China’s Mega City? Er…Hang On a Second

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Op-Ed Commentary: Chris Devonshire-Ellis

Jan. 27 – The Daily Telegraph has stirred up a bit of comment with this article about China creating a “mega city” of 42 million people.

While usually less prone to exaggeration than much of the China focused media, on this occasion they’ve got it wrong. The area described, which encompasses large tracts of Guangdong Province in South China, links nine existing cities through a combined high speed rail network. The first spur of this was opened two weeks ago and, upon completion in 2020, three lines will be operational – effectively linking the western part of the province directly to the eastern part for the first time. Dividing the western and eastern parts is the Pearl River, China’s third longest at 2,200 kilometers, which flows through Guangzhou, the provincial capital, and exits China close to Zhuhai and Macau.

Centuries ago, the Portuguese were the first acknowledged foreigners in China when Jorge Alvares sailed up a small section of the Pearl River and landed at Macau. Years later, the British would send warships further up and bomb Canton in order to force trade concessions. In a roundabout way, Hong Kong was formed partly as a result of these early explorations.

But to call an area comprising nine existing cities a mega city just because they are to be linked by train services is a bit much. Neither is this “news” particularly new. We wrote about the nine cities concerned, and the developing rail link system over two weeks ago. That article, rather less sensationally titled “High Speed Rail to Connect Nine South China Cities” is here.

The other reason the Telegraph have gotten it wrong is in the terminology used. “Mega city” conjures up images of gleaming spires, steel cathedrals, teeming masses of people, all hurrying to and fro, avenues of shopping malls, horrendous traffic jams and air so thick one could stir it. Mexico City, Mumbai, and Chongqing mixed in with a dash of L.A. perhaps. But Jiangmen, Zhaoqing and Foshan?

A Chinese mega city yesterday. 42 million people hiding somewhere, or eaten by tigers.

Sure, as Guangdong’s second tier cities their central districts have each taken on the standard, white-tiled anonymity beloved of China’s city planners: bland, somewhat featureless and repetitive. If you lumped them all together you could make a case for a huge urban sprawl. But the problem is what lies in between. Guangdong is a large, green province, subtropical and steamy in the summer, yet affected by the monsoon and occasionally hit by typhoons. Winter brings chills and mists. Once the home of the South China tiger (now extinct in the wild), it is still a major tea producing area and teems with wildlife in its central and northern mountains. Instead of being populated by millions of people, much of the area described is agricultural and even densely forested. Pythons inhabit these woodlands, as do wild boar, spotted deer, and golden monkeys.

I know all this because I lived in Guangdong Province for seven years. My practice, Dezan Shira & Associates, has three offices in the region and we’ve written two editions of a substantial guide book about the area – a book that includes all of the cities supposedly being squeezed into one megatropolis. Whether it’s the Telegraph exaggerating the picture, or the local government talking it up is hard to determine. But one thing is for sure – Guangdong’s new high speed rail line interconnecting nine second tier provincial cities surrounded by tea plantations and undulating countryside is rather different than the mental imagery created by the phrase “mega city of 42 million.”

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6 Responses

  • Renaud says:

    It seems the government’s wish is rather to gather cities 2 by 2: Foshan and Guangzhou, Dongguan and Huizhou, maybe Hong Kong and Shenzhen…

  • Chris Devonshire-Ellis says:

    China is perpetually makimg clusters, and digging further and further into the third and fourth tier cities. The hot investment spots with good deals near Shanghai right now for example are not the Nanjing’s, Suzhou’s or Wuxi’s, but fourth-fifth tier cities like Jiaxing and Yangzhou…also all to be connected by high-speed rail to each other. It’s a pattern repeated across the country. The Guangdong example above is just one of many such interconnecting projects taking place. Thanks – Chris

  • adnan k alghita says:

    I do not think every thing good for china is good for the US, This could be the answer to china 1.1 billion population.

  • Jason Wong says:

    Hi Chris,

    Just read your post on the mega-city and felt it was spot on, with lots of insight.
    I live in southern China and have been resident in these parts for quite a few years, I was born in HK in fact.

  • Chris Devonshire-Ellis says:

    It’s a bit like peoples standard impressions of Hong Kong, as a skyscraper infested city, whereas what they usually really mean is just the north and south waterfronts of Victoria Harbor (actually called “Victoria” although thats not used anymore) and the urban conurbations of Shatin and Tsuen Wan. 70% of Hong Kong is actually National Park, and there’s even a massive World Wildlife reserve at Mai Po. Hong Kong is more green than steel. The same (but even more green) goes for Guangdong. Thanks – Chris

  • Chris Devonshire-Ellis says:

    …and a nice photo essay on Guangzhou itself at the China Expat website here: http://www.chinaexpat.com/2011/01/27/guangzhous-soft-side.html/

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