City Journal

Guy Sorman
Asian Megacities, Free and Unfree
How politics has shaped the growth of Shanghai, Beijing, and Seoul
Autumn 2010
Shanghai's glittering facade has yet to lure foreign investors away from Hong Kong.
Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos
Shanghai’s glittering facade has yet to lure foreign investors away from Hong Kong.

Urbanization on an extraordinary scale is happening in Asia, whose megalopolises are absorbing millions of new residents every year. Perhaps surprisingly, the character of these rapidly expanding cities reflects less their regions’ local traditions than the political conditions under which they have grown. A good example is Manila, possibly Asia’s most disorderly city, which gets bigger by the day, shantytown after shantytown. Despite Manila’s obvious vitality, the ancient Spanish-designed central city has degenerated into a seedy slum, in part because the Philippines has known only weak, crooked governments. No corruptly elected official cares about, say, saving a historic district or planning infrastructure adequately. In Manila, it’s everyone for himself—and this is true not just of the politicians but also of the wealthy elite, who have decamped to a vast gated community, called Makati, located nearer to the international airport than to the older Manila.

However, one finds the most striking evidence of how politics shapes the new Asian megalopolises in the differences between Seoul, South Korea’s capital, and China’s leading cities. After all, the Korean and Chinese cultures are similar. Both are founded on the hierarchical Confucian philosophy; both have been influenced by Buddhism. But Seoul is democratic, and the political debates of an open society have profoundly influenced its development. China’s cities, by contrast, reflect the autocratic and corrupt rule of the Communist Party.

Take Shanghai, China’s largest city, with a population of more than 19 million. Originally built by Europeans for Europeans, Shanghai has preserved some of the streets of its West-in-the-East past and boasts a lively, nearly tropical ambience that endears it to foreign visitors. But the Chinese government has, unsurprisingly, sought to transform the city into a glittering showcase of China’s rising power—above all, to lure foreign banks and investors away from Hong Kong. The tactic has yet to succeed: Hong Kong remains more attractive, though less because of its impressive buildings (Shanghai’s can compete in height, if not in architectural quality) than because of its commitment to the rule of law.

Shanghai is a “costly facade to maintain,” confesses Yan Hansheng, its deputy mayor for finance. The city’s primary financial resources are still its traditional factories, owned mostly by the government, which continue to grind out steel, cars, and textiles. These industries, located west of the city center, remain hidden behind the costly facade; few foreigners ever travel that far. To protect Shanghai’s gleaming appearance further, the government also keeps tight control over the population. Officials view the peasant migrants who work menial jobs in Shanghai as a stain on the Western-oriented city and prevent them from living there or sending their children to local schools. To live permanently in Shanghai, one must be born a Shanghai citizen. (The mother transmits citizenship—a system in effect throughout China.) There are some exceptions, based on merit—holding a university degree helps—or on securing a fake identity card. All other migrants who work in Shanghai, though, must return by night to the shantytowns or shoddy workers’ dormitories at the city’s periphery, far from the cosmopolitan city center.

The authoritarian Communist regime also shapes China’s capital city, though in a different way. Travelers to Beijing should not expect to find any traces of the ancient and beautiful imperial capital, whose debasement began immediately after the Communist revolution. In October 1949, from Tiananmen, the monumental gate leading to the imperial palace, Mao Zedong proclaimed the “liberation” of China and demanded that factory chimneys replace pagodas and temples. About 1,000 religious buildings, many of them hundreds of years old, were soon destroyed or transformed into belching factories. By the early 1960s, Beijing looked more like mid-nineteenth-century Birmingham than like the capital that European travelers had once nicknamed the “Holy City.” Unmoved by the pleas of some older scholars, Mao also demolished the walls surrounding Beijing, which had stood since the seventeenth century. The ostensible purpose was to ease traffic, but there were few cars in the city at the time.

In 1979, the Communist regime inaugurated a new era of reforms designed to bring China into the global economy. For Deng Xiaoping and his clique, Beijing’s factories didn’t look modern enough, so the regime closed them or relocated them to the city’s outskirts. But the reformers also completed Mao’s destruction of old Beijing. The old city was a maze of neighborhoods made up of one-story houses built around square inner courts and separated by narrow lanes, or hutongs. These traditional neighborhoods could have been saved or modernized, but the reformers razed them in the name of hygiene (the official motive) and real-estate speculation (the real motive), erecting huge office towers in their stead. The hutong dwellers were moved to shoddily built, city-owned shoeboxes on the city’s edge, where rent is cheap but modern amenities like elevators and proper heating are often lacking. The government is now rebuilding a few of the original hutongs, characteristically seeking to please tourists in search of the authentic Beijing.

The office towers that give Beijing its contemporary sheen made the landowners—the Party and the military establishment—rich. But they also made the city ugly, since they were built hastily and with no concern for appearance. As a concession to history, some new buildings will incorporate a touch of the past—a traditionally tiered roof, say, or upturned eaves at the top of a high-rise—but these combinations tend to be incoherent. Here, too, a facade is in place. One-third of the office buildings remain empty because speculation outran the needs of the market.

Hoping to improve its undistinguished and often ugly cityscape before the 2008 Olympics, Beijing officials brought in some big-name architects from around the globe. The Netherlands’ Rem Koolhaas designed a new office for China Central Television; the Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron constructed an Olympic stadium (the Bird’s Nest, as it is known colloquially); the Frenchman Paul Andreu produced an opera hall, the National Grand Theater. Yet the buildings, whatever one thinks of them aesthetically, could stand anywhere in the world and bear no relation to China’s culture or traditions. (If the Chinese didn’t want his egg-shaped opera hall, Andreu said, he would sell it to Canada.) Like the office towers, these expensive international trophies are absurdly underused. The Beijing opera currently has no program—the city is a cultural void—and the Olympic stadium has idled since the end of the games.

Where Beijing’s walls once stood, roads now encircle the city. One road was constructed, and then another as the population grew, and then more. Today, seven concentric highways loop the city of 10 million. Ask a Beijing resident where he lives, and you might hear: “Somewhere between the sixth and seventh circular road.” “Beijing is more modern than Paris,” the city’s then-mayor told me some years back. “You have just one circular freeway. We have seven!” The roads are choked with nightmarish traffic (cars are no longer scarce in Beijing) under a hazily polluted sky.

Beijing is not a friendly city. There are few places to walk and almost no parks. It sometimes seems as if the city wants to fill its every void with concrete to the maximum possible height. Stand-alone shops are rare, since they take up too much space; malls have replaced most of them. As oppressive as the city feels, the police presence is not that visible. Chinese subjects know that any lawbreaker will face serious punishment, which makes the country’s urban areas safe.

As in Shanghai, and with the same legal rationale, the authorities deny rural migrants access to Beijing’s better neighborhoods. And this April, the Beijing government added another layer of control to prevent migrants from spending too much time in the city: “sealed management.” In 16 villages in Beijing’s southern suburbs, where most residents are migrants, iron gates slam shut at night and lock the population in, except for those with special permits for night labor. The local Communist Party authorities claim dubiously that “80 percent of the residents applaud this practice, which increases security.” China’s strong prejudices against the poor—reinforced by government discrimination—have also increased the popularity of American-style gated communities for the wealthy. These communities, never too far from the airport, usually have easy access to golf courses.

Beijing is a dead city after 8 PM, with the exception of a few streets reserved for the nightclubbing of the golden youth—the sons and daughters of the ruling elite. The young and wealthy make no effort to hide their money. One finds in Beijing’s core a concentration of luxury shops, dedicated to fancy cars and high fashion, whose customers are mostly these twentysomething Chinese, dubbed “young princes” by the less affluent.

All that remains of old Beijing is the imperial palace, also known as the Forbidden City. During the late 1960s, when I had the privilege of visiting it, the Forbidden City dominated Beijing. Nowadays, tall office buildings surround it, so that it seems to be sinking into the new city. True, the Forbidden City wasn’t in perfect condition 40 years ago, but the restoration work done on it since then has sometimes been sloppy—garish red concrete beams have replaced wooden ones, for example. American visitors may or may not be pleased to discover a Starbucks there.

Seoul, only two hours by plane from Beijing, was also an imperial city until Japan conquered it in 1910. Not much remains of the old Seoul, either, though what destroyed it was not revolution but the Korean War. The city changed hands three times between 1950 and 1953. The former king’s palace and its extraordinary gardens survived, as did the city hall and the main railway station, built in the Japanese “imperial” style of the twenties. Little else escaped intact.

Old Seoul was located north of the Han River; the modern city has expanded to the southern side as well. Though the mountains that ring Seoul limit sprawl, they haven’t prevented a huge population influx. Since the war ended, Koreans by the millions have flooded from the countryside into the city. The authoritarian South Korean governments of the sixties and seventies, free-market and growth-oriented, welcomed this vast group of peasants seeking work, as did the big private conglomerates—the chaebols—that have driven South Korea’s economic expansion.

After three decades of spectacular economic growth—roughly 10 percent a year—under the rule of generals, South Koreans started looking for a better, freer life. In 1993, civil demonstrations forced the military out of power, and democracy swept the country at both the local and national levels. Today, Seoulites elect their mayor, city council members, and 25 district mayors. As in any real democracy, divided government is not unknown. Since the June 2010 election, a conservative, Oh Se Hoon, has held the Seoul mayoralty, while the Left dominates the city council.

Democratization has helped transform Seoul into a more livable city in an extraordinarily short time. Before democracy, the authorities pursued economic growth at virtually any cost: real estate operated with little constraint, the number of private cars swiftly exceeded street capacity, public transportation was shoddy, and public spaces were basically nonexistent. But Seoul’s mayor during the 2000s, Lee Myung Bak—formerly the CEO of the Hyundai Construction Company—understood that Seoulites wanted a city center, plazas, gardens, and spaces to shop and stroll, and he led a dramatic reshaping of the city, preserving what was left of the past but making huge improvements in urban amenities. He won the nickname “Bulldozer” for good reason. Among the projects undertaken while he was mayor: the Han’s banks, formerly devoted to parking garages and freeways, became accessible to pedestrians; an ancient stream, the Cheonggyecheon, which once flowed through Seoul until buried by a freeway, was restored, helping vivify the central city; and rapid-transit buses joined the city’s transportation system. During his mayoralty, too, formerly abandoned industrial areas transformed into gentrified neighborhoods, Korean versions of New York’s Meatpacking District. These popular changes helped propel Lee Myung Bak to the South Korean presidency in December 2007.

Nearly all younger Koreans want to move to this exciting city, looking for better jobs, better schools, and more fun. Recently built high-speed trains connecting the provinces to the capital have accelerated the urbanization: young couples can move to Seoul but still visit their parents in the provinces on weekends, and thus avoid the sadness of leaving their families completely behind. According to Mayor Oh, if you include the population of neighboring cities like Incheon, which holds the international airport, the Seoul area is home to 25 million people, half of South Korea’s total population. He expects “10 million or more” to join the urban influx over the next decade. This isn’t China: South Koreans live where they want, freely renting and buying.

With so many young people, Seoul’s nightlife throbs: cafés, theaters, and cultural centers crowd every city district. The central city is particularly popular, with its narrow streets, low houses, and maze of restaurants and art galleries. Fashionistas are everywhere. Korean women, less flashy than the wealthy Chinese, lean toward classic Parisian-style fashion or contemporary interpretations of ethnic Korean dresses and fabric.

Seoul is unusual among Asian cities for the diversity of its cultural life, from pop confections exported across Asia (sitcoms and rock bands boast millions of Chinese and Japanese fans) to sophisticated contemporary art. Seoul artists, directors, and designers are noted for their ability to link traditional Korean culture with avant-garde techniques. (The well-known video artist Nam June Paik, for example, made Buddhist-mandala-like sculptures out of discarded Samsung television sets.) In Seoul, as in New York and Berlin, one feels the pulse of a democratic society. There is a bit of national pride as well, directed at Japan, Korea’s former colonizer, and at China, the giant next door.

All this cultural ferment, of course, takes place in the shadow of totalitarian North Korea, only 30 miles from downtown Seoul. Yet North Korea does not haunt Seoulites’ way of life. I remember a different mind-set a few decades ago, pre-democracy. North Korea looked more threatening at the time; many rebellious Seoul students would have supported it against the South Korean military leadership; plenty of Seoulites still had family connections up north. Today, only a few leftist Seoul intellectuals wax nostalgic about Pyongyang. For most South Koreans, North Korea is neither dreamland nor nightmare. It has vanished from their concerns, seemingly as far away as the moon; it is a place you watch on television, not a neighbor you fear or a distant cousin.

Foreign tourists still visit the border, famously known as the demilitarized zone, or DMZ; at the village of Panmunjom, they watch the North Korean military marching near the armistice line, only yards away from American soldiers on the other side. Seoulites seldom drive to the DMZ, though, and when they do, it will often be for picnicking, since the area has become, by historical accident, a bird haven. Seoul’s anxieties about North Korea, to the extent any remain, have also been eased by the creation of a free-trade zone in the North Korean city of Kaesong, where South Korean factories employ North Korean workers. Even North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean ship in April 2010 did not have an effect on Kaesong’s business.

Should the North Korean regime collapse, Seoulites don’t expect anything like the wave of refugees that surged into the West after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Though they hesitate to say it, most would prefer North Koreans to stay up north in such a case, at least until the countries’ economies are more in sync. They imagine something akin to China’s annexation of Hong Kong, a city that retains its institutions behind a sealed border.

With Seoul’s population burgeoning and the city limits restrained by geography, where to put everyone? Mayor Oh’s partial solution: skyscrapers. Tall buildings are everywhere these days—the tallest of all being the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, rising to a dizzying 2,717 feet. But what Oh envisions for Seoul is nevertheless unprecedented: several huge towers that would effectively be vertical towns. Three of these tower projects are currently planned for Seoul, with one, “Seoul Lite,” already under construction. Seoul Lite will be 2,000 feet tall, with 133 floors; it will hold condos, a luxury hotel, office space, malls, concert halls, schools, health-care facilities, and other services, all in one building. About 20,000 people are expected to live permanently in the tower, with as many as 50,000 occupying it during the workday. Are Seoulites ready to live on the hundredth floor of a tower? It seems so: these towers aren’t the mayor’s utopian dream but private business ventures, driven and managed by chaebols. Seoul Lite is a Daewoo project; another tower, south of the Han, has been proposed by the Lotte real-estate firm; and Samsung wants to build a cluster of tall buildings, with Daniel Libeskind as lead architect.

Seoul Lite’s sponsors claim that its condos are selling briskly and at higher prices than anywhere else in the city. It may help, the mayor says, that the building will be “an iconic construction, the first tower one will see when driving from the airport to the central city.” Seoul Lite will be trendily ecological, too, since its hollow center will encourage air circulation, reducing energy costs. (Though Seoul isn’t suffering from bad pollution these days, South Koreans are enthusiastic about green development, seeing it as a promising business venture.) Seoul Lite could also ease traffic congestion in the city: “Its residents will tend not to move around so much, since so many services will be available right where they live,” Oh tells me. The city plans to build elevated “sky trains” to connect the towers with one another, with the downtown area, and with the Incheon airport.

Will the towers and sky trains actually materialize? The Korean opposition on the left generally isn’t enamored with any chaebol enterprise. But this isn’t North Korea, which means, as Oh observes, that “eventually, the market will decide.” If Seoul does opt for the skyscrapers, he believes, the city could become a model for the booming megalopolises of the developing world. And the firms behind Seoul’s proposed towers would like to replicate their dream globally. A vision of São Paulo’s or Jakarta’s citizens driving Hyundais, watching news broadcasts at traffic lights on Samsung smartphones, and on their way home to Korean-built sky towers is typically Korean in 2010. And it is the ambition of free citizens.

Guy Sorman, a City Journal contributing editor, is the author of Economics Does Not Lie and many other books. He serves as an advisor to South Korean president Lee Myung Bak.

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