'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Is Modernization Always a Good Thing? 

I was reading Sascha Matuszak's column over at antiwar.com, An American in China, and I came across this rather troubling passage:

The South Korean reporter Cha Han-phil stirred up a hornet's nest with a post on his personal blog about "Shameless Chinese People." In the post he describes a scene on a train ride through Henan province that leads him to conclude Chinese people "lack public morality." For his comments, Cha was labeled a racist. He has since removed the post from his blog.

All accusations of racism aside, anyone who has traveled on a hard-seat train in China can attest to the kernel of truth in Cha's description. The ride is indeed a chaotic affair. Peasants lean back, take their shoes and socks off, and make themselves as comfortable as possible, which includes spitting shells and rinds onto the floor, putting their calloused feet up on tables, and leaning out of the windows hollering and smoking.

It seems to be implicitly assumed by both Sascha and Cha that such behaviour, the persistence of this sort of rambunctious, indigenous, dare one say it, pre-capitalist, social life is a bad thing, one that should be consigned to the dustbin of history. Personally, the spontaneity of it strikes me as rather cool, and I am delighted to discover that there are still places in the world which have not been ruthlessly rationalized by a sinister combination of urban planners, security consultants, transportation experts and the necessity to conform to the sterile standards of middle class etiquette.

Sascha accepts the notion that it is important to modernize this world, as the Chinese elite has been attempted for over one hundred years, and describes the most current efforts to do so:

Here in Chengdu, Zhou's reforms have been reincarnated. The district of Xiao Jia He in the southwest of the city was once one large, tremendous brothel. In the Strike Hard campaigns of 2002-2004, the red-light districts were shut down and moved out of the city limits. Beggars and itinerant workers were shoved out of the Second Ring Road or put to work. Rickshaws, a luxury item in Zhou's Chengdu, were put under police supervision. Land was reclaimed and developed. An exhibition center was built, an underground is under construction, factories in the east side of the city have been shut down, schools shoot up left and right… the list is endless. Since the Develop the West forum in 2000, Chengdu has shaken off the doldrums of provincial life and the Communist era and begun to modernize itself.

Naturally, hot-pot restaurants in Chengdu are still filthy, greasy, boisterous places. Public bathrooms, though greatly improved, are still rather putrid. But one must keep in mind that Chengdu is roughly 10 years into a reform movement with the goal of transforming this provincial capital into a modern East Asian city like Singapore or Tokyo.

Most of East Asia, with the exception of Myanmar and North Korea (both still wallowing in Mao-like lunacy), has long since modernized. Of course, those countries had the luxuries of an unbroken development process and manageable population levels. China, one of the last of the great nations to modernize, has a 50-year gap in its development and a population of more than 1.3 billion.

As he breathlessly races through the anticipated urban transformation of Chengdu, Sascha forgets to ask the obvious question: is it such a good thing for Chengdu to become another Singapore or Tokyo? Of course, brothels are pretty hard to defend, even if they form part of the cultural richness of the heritage of East Asia, as manifest in the art and literature of both China and Japan. And, similarly, it is equally difficult to make a case for inadequate public sanitation. But, surely, the eradication of them does not justify the demolition of much of the provincial culture of the city?

Interestingly enough, there are people expressing alarm other than incurable, nostalgic romantics like myself:

China’s rapid urbanization has devastated the country’s architectural and cultural heritage sites, state news organizations reported Monday.

“Senseless actions” by local officials in their pursuit of renovation and modernization have “devastated” the sites, Qiu Baoxing, the vice minister of construction, was quoted as saying by the newspaper China Daily.

He said the destruction was similar to what happened during the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s and the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, when relics and sites of historical value were destroyed.

China’s cities have been transformed in recent years, with old neighborhoods being pulled down to make way for high-rise buildings and highways. But many historic buildings have also been destroyed.

“They are totally unaware of the value of cultural heritage,” Mr. Qiu was quoted as saying about some officials.

This is leading to a poor sight — many cities have a similar construction style,” he was quoted as saying on the sidelines of an international conference on urban culture and city planning. “It is like 1,000 cities having the same appearance.”

It is possible Qiu and I diverge on the question of what actually constitutes China's cultural heritage. He seems to define it in terms of architecture, while I would include an entire social world. But, even so, it is encouraging to see a dissenting voice to the prevailing view that modern urban development constitutes an essential, inevitable transformation of the lesser developed world.

Despite our possible points of divergence, Qiu identifies the fundamental problem, the neoliberal insistence of uniformity across countries and cultures when it comes to contemporary urban societies. The well educated professional and businesses classes must feel that comforting reassurance of familiarity whether they are visiting San Francisco, Berlin, Moscow, Rio de Janeiro or . . in this instance, Chengdu. Anything more than some entertaining indigenous cultural color in the background, such as a restaurant, a carefully choreographed festival or the creations of local artisans, is just too unnerving.

Accordingly, the city must be redesigned to fulfill the expectations of a global class of entrepreneurs, financiers, corporate executives and tourists, a redesign that is incompatible with the social life and culture with many of its actual residents. Hence such development is predictably promoted by the unproven neoliberal assertion that there is no alternative, and we encounter it, to a much lesser degree, in the cities of this country as well.

For example, here in Sacramento, the city's elite has been insistent that the central city must be transformed by expelling many of the existing small, independent businesses (they don't generate enough sales tax revenue) and the lower middle income people who live there (yes, you've got it, they are the ones who don't spend enough to generate the sales tax), so that they can be replaced by upper middle income residents who will live in the grandiose condominium developments currently under construction and spend freely at the new entertainment district planned for them.

There's just one problem with this perverse utopian vision. The money has dried up. Just yesterday, CALPERS, the state employee pension fund, announced that it was taking over a massive condominium project near the Sacramento River, one that would have included not one, but two 53 story highrise towers, with the purchase price for the condominium units starting at over $400,000. CALPERS is now conducting an 18 month study to determine the most appropriate alternative use for the site.

Much like Chengdu, Sacramento posseses a provincial history and social life for which its current elite has little appreciation. Perhaps, the collapse of the two towers project demonstrates that it is not quite so easy to eradicate it, even in an era of neoliberal economics and postmodern culture. At least, let's hope so. And, let's also hope that residents of the city of Chengdu finds a way to slip their heads out of the collective noose that its urban planners and economic development proponents have apparently prepared for them.

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