Lost in Transition

Gone are the days of China as the greatest economic miracle. It still is the world’s leading manufacturing country, but it is no longer growing at a two-digit rate per year, and that worries many people.*

* Honestly, what is broken isn’t China’s economy but the current mode of capitalism which requires infinite growth within finite resources, just to remain stable. How fxxked up is that logic? Whoever invented this system should stay in hell forever.

When the export-led growth model came to a plateau, the Chinese government turned their attention from unreliable external investors to reliable internal (human) resources and started to bet on growing again by building infrastructures and inviting a vast number rural people to the cities.

How can a country “grow” by urbanizing itself? This is the logic: Because every country urbanizes as it grows, the reverse should still hold true. If you urbanize, you should grow. The fallacy of this sounds-too-good theory is debunked in this excellent article.

Like so many of the earlier bull arguments, however, this new belief that urbanization is the answer to China’s growth slowdown is based on at least one fallacy and probably more. The first and obvious reason is that urbanization is not an act of God, and therefore indifferent to earthly conditions. Urbanization itself responds to growth. Countries do not grow because they urbanize, in other words, they urbanize because they are growing and there are more good, productive jobs in the cities than in the countryside. In that sense urbanization is not a growth machine. It is simply a pro-cyclical process that accommodates growth when growth is rising and reduces it when it falls.

As a result, China now carries a tremendous amount of empty buildings. Everything is purchased, but not lived. You may hear stories of ghost cities (shown below) or a curious mixture of urban paradise and European monuments and haunted mansions.

Urbanization does free us from old restrictions (I am one of the beneficiaries). In the olden days of rural life, the environment was dirty and behaviors were restricted and everybody knew what everybody was doing.

But we always had each other, which is a commodity hard to obtain in cities. We might have been bothered by “relationships” all the time but we never had time to feel depressive for being alone. When we start to live inside an apartment, a glorified version of prison cells (complete with guards and guests), we all realize that we lost the connections which we might have not realized until then.

A functioning city compensates that shortcoming by becoming “organic.” Between the cold steel and concrete blocks, human activities fill the void. Lost souls crawl out of their hives and truly live their unlived lives at the corner of a street, along a riverside bank, or inside a steamy club. But as in anything organic, you cannot force it. You have to let it grow on its own term.

Looking over the vast rows of empty apartments in Chinese ghost cities, I wonder when and where can those “prisoners” release them into the light (or darkness). The biggest Lost in Transition element during failed urbanization is not money. It is us.