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Zhangjiagang, China: The Future of Urban Life?

Is this the kind of city we’ll all soon be living in? Or does this model not replicate as easily as it’s designers would have you believe?

If Zhangjiagang is what urbanization means in the 21st century then I’m optimistic about the future. But this is what I’m suppose to say upon visiting this city which is auspiciously placed on the Yangzi River in the east of China. To put it simply, Zhangjiagang is a “Model City,” a place systematically created to be modern, rich, clean, and a nice place to live and work. You visit this city to taste the future of urban life, and I have to admit that the flavor is a touch Singaporean.

I knew I’d arrived in the city immediately upon entering. One minute I was peddling my bicycle out in farm country, the next I was enveloped in a sea of brand new, pinkish/ white high-rises. “Immaculate” was the first word that came to my lips — but I nearly said beautiful.

The highway that I rode in on turned into an avenue, and it was wide open, freshly paved, smooth, and had rows of well groomed bushes lined up down its median and along its flanks. There was a massive park to my right that had big, sturdy deciduous trees dropping shade over a nicely trimmed, green lawn and gently rolling artificial hills. The high-rises, for once, did not look like something out of an apocalyptic future disaster movie, but actually looked like suitable places to live — and their bright exteriors and modernistic style seemed to add to the scene. There was even a public bike exchange system in effect. In all, this seemed like an incredibly livable city — which is what it was designed to be.

Though I have to admit that everything here seemed to have been scripted for an act that was to take place on a different stage: the well-groomed parks, impeccable landscaping, obsessive compulsive cleanness, and pinkish/ bright white buildings looked like something you would expect to find in the wealthy suburbs of Miami-Dade County or Dubai, not inland China.

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Streets of the future, Zhangjiagang

It was clear that this city was designed in just about every way to be the opposite of what Chinese cities once had a tendency of being: i.e. overcrowded, congested, choked with traffic, dirty, unplanned, and inconsistently developed. It is like a team of urban developers took a massive survey of all they ways that Chinese cities suck and set out to correct them in a masterpiece they branded Zhangjiagang.

This city was built not just to conform with the demands of the modern, post-globalization era, but to usher it in with a red carpet, brass band, and proverbial ribbon cutting. I was only riding into another city, but it felt as though I was entering another country — or another time period. The place certainly earned the title giga-modern. China is raising the bar of what developed means, and cities like Zhangjiagang are the working models they have to show for it. The future is now and we are it, is the message I think they are trying to send.

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Public bicycle sharing system

I soon found myself at the center of this city of 1.3 million people, and I parked my bike at the edge of the buxingjie, and walked into a pedestrian mall that was made up like a smaller scale of Shanghai’s Nanjing Dong Lu. Expensive shops lined both sides of the street: there were nice restaurants, international eateries, hotels, an inordinate number of spas, and, of course, stores selling all manner of fashionable clothing. The walking street was packed full of shoppers, and it was clear that this was one of the main forms of recreation in this city. I suppose frivolously spending money is the main way to fully manifest the joy of having it. Unlike in Huaxi — where the people are said to be super rich but there’s no place in town to spend money — Zhangjiagang is a rich person’s playground.

After digging on the shopping mania for a while, I hopped back on my bike and took off to investigate the parameters of this city. On its northern edge I slammed on my brakes and took a long look at what I was riding through: it was a scene that so closely resembled an American suburb that I almost took it for granted. A Shell gas station was even built there, seemingly for effect. I continued riding along the tree lined streets and found a new zone of the city that was just under development. Towering apartment blocks were rising up into the sky, and it was clear that this city was still growing.

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The making of a model city

There was virtually nothing here in the 1980’s — or at least nothing that resembles the Zhangjiagang of today. China’s economic reforms of that tumultuous era started a transformation that took a backwoods agricultural community and morphed it into a model city. Like many other “New China Cities,” Zhangjiagang seemed to have been designed under a singular development scheme and build from the ground up.

“Zhangjiagang is one of the richest cities in China,” a man in the bottled water business told me in the bus station. But he quickly retracted his statement and corrected himself, “No, it’s the richest city.”

Many municipalities across China lay claim to the “richest city” title, from Shanghai to Karamay, but I’ve never seen Zhangjiagang topping any of the GDP lists. But this city is incredibly wealthy none the less.

“How did the people in this city get so much money?” I asked my new acquaintance.

“They have a lot of factories,” he answered simply.

In China, economic reform = factories, and Zhangjiagang has a lot of them.

Being placed on the Yangzi river just 100 km from Shanghai, Zhangjiagang was in a perfect location to serve as one of mainland China’s first manufacturing epicenters. The reforms began in the 80s, and the economy here has been growing exponentially ever since. In 1992, the Zhangjiagang Free Trade Zone was created, and a year later the companies in the city were given permission to engage in international trade. Since then, Zhangjiagang has been looking at 20% annual economic growth, which is to say: incredible.

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This just doesn’t look like China

This progress has not gone unnoticed, as Zhangjiagang has been awarded the UN Habitat Scroll of Honor Award, was selected as a “unique model city for all of China,” was given the honorary title of “China’s Best Economic Zone with Most Investment Potential,” ranked third on China’s “Top 100 Cities Ranking with Economic Strength” list, and has probably been bestowed with a dozen and a half other honors that sound as equally made up.

The rules of life

In order to encourage investment, the government launched campaigns and worked out rules, emphasizing courtesy, mutual respect, and obedience to authority. –Zhangjiagang official webpage

“Singaporean” is perhaps the best adjective to describe how the model cities of China operate. The heavy hand of law makes sure that these places live up to the images they are suppose to represent, and, what is rare for China, these regulations are actually seem to be enforced. Spitting is punished in Zhangjiagang, and so is littering. There are street signs everywhere which make it known that honking and three wheel bicycle carts are banned. It has even been recorded that every household in the city were given pamphlets which listed the 10 “don’ts” and 6 “dos” of what the Chinese government calls civilized behavior. What these pamphlets entailed, I don’t know, but they probably said something along the lines of: don’t piss in the streets, put your garbage in trash receptacles, don’t dry your laundry by hanging it outside your windows, do what you’re told, and, above all, make sure this place stays looking nice.

The city is a work of art, everything is either painted to perfection or is in the progress of becoming so. I have to say that the effect is bio-dome-esque; dare I say, artificial. If cities are monuments to man’s triumphs over nature, then these new Chinese urban creations should be placed on the top shelf of our species’ collective menagerie. Needless to say, Zhangjiagang is held up as a model for the future of urban life.

Pollution

“Today, the city is doing its best to contain pollution to protect its natural environment.”

This was written on Jiangsu province’s official website, and is the Chinese way of saying: Zhangjiagang is hella polluted. With 72 km of river bank frontage, the area around the city was ripe for industrializing. Not only did this access to a major waterway allow the city to become a major shipping hub, but it also provides its factories with a convenient way to dump their waste. Power plants,  chemical and steel factories, etc . . . make up Zhangjiagang’s economic development corridor, and the ramifications of this can all too well be imagined.

“They have a lot of money, but their environment isn’t very good,” a Taizhou native who works in Zhangjiagang told me, and this wasn’t an understatement.

This “Model City” is highly polluted and the people there know it. The more developed, educated, and wealthy a city becomes the more the people living there tend to cultivate a “not in my backyard” mentality. It was the factories that made many people in Zhangjiagang rich, but it is these same factories that are poisoning them. Nobody likes being polluted. The search for cleaner industry and other economic strategies will begin in these wealthy, though environmentally ravaged, zones of China — but it is a crap shoot whether alternatives will be found to sustain the appetite of such a rapidly growing economic beast.

Conclusion

I did not leave Zhangjiagang with the impression that something sneaky and sinister was going on beneath the facade as I did in Huaxi, but whether this city can be duplicated throughout China is something I’m very unsure about. The strength of a model lies in the fact that it can be replicated over and over again. Zhangjiagang was able to rise to economic heights because of its location (in the east of China, near Shanghai, on the Yangzi river) and the timing of its development (right at the beginning of China’s economic boom). It is unclear to me how replicate-able this city really is.

It is my impression that what we will see in China is not a mass of Zhangjiagangs spreading over the land, but in their thirst for development poorer cities may eat up the dirty industries that the Zhangjiagang and its ilk shed off, and the wasteland will continue growing.

The New Chinese socialism is sold as something that will make everyone in the country economically able, and places such as Zhangjiagang and Huaxi are held up as examples of what everyone could have. But the analogy is like holding up a movie star, a sports figure, or a politician as examples of what a kid could achieve if he or she studies hard and does what their teacher tells them. Sure, some kids will obtain a high level of success, but it’s not a feasible ambition for the entire class. Like super successful people, super successful cities often had the cards stacked in their favor from the get go. The model city is not for everyone.

Map

View Jiangsu places in a larger map

Sources

Zhangjiagang Wikipedia
Zhangjiagang Wikitravel
Zhangjiagang official site

Filed under: Changing China, China, Globalization, Urbanization

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3548 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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