I am writing this from the bustling and cosmopolitan centre of Xīníng, the capital of Qinghai Province in the north-west of China.
But what a difference four years makes. The last time I was this far west in China I discovered the rather sleepy city of Xīníng and quickly became enamoured. The city of about two million people has a mixed ethnic and religious population of Tibetans, Han Chinese, Hui, Tu and many others, and is widely claimed to be the most ethnically diverse of any Chinese provincial capital. As such, Xīníng has been assigned 'model' status by the central government due its relatively low occurrences of inter-ethnic and inter-religious violence in comparison with other similar cities (Urumqi, Hoh-hot, Lhasa and Golmud).
Sited on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau and on the railway line to Lhasa, the city forms part of an arc of rapidly growing Chinese frontier cities with particular social, demographic and economic problems. The city is central to the Western Development Plan, possibly the world's largest centrally derived plan for mass urbanisation and industrialisation. The aim is to stem migration to the east coasts by, in part, providing economic growth and desirable urban settlements in the west. There are of course many political drivers in this process of geographically 'equalising' economic growth across the country.
Whereas urbanists and other social scientists internationally are largely aware of the so-called 'demise' of Tibetan culture in Lhasa and the Tibetan Autonomous Region, the situation in the other frontier provinces has largely been overlooked.
The Western Development Plan envisages the city almost doubling in size over the next twenty years, and the city fathers haven't hesitated in encouraging this growth. What was very recently a city of low-rise, largely prefabricated Fordist blocks is quickly being redeveloped. New shopping centres (many underground due to the extreme weather conditions) and huge residential compounds have sprung up throughout the city, while the urban footprint sprawls in every direction the terrain allows. The city's skyline is now dotted with concrete apartment blocks — I counted over forty separate buildings of over thirty stories — all new. New roads, new airport, new station, and the government isn't finished yet. A high-speed railway line to Beijing and Urumqi is due to open in the next couple of years.
Few would disagree with this investment programme or the need for greater economic opportunities for the peoples of the west, many of whom have been disenfranchised from the economic growth that the eastern provinces have witnessed since Deng Xiaoping's 1980s reforms. And while a lot of people, particularly the World Bank (which has underwritten many of the city's larger infrastructure projects) and individuals affiliated to the Party, may welcome Xīníng's rapid urban growth and redevelopment, I remain to be convinced.
It is undeniable that there has been both huge economic growth and 'modernisation' in the city as a result of the Plan. The question is, therefore, how much have local residents benefited? This is the more contentious issue.
Although the most recent official statistics do not demonstrate significant change in the ethnic composition of the city, it is clear from discussions with local residents that there has been increased migration of Han merchants from the eastern provinces. It is, arguably, the Han merchant, bureaucrat and middle classes that are benefiting most from the city's development.
A city of traders
One of the best examples of disenfranchisement in the development process can be seen at the city's many markets. While visiting one of the market areas at the western edge of the city, now surrounding on three sides by huge walls of luxury apartment buildings, I spoke to several local traders worried about the future of the site. It appears that many sites such as this, key to the livelihoods of Xīníng locals and country traders alike, and often sited on highly valuable land, have already been lost to the development boom.
The traders themselves are aware of the need for both modernisation and sanitisation, and in fact, embrace it. What they are worried about is becoming peripheral, both in the physical and metaphorical sense, to the new city. The enclosure of these formerly public sites of community interaction, and trade by residential property developers has been one of the most significant changes to the city's urban fabric since my last visit.
The city has a long history of holding its markets at the western periphery due to the location of trade routes and a desire, in more dangerous times, to keep visiting rural traders outside the city walls. As Xīníng has grown, the markets have moved further westward, as one would expect. The transition taking place this time, however, is fundamentally different. The modernisation programme and the enclosed urban patterns adopted by quasi-private developers are forcing traders and the formal market spaces to the urban periphery in a new way. There are now physical barriers, in the form of eight lane highways or fences, separating the markets and preventing them from interacting with the rest of the city, and formalising markets in these distinctly non-urban sites. The city is at risk of losing the very activity on which it thrives.
The modernisation programme and the enclosed urban patterns adopted by quasi-private developers are forcing traders and the formal market spaces to the urban periphery in a new way. The city is at risk of losing the very activity on which it thrives.
Whereas urbanists and other social scientists internationally are largely aware of the so-called 'demise' of Tibetan culture in Lhasa and the Tibetan Autonomous Region, the situation in the other frontier provinces has, in my opinion, largely been overlooked. I think there is a real danger of Xīníng losing the informal spaces of mercantile interaction to a more sterile separated space, to the detriment of wider cultural practice and understanding.
But is this progress?
Of course change is inevitable, and certainly there are many positive developments to the urban fabric. The wider provision of municipal services, sanitation and housing is to be applauded. Also domestic political debate in China is increasingly focusing on the provision of welfare services and issues of inequality, and you can certainly see the beginning of increased construction of affordable housing in Xīníng. It is only the beginning, however, and many of these projects have their own separate political agenda; whether it's 'buying off' single-interest groups or a state policy of urbanising (or 'normalising') traditionally nomadic groups.
The city has clearly developed fast, and for that the city and most people's standard of living is most certainly improved. The main questions here are as to whether this urban growth and redevelopment is sustainable; both economically and socially, but also culturally. Places such as Xīníng are fragile and change comes at a cost.
When I left Xīníng last time, I very much expected it to remain unchanged. I'm not sure what I will find on my next visit. I just hope that in future, a balance may be found between the need for continuing economic and urban development, and the mercantile and social spaces that make Xīníng work.