily in operating them safely) than getting consumers to open their pocketbooks and re-orient the economy towards more domestic consumption and away from export-led growth.  Having the government build an airport or train line that is eventually going to be run by the government does not require rational policies because all the players’ interests are aligned by the desire to make money, which travels in a vicious circle and rarely trickles down to the average person.  However, getting people to change their shopping behavior requires rational thought because for all of the government’s attempts to control the people, some things are so intrinsic that they cannot be controlled by a higher power.  A person worried about having enough money for health care, retirement, education of their children, and to put a roof over their head and food on the table is not going to automatically start buying more discretionary items just because the government tells them to do so.  For that to happen, rational policies are necessary like state-subsidized health care, better education at a lower cost, safeguards for retirement, and the like.  While the government talks about such social safety nets and academics write papers urging the government to begin using some of its largess to build such programs, they are still not being being created.  Why?  Because such programs will not bear dividends until much later in time and the government thrives on short-term gain in the form of easily obtainable economic growth to justify its existence.

Chen is spot on when he points out that the development path China is currently on is not sustainable because for all the wealth sloshing around in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and other large cities, there are huge swathes of the population unable to partake in this life and the government is not taking the necessary steps to bring them into the fold because they are blinded by their own desire to protect their positions of power.

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