At the urging of several readers, I’m now reading James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State, which is a critique of what Scott calls “high modernism”: the kind of “clean slate” thinking that so enthused Western elites during the 20th century. I’ll probably have more to say about Scott’s book once I’m farther into it, but it reminded me of this excellent article about China by The Nation‘s Chris Hayes, published last December after he took a trip there:
The key, in the eyes of the government that runs Chongqing, is planning. “We have plans, timetables and goals in our minds whenever we do anything,” said Qian Lee, who works in the local government’s foreign economic outreach bureau.
“We as a government give guidance and sort of categorize those who want to come to the cities,” Wen said. “There are several tiers…. The first group of villagers will go to the downtown center. The second group will go to six regional centers we are building. And the third group will go to the urban places that are closest to their home villages, such as the country towns and townships…. We have thirty-one district centers and 103 towns.” For each of these three tiers–downtown Chongqing, the six satellites and the thirty-one district centers–the government has annual targeted population levels for the next three years.
Chongqing is so proud of this planned vision it has constructed a $50 million exhibition hall on the banks of the Yangtze that showcases its past, present and future. Its centerpiece is an 892-square-meter scale model of the city. The tour guide flips a switch, and a comic-book night descends on the model; the rivers glow indigo. She flips another switch and lights up several dozen clusters of buildings, future projections of structures that will be completed in the next five years, then the next ten. Finally she puts all the lights on to reveal the future of Chongqing in all its miniature glory.
The tour ends in a room with a 360-degree, full-screen projection of a computer-rendered flyover of the future metropolis. Unlike the real smogbound and dreary Chongqing, it is bathed in piercing sunlight, and because of software limitations or of an oversight by the creators, not one of the humans who populate this new world–its expensive waterside condos, outdoor stadium and grand office building lobbies–is Chinese.
The ethos that animates this exhibition hall, a High Modernist faith in progress brought about by “scientific” planning, is so distant from the demoralized America of 2009 that my time in the city felt like a visit to Chicago in 1890 on the eve of the World’s Fair. (Shanghai will be hosting the World Expo next year.) There’s no larger representation of this animating faith than the Three Gorges Dam, which we toured one afternoon. The project took fifteen years and cost $30 billion. It will eventually provide up to 4 percent of China’s electricity (the equivalent of about 500 coal-fired power plants). In order to build it, 1.25 million people were forced out of their homes on the banks of the Yangzte, and 1,500 archaeological sites, including ancient temples, were drowned.
To the Chinese elites we talked with, though, the future is everything. Although Chinese civilization (and administrative bureaucracy) is 5,000 years old, no one seemed interested in talking about anything that occurred before 1978. Such intense futurism is easy to lampoon, but it also seems the only worldview one could hold on to in the face of the challenges Chinese planners must overcome. Pick any major city in America and start adding 500,000 people a year. It wouldn’t be long before it broke under the strain. It is no small thing to design a sewer system for a city growing at that pace. Just ask the 10 million residents of Mumbai’s slums, whose lives are literally mired in shit because there is no access to a sewage system. So if the dark side of Chongqing is the triumph of Robert Moses’s vision over that of Jane Jacobs, the silver lining is that–at a technical level, at least–this vision is pursued and executed with what seemed like an impressive degree of mastery.
Skepticism is warranted about the apparent technical mastery of high modernist planners. The reason high modernism was so seductive to 20th century intellectuals was precisely that viewing grandiose plans from a distance makes their flaws hard to spot. If a visitor from Europe had toured one of America’s great urban highways or public housing projects the year the opened, he probably would have been impressed by the ambition and seeming technical mastery they exhibited. The same can be said for Soviet communism in its early years, which fooled a number of otherwise-intelligent journalists.
Viewing a high modernist project at a snapshot in time can give a very misleading impression. There’s no way a scale model or a tour can tell you what the human cost of the project might have been. Nor is there any way to know if the grandiose promises made for it will be realized.
China is going through roughly the same phase of technological development that the Western world passed through in the first half of the 20th century: the country has mastered the basics of industrialization and are reaping huge gains from economies of scale and a more educated workforce. The engineers and bureaucrats who are organizing ever-more-impressive feats of industrial production have, like their Western counterparts of a century ago, convinced themselves that a society can be planned in the same manner that a factory floor can be.
This is unlikely to be any more true in China than it was in the West; it turns out that people don’t like being treated like interchangeable cogs in a vast machine. But as in the West, it will take a while for ordinary people to figure out how to organize themselves to effectively resist these schemes.