While Britain flounders, China forges ahead, by Cliff Hague

It seems appropriate that my last column of the decade is being written in China. Why? Since 2010 China has added over 150 million urban dwellers: what happens here in the 2020s will impact on the future of the planet.

Britain, its Brexit obsession and General Election, seem rather inconsequential. Will HS2 get built, or should the money be put into better connecting the cities in the north of England? Heathrow extension? More house building? End of austerity and rebooting the economy? A new city? These are the kind of projects that China gets done before breakfast.

I landed at Pudong airport that opened in 1999. From there I was driven the 70 miles or so to Suzhou to do a lecture in Soochow University, a campus that was rice fields 15 years ago. Another 35 miles of continuous urban areas took me to Jiangnan University in Wuxi, a city of about 6 million. It is another campus university that now has 25,000 students and effectively is a city within a city. On the way we passed innumerable blocks of flats of dizzying height, glitzy office complexes, huge factories and logistics centres, the insignias of just about every global brand you can imagine, and the Wuxi film studies developed in industrial buildings that had become derelict. This whole area is part of one of China’s three "metropolitan circles", the strategically planned east coast regions that have driven the national economy this past decade and taken millions of people out of rural poverty. High speed rail connections have shrunk time-distances between the various hubs, creating jobs and metropolitan labour markets, and making the one hour train journeys between Leeds and Manchester look a joke, a relic of times past.

Since our 2010 General Election set the UK on the road to austerity, China has been rolling out this infrastructure-driven growth strategy not just at home, but across Africa, Asia, the Pacific and even into central Europe. The deals trade infrastructure for long term access to resources and strategically important sites. The whole thing is packaged and integrated in the Belt and Road Initiative. The structures that will shape the world in the 2020s (and beyond) have been put into place.

A lot of the infrastructure will age at the same time, and there are downsides, not least the pollution and congestion. Yet the idea of harmony is deeply rooted in Chinese culture; over the last five years or so there has been a shift to address these problems and the wider climate emergency. In the 2020s much will depend on the success or failure of these efforts, not just for China, but for all of us.

One more thing. With UK academics on the picket lines after a dispiriting decade, if you can teach urban design, landscape architecture or conservation and fancy moving to work in a Chinese university where your talents are more likely to be appreciated, then get in touch and I can pass on your interest.

Cliff Hague OBE is a freelance consultant and researcher


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