How China looks to the future to forget the past

GEOFF DYER – The Financial Times

Copyright The Financial Times
It is easy to be put off by the bureaucratic name, but one of the most interesting tourist trips in Shanghai is to go around the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall.
When I recommend it to visitors I often get strange looks. But my guests appreciate the advice, even if they sometimes come back with a quizzical look on their faces, unsure if they should be impressed or intimidated by what they have just seen.
The urban planning museum is Shanghai’s monument to its future. The centrepiece is a 600 sq m model – the size of two tennis courts – that shows what Shanghai will look like in 2020. The city already has about 3,000 high-rise buildings, which are each represented in the model, while the many other towers it intends to build are left white and transparent.
All the dizzying ambition is there in one room – the skyscrapers that western architects could not get built in their home cities, the planned eco-city on a nearby island and the train lines that levitate on magnets. And not a sign of air pollution or traffic jams.
Success has attracted imitators. Chongqing, a city on the Yangtze river 2,000km inland from Shanghai, recently opened its own planning museum, although Chongqing boasts that its city model is larger at 892 sq m. If Shanghai was the Chinese urban phenomenon of the 1990s, when it built a whole new city on the largely unused Pudong side of the river, Chongqing is going through the most spectacular construction boom of this decade.
Shanghai’s Pudong district was the first example of the “build it and the people will come model”, where the government invests huge amounts in construction in the hope that residents will occupy the flats – which, by and large, they have. Now Chongqing is benefiting from massive Beijing largesse to remake an entire metropolis.
The population is about 6m nowbut the city is adding some 300,000 inhabitants a year. Officials believe Chongqing could be the fastest growing city on the planet and the museum charts that progress. In most countries, museums explain the past: in China, they map out the future.
There is a fairly obvious propaganda function to all this. The Chinese Communist party no longer has a set of ideas to give it legitimacy but what it does offer is economic progress. There has been a relentless quality to the country’s growth over the past two decades and the museums try to project a relentless advance for the next two decades. China long ago abandoned Marxist economic planning for the market, but it has not discarded planning as an expression of political power. The museums have a clear message from the party: we are still in charge.
Government is a top-down process in China, which the city models also reflect. It is part of the folklore of the Shanghai museum that when it opened in 2000, many local visitors discovered for the first time that their neighbourhood was to be razed to make way for some new high-rise.
Chongqing is now going through the same process, with the museum taking the place of a public inquiry. “China handles these situations differently from other countries,” says Liu Jing, a guide at the Chongqing museum. “In Europe there would be an exchange of ideas. In China, people see the government plans and then react.”
In Chongqing there is an added sensitivity. The city is close to the area of the Yangtze that is being abandoned as the river rises to fill the Three Gorges Dam and some of the residents are being relocated to Chongqing. The planning museum has a section on traditional villages in the region, the best preserved of which is called Gong Tan. But it will be “overwhelmed” by the river, as the guide puts it.
Talking about the future can also be a way of ignoring the past and the museums are another symptom of China’s historical amnesia. The 40th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution passed recently without official comment and with a ban on media discussion. Two weeks ago it was the turn of the Tiananmen massacre anniversary to go unremarked.
China has a large backlog of difficult historical events, often involving the role of the party, that have never been properly digested. Instead, the party hopes that economic advances will simply wash away all the accumulated grievances. As a result, the planning museums are a better mirror of the society than their designers intended. They are the symbol of an economy that sometimes seems lighter than air, but also of a country running as fast as it can from a past that one day will catch it up.
The writer is the FT’s Shanghai correspondent

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