Joel Kotkin joins Seth Barron to discuss China’s urbanization, class tensions in Chinese cities, and the country’s increasingly sophisticated population surveillance.

Rapid migration from China’s countryside to its cities began in 1980. Many of the rural migrants arrived without hukou, or residential permits, making it harder to secure access to education, health care, and other services. The result: the creation of a massive urban underclass in many Chinese cities. Rising tensions in urban areas has led Chinese officials to look to technology for alternative methods of social control, ranging from facial-recognition systems to artificial intelligence.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is, Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Coming up on the show today, my colleague Seth Barron talks with long-time contributing editor and friend of City Journal, social theorist Joel Kotkin. Joel’s essay in our forthcoming issue is called “China’s Urban Crisis,” and we’re going to preview the piece with a conversation on today’s the podcast.

Speaking of the magazine, you’ll be happy to know that the Spring 2019 Issue should be arriving in your mailbox in the next couple weeks. In the issue, we have: Kay Hymowitz on the plague of loneliness, Ed Glaeser on the millennial attraction to socialism, John Tierney on how technology could transform the way Americans buy prescription drugs, and more.

Lastly, if you don’t already, make sure you follow us on Instagram @CityJournal_MI

That’s it for me, the conversation between Seth Barron and Joel Kotkin begins after this.

Seth Barron: Hi everyone. Welcome back to 10 Blocks, the podcast of City Journal. This is your host for today Seth Barron, associate editor for City Journal. Joel Kotkin is a contributing editor at City Journal and the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His latest piece in the Spring issue of City Journal is called "China's Urban Crisis." Thanks for joining us, Joel.

Joel Kotkin: It's my pleasure.

Seth Barron: So China has the world's largest economy now, and it's growing at a rapid clip. So what's the crisis?

Joel Kotkin: Well, first of all, there's a lot of debate whether it's actually the largest economy, but it's certainly now the second largest economy for sure. Well, the crisis is that first of all, that large economy is spread over a much larger population, so it's not nearly as affluent. But also it's an economy that's grown very, very rapidly and oddly enough for a socialist country in a very unequal way, with some of the worst aspects of capitalist development that you could ever imagine.

Seth Barron: Such as?

Joel Kotkin: Well, for instance, you have an enormous population, 400 million people living in rural China who are basically poor. You have these people who do not have permits to live in the urban centers. Fortunately, I have Chinese friends who snuck me into these places and, you know, they are just like, not too different from a favela in Brazil, they are just huge concentrations of poor people, as a very good author on China Lee Sun mentions. She says China's wealth has been based on the sweat of a working class that's been exploited.

Seth Barron: That does seem a little, disconsonant with Mao's vision of how China was supposed to be, you know.

Joel Kotkin: Well, of course, Mao's vision was really a, I mean, not, you know, obviously mad, a bit of a madman, but Mao's vision was obviously somewhat more egalitarian and also much more based in rural China as opposed to being a heavily urbanized China. So I think that this is something that, I think Mao would be turning over in his grave. But, you know, in many ways, it is borrowing from some of the worst aspects of Maoism increasingly these days with a very strong surveillance, very much a kind of dominant, sort of, communist ideology that's being rammed into people and surveillance technology, which, our friends at Google, could only dream of.

Seth Barron: So I seem to remember it used to be that China had a one-child policy because they wanted to control their exploding population and they were sort of praised for this. But now it seems like, at least from what your article says, the country doesn't enough children. So what happened?

Joel Kotkin: Well, you know, I can understand from Deng Xiaoping's point of view, given that when he took power in the 90s, you know, and he looked around and he saw, here's this country with this enormous population, that it was probably very scary. Mao had no concept of birth control and so in many ways, there was probably a need to limit the population size. But the one child policy has created so many issues. One of them of course, is because of the preference for boys over girls, over 30 million more boys than girls are of marriageable age. So there's all sorts of social problems. The thing that's really interesting and it goes to work I've done in Singapore and elsewhere is when you have a very expensive, very competitive, very dense society, which China now has in terms of strong urban concentration, people just don't have children. Particularly as people get educated, particularly women get educated they feel that they just can't afford to have children. When I work in China, very often I'll talk to translators and people who I'm working with and if they're female, they say, "well, I don't have time for kids. I can't afford one." And in that way, it's very much like Taiwan. It's very much like Hong Kong. It's something that's spread throughout East Asia. Some of the lowest birth rates in the world now are in East Asia. The fertility rate in Beijing and Shanghai is 0.8, which is almost a third of what it would take to replace the population and there are not enough young children being born in the countryside to make up for it. So China's going to have an enormous long-term problem. Right now, they're in that period where they still have this large, young, active population. That's part of their ascendancy, has been that. But in the next 10, 20, 30 years, the number of retirees will grow and the number of workers will decline. We have some of the same problems, but, a we have immigration to somewhat counteract it and because America is a large country with, with ample land, and people can live in suburban houses and have babies probably in a better situation.

Seth Barron: So it sounds like China is facing the same sort of problem that Japan is, but I think you talking about this, this issue of growing old before you get rich.

Joel Kotkin: Exactly and my friend Ted Fishman's written about that quite a bit. It's a situation. Japan accumulated the wealth to pay for its retirement if you will and also Japan doesn't have hegemonic ambitions at this stage of its history. So it's, it's willing to, to say we're just going to have a comfortable retirement. China not only has hegemonic sentiments but also it doesn't have enough money because it was poor for so long. It's not nearly as rich as Japan. And so they're going to have a very, very difficult time in the future, I would think.

Seth Barron: Now, China has also gone from being a mostly rural country to largely urban, I think, much more quickly than any other society ever has.

Joel Kotkin: Yes.

Seth Barron: So I would imagine that causes all kinds of social dislocation.

Joel Kotkin: Well, there's this rapid urbanization has always caused disruption. I'm, you know, I'm a great fan of Engle's work on the condition of the working class in England. England was another society where this happened and it created tremendous turmoil. It created turmoil in this country as well, but America always had a little more land, so it wasn't quite as dramatic. But China has done it, it's done incredibly rapidly. It's gone from one of the least urbanized big societies in the world to one of the more urbanized societies and it's got a ways to go.

Seth Barron: So you referenced this earlier, but in your piece, you talk about what sounds like illegal, a situation of like illegal immigration, but internally.

Joel Kotkin: Yes.

Seth Barron: So people move to the city. It sounds like millions of people who moved to the cities, but they're not allowed to officially be there. Is that, is that correct? What is life like for them?

Joel Kotkin: Well, it depends. Now I've known people, for instance, who were attorneys in Beijing and they don't have residency, but they send the kids to private school and they go to private doctors and it's not so terrible. But if you take a working class person from the countryside with, you know, who's doing manual labor, their lives are very, very difficult. And in many ways, the urban Chinese from everything I'm looking at, don't really like having these people around, you know, very much reacting sometimes the way some Americans may react to all of a sudden, let's say having a large population from Central America all of a sudden in their neighborhood. They don't really like it very much, but the fact of the matter is, is at least on, and others have pointed out, it is the muscle and the sweat and the hard work of these Chinese people from the countryside that have created the economic miracle.

Seth Barron: But then you wind up with like a second class of citizens, I guess. I mean, do these, can these people get medical care or education or...

Joel Kotkin: Well, it depends. There are some attempts to try to do something about that and there were some attempts on the part of the Chinese government to sort of bring industry out of the big cities and bring it into the more rural areas and maybe provide something more. But the pattern is so powerful the other direction and so I think a lot of these people do live kind of like some of our undocumented do. They live in a sort of Netherworld. The differences, the undocumented in our country are not American citizens. These people are fully Chinese citizens, they're Han Chinese. They, you know, they speak Chinese, they're Chinese culture and yet they're second class citizens in the urban environment. And the policy of the Chinese government seems to be, particularly with Beijing and Shanghai is to create almost like glittering model cities, which will be really for the middle class and the elites. And I'm a big fan of Chinese science fiction and there's one story called "Folding Beijing" in which the city, there were sort of three cities on the same space and they, they rise and fall. There's a middle class city, there's a poor city and a rich city. One of the things that's very interesting in Chinese science-fiction and also you find it in looking at Chinese society is how class driven it is. I mean, it's increasingly the case that those who rise up are the people connected to the Communist Party, are in the elites, very much in the way that we might see in a, in a Western society. But obviously, the Western society doesn't pretend to be a social socialist, egalitarian society.

Seth Barron: So, for years I've heard about these, basically, these cities that China's built from the ground up from nothing that are intended to house millions of people and I don't know if are yet or if they're not. But from an urbanist's perspective, what are these places like? Are they pleasant or, I mean, are these like Jane Jacobs visions of an organic, I mean, I guess not, but I mean, what, what is it like to be in these places?

Joel Kotkin: Well, I, you know, I have, I haven't explored it, some of my colleagues have some of these what they call "ghost cities" and there's some debate about that. But I can tell you something. Even the years I've been going to China and, you know, I'm not, you know, I don't live there. And so I, you know, I can't pretend that I, you know, I see every permutation. The Chinese cities that I see today are really unpleasant environments in that they're not, it's not like they're dirty of the sewers don't work. In many cases, their infrastructure is better than ours. I mean, I have to say Beijing may have better infrastructure than New York does, but which probably wouldn't be that hard.

Seth Barron: It's not that hard.

Joel Kotkin: But and I won't speak for Los Angeles either, but when you go into these cities: uniform, high rise buildings with, you know, with shopping malls and really not interesting places, and it's not that, that's what the Chinese do naturally because in the United States where the Chinese live, they moved to the suburbs as fast as they can. And in these little pockets that were, that have been preserved, some of the old parts of Beijing and the foreign missions, let's say the areas of, like in Tianjin, they're charming and they're wonderful urban neighborhoods with interesting restaurants and shops and people walking around it. But they're building a form of urbanism, which in many ways maybe is like the Hudson Yards. It's, it's that kind of inhuman, Gargantuan scale, which has no organic growth. What makes New York an attractive city or Paris, where my wife's family's from is that it grew organically. Yes, New York became very built up, but it took over many, many years. And so when you walk around, you can see a little pocket of something that used to exist and maybe something that is still family owned. I mean, you still have Sarge's. You still have these little pieces of the Old New York.

Seth Barron: Well, there's some texture to it.

Joel Kotkin: Exactly. That's exactly the word texture. New York still has texture. I mean, places like Hudson yards don't have texture, but these places really have texture. That texture is sort of gone in a place like Beijing. And it's interesting when you read the historical accounts, Beijing was filled with these wonderful sort of courtyard houses and there were, there was sort of a liveliness to it. And I even witnessed some of it when I started going to China in the 80s, with the beginnings of the reform period. You know, it was a very was a very dynamic kind of environment and now you have, my Chinese friends have to find the little pieces that are still left. But the rest of it is this, this monolithic, incredibly large scale, unappealing environment and of course one that doesn't encourage people to have children.

Seth Barron: So you mentioned before something about the surveillance technology and we hear a lot about this with facial recognition and the use of social credit scores to you know, keep people off of trains if they said the wrong thing on the internet or, what is the state of surveillance technology in China? Where is it going and how do all of these various social pressures, like where are we headed? Where is China headed?

Joel Kotkin: Well, we also have to ask a question, are we headed in China's direction?

Seth Barron: Well, that's a good question.

Joel Kotkin: But, certainly now I have not been in western China where this is at the most extreme level as a form of social control for the Muslim population. I think you're really dealing with, with a "surveillance society," as David Lyon would put it. It's, you know, where basically the state gives to itself the right to sort of know everything about you and to monitor everything as much as they possibly can. And if they could get inside your head and read your thoughts, they would do that too. And again, this is a big theme in Chinese science fiction. So, you know, what you find is that this thought control, which is well beyond anything that George Orwell could've ever thought about, it's probably a little bit closer to a Brave New World. You know, basically, as Huxley said, if you married technology to repression, it'd be very hard to reverse. And then the other side, the traditional constraints of society: family, various, you know, local traditions, those get obliterated, then the state really can step in and sort of manipulate the society, manipulate what people think, you know, make it very difficult for people who are different. And of course, increasingly as we're seeing, they can, they can restrict nonprofits, NGOs, they can restrict scholars they don't like, they can really do things that are, make it very, very difficult to bring discordant thoughts into the minds of the ordinary Chinese. And so you're really seeing the big creation of a new form of urbanism. That is, I think, fright, you know, quite frightening. And I think something that, unfortunately, I think a lot of American tech companies see as a great opportunity.

Seth Barron: It sounds almost like China. I mean with the growing middle-class and the cramping down on personal freedom, and the whole dependence on a rapidly expanding economy. I mean it sounds like they're kind of setting themselves up for a revolution as it worries. Is there, I mean I've heard this, but is there a possibility of such a thing happening?

Joel Kotkin: Well, some of the people, and again, I think Lee Sun would be the best one to talk to about this, but well, she suggests that if there's a revolution, it's probably going to come from the bottom, from the people who are at the bottom and then those people at the university. It's like there are now these Marxist study groups at Chinese universities who the government of a Marxist country discourages because they're saying, well, look, this is what the People's republic was set up to do. And this is the world that you're living in, which is if you're a peasant born in a small town somewhere, yes, is life better than it was 50 years ago? Certainly. People aren't starving to death and things like that like they were then. But your chance of ascending into the middle, much less the upper classes are pretty limited at this stage of the game. And, you know, we have these problems too. You know, that's why I just finished a book about the return of feudalism. So I, I mean, I think this is a global problem, but China, because it's married to an authoritarian state with essentially no restraints. I mean, they really can do anything they want. I mean look, they were arresting, you know, Canadians, you know, because you know, they're in a spat with Canada. That's very, very, very scary. Now where I think, you know, you mentioned China's economy. I think China's economy is much more vulnerable than people think. I'm not a fan of president Trump, but, I think, a lot of people, whether they're pro Trump or not, understand that somebody has got to call their bluff at some point. We just can't keep exporting every, you know, all our capital and more importantly, buying all our products from China, having them replace domestic industry. By the way, this is not only a problem for us. It's a problem for Mexico. It's a problem for Europe. But I think their economy is vulnerable because, you know, first of all, wages have risen. It's gotten expensive. Their workforce as we discussed is getting smaller and you know, the young Chinese I don't think are going to be willing to work the way their fathers were. This, I wrote about this in Japan back in the 80s. I knew enough young Japanese to know they weren't going to work the way their parents did. They're growing up wealthy. They're growing up comfortable. They're not going to work those 80, 90 hour weeks that even my generation in Japan, worked. And so I think that you're going to see a lot of strains. There are also throughout Southeast Asia, a lot of concern about China. I mean, our best friends are probably the Vietnamese because they're quite scared. I just came back from Australia last week. And you know, the Australians, I mean, on the one hand, they welcomed the money from China and the investment and all that, but they're scared. They're scared. So there are a lot of countries who, if the United States in particular, and maybe some way the EU proved that they could stand up and ally themselves with India and Japan and Southeast Asia, I think China's world domination may have to be put on hold. But, but again, it's going to take people's will to fight back against it and it's going to be a real race because there are lots of things that China has done and done brilliantly that now can be answered with a AI, with automation, with rational organization of our companies, with alliances that we could make with our partners in Mexico and elsewhere that we could really, really make a counteraction.

Joel Kotkin: I mean we basically have rolled over and let the Chinese do whatever they want and if we want, if that continues, I think that the Chinese, ascendancy will continue. But there are so many contradictions, demographic contradictions. The fact that when I talk to my young Chinese friends, they're, they're not communists. They're not, they don't believe in this stuff and then I remember on my last trip or the trip before, Shenzhen was setting up a, they wanted to compete with Hong Kong as a service sector economy. And, I asked an impolite question, which was, exactly, how am I supposed to compete in a global economy when I don't have access to the Wall Street Journal?

Seth Barron: Excellent question. China: dream or nightmare. Joel, thanks so much for coming. Don't forget to check out Joel Kotkin's work on We'd also love to hear your comments about today's episode on Twitter @CityJournal #10Blocks. Lastly, if you like our show and want to hear more of it, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes. This is your host, Seth Barron. Joel, thanks so much for joining us.

Joel Kotkin: Thank you.

Photo by China Photos/Getty Images

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