Page 1



With infrastructural investment and government policy shifting resources to small and medium-sized cities in order to shoulder much of the burden of future economic growth, understanding the opportunities and constraints of urbanization in small and medium-sized cities has never been more important.


All images, text and design layout copyright of Joey Dembs and Flamingo Group Unauthorized attribution is not permitted

It's a tumultuous time in China. 2013 saw a once in a decade political transition in Beijing. The global economy is clawing its way out of a recession.

"We are thus faced with a set of pressing issues – how to find effective ways to tap the potential of existing small and medium-sized cities…" - Li Keqiang, Chinese Premier, March 2013

Countries are moving production and industries outside of China. The overall rate of GDP growth is facing its slowest growth rate in years Domestic consumers are reverting back to their saving ways. Chinese national identity is being questioned globally and domestically. Infrastructure spending, the catalyst for domestic growth, is waning. Consumers are demanding safer, higher-quality products. Cities are modernizing at a breakneck pace.


China’s large cities can no longer properly sustain urbanization in the megalopolis at its current pace. They are expanding upwards and outwards, swallowing surrounding cities, towns and villages. With this, China is turning into a nation of networked clusters, linked by sky, highway and rail. The megalopolis is dead, but the city is alive. As cities converge and the economy spurts, China’s governing leaders are turning to urbanization as the key solution for maintaining a peaceful, stable and ‘harmonious’ society. China’s urbanization policies center on bridging the wide socio-economic gap that exists between the wealthy and poor citizens. Beijing’s view is that the city is the great equalizer. Cities offer the proper infrastructure in which to control citizens through policy. Economic success is often measured by a city’s growth numbers. Effective and upward urbanization rates may determine the promotion of local leaders to a national level. Urbanization begets problems - in any country. However, in China, urbanization faces a truly unique and almost undefinable challenge: how to modernize cities while maintaining the communist facade that supposedly dictates political ideology? Li Keqiang acknowledged this challenge in a speech, declaring, “In taking the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and with



our commitment to achieve the goal of socialist modernization, we are engaged in a long-term process of exploration and praxis…” Maintaining cultural homogeneity faces significant obstacles as China pushes more and more rural migrants into cities through the hukou system and as modernization trickles into the countryside and city outskirts. Rural migrants are told better opportunities and social services are available in cities. But these migrants are often displaced into suburban high-rises far away from city centers, no longer owning their land or house, forced into a consumer-driven lifestyle rather than self-sustaining farm to table model. It’s difficult to adhere to the principles of communism while you’re trying to adjust to a displaced urban lifestyle. This policy is not going to change anytime soon. Premier Li views migrant worker integration into city-life as a key generator of new investment opportunities while raising domestic consumption levels, re-balancing the Chinese economy. This is seemingly the path to a middle-class lifestyle. And this integration will happen in similar cities in China’s northern and western regions. In 2002, 40% of China’s ‘urban middle-class’ lived in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. By 2020, this is expected to fall to 16%. Small to medium cities will see an increase of 15% of China’s upper middle-class. The Chinese megalopolis may be shrinking, but the city in China is growing.

The crux of my research centers on this problem: how will these emergent small to medium size cities in China deal with urbanization and how are they already dealing with it. Smaller, prefecture-level Chinese cities are now faced with the reality that they are the new destination spots for China’s upwardly mobile. Adaptation must occur on both a cultural and infrastructural level. New social behaviors must be integrated with existing customs and culture. Before exploring these issues, one must seek to define a classification system for these small to medium-level cities. Although a mundane way of classifying Chinese cities and not a recommended statistical or analytical source, Google Maps is highly effective at revealing which cities are the most important to pay attention to in China’s future. It also helps to demystify a tier system that creates confusion amongst everyone. The long-used tier system, used by consultants / governments / marketers to create differentiation between city size / economic development / political importance, constantly has more caveats than consistencies. The tier system succeeds at being complicated and over-simplified at the same time. The perceived linearity of tiers disregards the obvious patterns that emerge when looking at a thirdzoom-click on Google Maps. Emerging growth cities lie directly at the intersections of China’s modernized land transportation system - rail and highway.



The location of China’s cities often carries historical or cultural significance. China’s modern transpiration has had to adapt to these disparate city locations while also facilitating the boom of cities along its path. That infrastructure is the largest driver of a city’s growth is not surprising. Much of China’s economic growth over the past 35 years is dependent on massive government spending and stimulus injections. For a city to be included on an upcoming high-speed railway line or major highway construction project guarantees an influx of investment and human labor which has a direct correlation to improving wealth and living standards of the beneficiary city. I chose to conduct my research in Zunyi after discovering it via the aforementioned process. What initially stood out to me was its proximity to Chongqing in the north and Guiyang in the south - both provincial capitals and representatives of China’s early urbanization wave. Zunyi also rests in Guizhou, which holds the distinction of having China’s lowest rate of urbanization in the country. Zunyi also contains a recently opened domestic airport indicating significant government infrastructural support. Zunyi’s geographical proximity to larger, more developed cities and emergent infrastructure make it a prime case study for examining firsthand China’s shift in urbanization policies. With my city selected, I purchased a plane ticket to Zunyi. The following output is based on four days in Zunyi City, Guizhou, where I conducted both observational ethnography and primary interviews with local residents. Additional secondary research was conducted over a time period from September 2013 to December 2013.




I anxiously began looking at other people’s tickets to figure out who else was arriving in Zunyi. Half of my flight was traveling to Kunming. This was a shuttle flight. Like an airborne subway car. A quick stop in the middle of nowhere, drop off a few poor souls and back to the crowded China skies. Others tried looking at my ticket, likely surprised to see Zunyi printed on it. We swooped over a city which I presumed to be Zunyi from our altitude. We hurtled through the pointed green mountain range, coming close to our destination. I imagined myself a spy, landing in some secret Communist lair. Architecturally, Zunyi Airport is modeled after Zunyi’s most famous cultural asset, the Zunyi Conference site, designated as one of China’s five most important Communist landmarks. Realistically, as far as airport’s go, it is small, a tiny speck in the mountains, forty-five minutes from downtown Zunyi. Zunyi Airport flies in three airplanes per day. It has two arrival gates, two departure gates, one baggage claim area. The marble floors shined of newness and little use. I waited with about thirty or so other people at the baggage claim. My bag arrived and I picked

it off the carousel, nervously trying to figure out how to get downtown. Most of the other passengers seemed to have prior arrangements from friends or family. I went outside and walked up to a car marked with ‘Zunyi Xinzhou Airport Transportation’. It seemed official. I nodded to the driver who asked if I was going to Zunyi (where else). “RMB200”. He shot high, likely recognizing my perilous state of isolation. “No way. Too much. That’s how much I pay in Shanghai! RMB100.” I offered with a friendly smile.

nyi County. Twelve years later, the first commercial flight, China Southern Airlines flight 6271 from Beijing landed into Zunyi Airport. The airport is the basis for expanded industrialization and urbanization in the airport district, part of the San Po District near Xinzhou Village, almost 35km away from downtown Zunyi. The airport is the crux of a plan to transform Xinzhou Village into a hub of ‘high-tech, agricultural product processing, specialty tourism, accommodation and catering’ industries’ according to government reports. The road was new and smooth. It wove through sheared, freshly cut cliffs. Mr. Wang and I were about 45 minutes from downtown Zunyi. Mr. Wang said the new roads that led from Xinzhou Village to downtown Zunyi had a direct impact on his life. The new road allowed Mr. Wang to make good wages driving people to and from the airport. He was supporting his family and son who studied Computer Science at a university in Lanzhou. What used to take two hours now took less than an hour. This time reduction was largely due to an expanding transportation network linking outer towns and villages to downtown Zunyi. The roads were new, big and flat. Cars and trucks could safely maneuver through once dangerous mountain passes.

With zero leverage, I reluctantly agreed to pay the RMB200 fee.

Mr. Wang asked me if all of the roads in America were big, level and flat - this was his perception. I said most roads were level, not all were big and flat. I asked him his thoughts on urbanization in Zunyi. He was largely indifferent. He was more happy about the improved roads. He could see direct, tangible benefits from a flatter, bigger road.

I sat in the front, aggressively hoping to strike up a conversation and gain some knowledge of the local area.

I told him I was staying at the Jincheng Hotel (Zunyi’s only ‘red’ themed hotel). He said it was a nice hotel, not the newest or the best.

Mr. Wang, a resident of nearby Xinzhou Village, has been driving this airport route for almost one year. Planning for a combined military and civilian airport in Zunyi began in 2001 when the Zunyi municipal government put forth an initiative to broaden transportation in and out of Zu-

On the way, Mr. Wang slowed down numerous times offering rides to those headed into Zunyi. We picked up an old man carrying a bag of fruit. He arranged to pay 10 kuai for the remaining trip into Zunyi. While negotiating they switched into a faster, local accent. Likely to cover up

“RMB200 - normal taxi’s in Zunyi charge 300 to 400!”



the fact that 10 kuai seemed like a much better deal than my 200. Entering into Zunyi proper, the roads became congested, tighter and grittier. Mr. Wang said this was extremely typical. Traffic in and out of the city was a huge problem. We eventually crawled our way to the Jincheng Hotel. It didn’t look particularly communist. A gentlemen spa sat next door. We paused in front of the hotel and Mr. Wang handed me a card and told me if I needed anything to call him. Earlier in the trip I had given him an American dollar. He was extremely happy about this. After I paid him for the cab fare, his face brightened. It was just money anyway. ---------------------Zunyi’s past stretches into ancient times, but it’s historical importance is relatively modern. The city name of ‘Zunyi’ was first recorded in AD 642. It officially became recognized as a prefecture-level city in 1997. But through this long swath of history, Zunyi is currently most associated with one date - January 15, 1935. In a two-story huizhuan style house, members of the fledgling CPCC party came together to discuss the future direction of the Communist party. Among them was a 41 year-old Mao Zedong. The conference, later to be known as the Zunyi Meeting (Zunyi huiyi), propelled Mao and Zhou Enlai into the forefront of the party, both in terms of ideological thinking and wartime strategy. The meeting at Zunyi and the following Long March led to a deepening of ‘Maoism’ amongst CPCC members and is seen as a turning point in the Communist revolution that still exists to this day. Zunyi’s ‘red’ history dominates its local identity. All cultural landmarks sprinkled around the city have ties to the rise of Chinese Communism. The city is recognized as one of the top five red-tourism destinations in China (along with Yan’an, Shaoshan, Jinggang Mountain, and Nanchang). Tourists line up to purchase tickets to enter into the great ‘meeting’ hall; or travel in a mass tour-group through the hallowed halls of Communist history.

“Against the background of market economy and globalization, how to keep red flag flying over the country? It is critically necessary to find out a solution in accordance with the features of the contemporary world and the real situation of China.” - He Guangwei, Former Director of Chinese National Tourism Association

The ideological contradictions of ‘red’ tourism are on full display in Zunyi. Yu Luo Rioux notes in his thesis, Marketing the Revolution: Tourism, Landscape and Ideology in China that “On one level, Red Tourism is strengthening the ideological power of the state and the party by exploring significant revolutionary events; on the other hand Red Tourism is concerned with commercial development and generating revenue by marketing the significant historical sites of China’s communist revolution.” But in Zunyi, ‘red’ ideology is felt throughout the structure and fabric of the city, often extending beyond marketable tourist traits. Fenghuang Mountain acts as a mountain escape for urban residents to stroll through the hills, exercise and gain spiritual strength. Lining the paved paths are red Communist stars; women and men old enough to remember the Communist struggle happily practice hongge or ‘red’ songs; even man-hole covers feature ‘red’ symbols and dates. The term, ‘red’ tourism as Rioux states, did not come into existence until 2002, however communist landmarks and other ‘destinations for patriotic and moral education’ have existed since 1949. Rioux goes on state that the catalyst for ‘red’ tourism is the “development of tourism necessitated by fiscal decentralization along with the crisis of faith as a result of China’s political and economic reform over the last two decades. ‘Red’ tourism also resulted, in part, from a need to re-establish patriotism and nationalism in the wake of the ideological vacuum after 1989.”

Zunyi is lucky in the sense that it carries a tangible identity in which to market to outsiders. Aspects of tourism are felt all over the city. New five-star hotels are being built to accommodate an influx of high-end tourists. Zunyi has three key developmental zones - the aforementioned airport district, a CBD district and a high-speed railway hub set to open sometime in the next five to ten years. These significant urban developments are set to have an impact on access to Zunyi. Situated 239km south of Chongqing and 143km north of Guiyang, amidst heavy, mountainous terrain, Zunyi is known by historical context, but not seen as an accessible tourist destination. Zunyi’s rate of urbanization is tied directly to two areas: infrastructural development and cultivating a local identity that is unique and differentiated from other nearby cities. There’s precedence for ‘red’ tourism to play a role in economic growth. Particularly in smaller cities such as Zunyi. One case study in a graduate thesis by Zhiyi Hu, titled, “A Study of Red Tourism in China: Exploring the Interface Between National Identity Construction and Tourist Experience”, highlights the success of Guang’an, Deng Xiaoping’s hometown in using ‘red’ tourism as a way to leverage economic growth. As more and more ‘red’ tourists came to see the great Communist leader, local residents began emphasizing nature-oriented sight-seeing. An increase of domestic tourism also brought “new opportunities for local service sectors in catering, accommodation, transportation and shopping.”







Where Rouix sees a contradiction in ideologies within ‘red’ tourism, the Chinese government places an intrinsic link between progressing communist ideals while promoting economic growth. Local governments are essentially saying: “come to our city and pay reverence to your revolutionary comrades - as long as you pay to do so. And while you’re at it, stay in a luxury suite for 3 nights and shop in our sparkling new malls.” It’s as the communist forefathers would have wanted.

American and European movie posters faded into the walls. Neon handwritten sticky notes echoed messages from visitors. It was a mix between a youth hostel and an old person’s living room - but it was charming and it worked. It held a transience that was further emphasized by undelivered postcards on the wall from Tibet and Xinjiang.


The cafe details typified Wangyue herself: transient, aspirational, never pleased with her current condition. She agreed to help connect me with several of her government friends and help me gain a better understanding of Zunyi itself.

---------------------I walked through Zunyi’s Red Army Street (hongjun jie) a pedestrian street built with a RMB 70 Million government investment, filled with shops and restaurants selling local baijiu, cigarettes, snacks and niurou fen - luxuries likely unavailable to those who were actually in the Red Army.

Wangyue’s cafe and dream would not be possible without the city’s infrastructural investment of the nearby ‘old’ city. This cultural investment has created an area of the city that at once feels modern and traditional. Residential complexes built in the 80s are covered with Southwestern Chinese style decor - brown and white siding that covers up cracked concrete. Glossy stone streets lined with wooden tree and flower boxes creates a distinct demarcation from normal urban areas in Zunyi. It feels more like a communist Disneyland and a typical ‘traditional’ style pedestrian street than an authentic representation of what Communism once was. But in Zunyi (and other historical places in China), the significance is not only derived from the authenticity of the building or the artifacts within, but of the location, the history that occurred on that very spot. Tourists arguably aren’t looking for authenticity, they’re looking for nostalgic context. This is why creating a tourist zone in a traditional style makes economic sense - tourists want to feel like they’re consuming authenticity, but don’t want the actual hardships that come with it. And in turn, this highlights the largest paradox within ‘red’ tourism - people don’t want to relive the hardships of the early communist revolutionaries, they want to celebrate the memories of their past in a contemporary way. For Zunyi, forging a cultural ‘red’ identity provides a direct link to economic growth and increased consumer spending. Whether or not it is contradictory or clashes ideologically is beside the point. At this stage in Chinese society, if selling communism for a profit has direct economic benefit - more power to the red dollar.

I stumbled on The Little Garden Cafe, a coffee-shop clearly out of place in this communist heartland and followed signs up a small alley-way. Inside I was greeted by Xiao Wangyue, a late-20s something woman, dressed over-formally in a shin-length dress and heels. I ordered a coffee and sat there with my map, slightly sweaty and disheveled, enjoying the rest before venturing over to the famous Zunyi Meeting site. Wangyue came to Zunyi to attend the Zunyi Medical College, a well-renowned medical college in the region. An errant love that ended in heartbreak kept her in Zunyi, a place that she’s now accepted as home. After working in the family-planning bureau of the local Zunyi government, Wangyue decided to move part-time and open up a coffee-shop which now serves as a dreamy respite for unvisitable places. Wangyue chose this location for her coffee-shop specifically to be located in the old section of Zunyi. Besides the wayward foreigner, her consumer base doesn’t overlap with the bus loads of tourist groups visiting the Zunyi Meeting site. Sitting in the coffee-shop, I felt as if I had stepped into another realm. The rooms were too dark, the furniture had no cohesion, old




Zunyi has a two-tier public bus system. The bus system without air-conditioned buses cost 1 yuan; the bus system with air-conditioning cost 2 yuan. Taxi’s start at 8 yuan, but are seldom used amongst normal people in Zunyi. Traffic is a problem at all hours of the day and buses are afforded their own lanes for speedy urban travel.

white-goods brands. Flyer distributers handed me an advert. The market was crowded with shoppers lifting lids on laundry machines and examining air conditioners. I learned these outdoor markets were quite common, their purpose acting as a traveling circus of products for people from all over Zunyi County to come have a look.

Everyone I spoke to in Zunyi had commentary on the state of the city’s transportation system. General consensus was too much traffic, too much congestion, too many cars, and nothing being done about it.

Zunyi is a city where downtown, high-end residential developments are being built with optimism. Advertisements for New Hee Garden Luxury homes advertisements hang from light poles; infomercial-style commercials blast through buses built-in TVs; walls feature finished renderings of beautiful communities. These residential developments largely exist on Zunyi’s North-eastern portion of the city, separated from its cultural center. Through observation and confirmation from local residents, there’s a distinctive inter-city migration pattern that exists between Zunyiren and entering migrants. This migration pattern highlights the challenges between preserving a unified cultural identity of the city, while accommodating the rising needs of the middle-class.

The urban center of Zunyi, accounts for only about 15% of the entire population of the broader Zunyi City. Zunyi City technically consists of hundreds of towns and villages, all of varying size and density. Downtown Zunyi is undoubtedly the beating heart of Zunyi City. It acts as the nucleus in a node of networked towns and villages, connected by a loose system of roads. Just north of Fenghuang mountain lies the intersection between Zunyi City’s old-town perimeter and its emergent residential areas. To the west is San Ge Mountain which is the backdrop to a new 5-Star hotel complex, aiming to be Zunyi’s first multi-national branded hotel. To the east is Zunyi’s football stadium, roughly seating 10,000 people. In off-times, its outer track is accessible for nearby residents to use. Just outside of this football stadium is a miniature golf-range, with a manicured green available for chipping and putting.

Zunyi’s old-city, centered around Fenghuang Mountain once was the central point for Zunyi City’s residents. Just north of the mountain on Shanghai Road, Danwei-style buildings and living units crowd the street. Peering through their alleys, they offer a glimpse at once was the living style of choice for Zunyi residents. It’s now evident that there’s a much larger mix of waidiren (migrants) and elderly locals who live in these residents. Winding hills weave up through the buildings off of Shanghai Road. Sellers of fruit, meat, vegetables, snacks, and everything in between pave the small, dissecting roads. An old man paints calligraphy signs in a dark and dusty shop.

Outside of the football stadium was a massive outdoor shopping bonanza. Resembling the first floor of a Gome without the roof, this outdoor market hosted tent after tent of domestic












Walking east on Shanghai Road, a luxury residential community is being built. A construction worker sits on a metal roof watching massive yellow excavators push dirt. He’s holding his safety hat in his hands, resting. This luxury residential complex represents the reclamation of the new over the old. It continues to extend northward and to the west of the downtown area. Based on the concentration of malls, restaurants and standardized high-rise complexes, Zunyi’s middle-class residents have moved into this area of town, creating further separation between the residential and cultural center of Zunyi.


In the central-eastern section of downtown Zunyi, looping downwards to the south of Fenghuang Mountain, Zunyi’s migrant population influx is evident. A key entrance node for Zunyi’s migrants is the long-standing Zunyi Train Station and the Zunyi Bus Station, both hugging the central-eastern side of the city.




These entrance points also link up to the eastern side of Fenghuang mountain and Hongmei Road, a bustling epicenter for farmers, migrants and locals to sell fresh produce. This road snakes up the mountain. Both the crowds and the sellers thin out as the climb gets steeper. From the magnitude of both sellers and buyers, this section of the mountain still has an important role in the city’s economic structure.




Downtown Zunyi is not only the cultural and political center of Zunyi’s administrative jurisdiction, but it acts as an economic outpost for the surrounding towns and villages. This relationship between a county’s towns, villages and downtown hub highlights an under-represented articulation of China’s small to medium-sized cities: there is a heart (the urban center), there are capillaries (the transportation network) and there are outer organs (county-level villages and towns). People constantly move back and forth between the urban center and the outer organs.











Measuring a city’s population and overall size in China is complex. One must look at the boundaries at the county-level and measure both urban population and suburban population. Suburban in this case refers to the innumerable villages and towns that dot the country-side and are technically included in a city’s county-wide jurisdiction. With this unique designation, a city like Chongqing only has a ‘urban population’ of 4.5 million although on a municipal level, Chongqing technically has 28.8 million people. Zunyi is no different. Downtown Zunyi has nearly 1 million people while Zunyi on the county-level contains almost 7.3 million people. It’s this distinction that’s crucial to understand. China’s shift in urbanization policies are encouraging people to move into these already created downtown areas and expand outwards, eventually turning nearby towns and villages into ‘neighborhoods’ or districts of the downtown area. This is not dissimilar to the current process happening in Shanghai, but in a place like Zunyi, it’s almost 15 years behind the curve. The central government must find a way to encourage net in-migration to smaller cities like Zunyi and discourage people to centralize in provincial capitals and municipalities like Shanghai or Beijing.

a place for cultural and economic integration into the fabric of the city. Rather than live on the outskirts of a large city like Shanghai, migrants can engage and be part of the urbanization process. The obvious barrier is China’s hukou system which restricts migrants from enjoying social benefits unless one has a residence permit of that city. The hukou theory is underpinned by the rational that urban residents contribute to the greater economy thus deserve social benefits provided by the State; and those in the countryside are self-sufficient, contributing only to themselves and what they need. But while a relaxation or solution to the hukou policy has yet to be seen, there is a shift in focus to urban and rural integration happening between cities like Zunyi and surrounding towns and villages. Zunyi’s Vice Mayor, Zeng Yontao recently spoke on important urbanization issues, declaring that the promotion of urban and rural integration is a vital issue for Zunyi. Although relaxing the hukou system and promoting urban-rural integration are two different things, they both center on providing a solution that makes living in an urbanized area easier. I sat on a sweaty bus to Gaoqiao Village, a small village about 50 minutes north of downtown Zunyi. Gaoqiao Village is the ideal place to see first-hand what is being done about this urban-rural integration. The bus was full of village residents who made the trip back and forth to downtown Zunyi everyday. Most work in one of Zunyi’s leading manufacturing industries including white goods, automobiles, military equipment, cigarettes, and other material goods. On the way to the village, large suburban housing complexes rose out of the mountains. Construction vehicles on the bumpy road made for a slow journey. Arrival in Gaoqiao Village revealed a place with little reason for existence. Farmland was prevalent, but was being worked by older individuals with no other career options. Most of those under the age of 35 have either moved to Zunyi or to Chongqing or Guiyang. Being built on one edge of the village was a luxury residential village. Gaoqiao Village was being swallowed by construction and urbanization. A pillar of China’s new urbanization policy is modernizing the agriculture industry in areas like Gaoqiao. However, when up against

---------------------Historically, migrants in China have been willing to endure hardships in order to move to bigger cities for better incomes and better living standards. Sacrificing culture assimilation, societal benefits, and undertaking a much faster pace of life than where they came from. In bigger cities, migrants are often pushed to the city outskirts which creates a dual-urban structure, separating the downtown and outer areas. These living conditions are often of very low-standard and restrict the necessary industrialization and modernization that is beneficial to urban growth. The nature of China’s large megalopolis’ outer growth highlights an opportunity for a city like Zunyi. As the wealthier and upwardly mobile residents continue to extend the boundaries of the downtown Zunyi area outward through residential and ‘suburban’ growth, downtown Zunyi offers


When determining a city’s level of development, people no longer determine only look at the pace of development and GNP. The quality and culture of the urban environment determines whether the development is sustainable or not.

- Mude Gui, Former Mayor of Zunyi, Current Vice-Governer of Guizhou Province

real-estate developers with hands deep into the infrastructural pocket of Beijing, this does not appear to be a reality. Modernizing agriculture in areas like this, means local farmers must relinquish their lands to the government and take compensation. Some are willing to do this, but others value land ownership over urban assimilation and displacement.

capitalist development. It felt like an authentic depiction of urbanization in China today - incoherent, contradictory, but also tangible and providing impact in people’s lives. The Godfather had lived through much of Zunyi’s urbanization. He worked as a journalist for the local Zunyi newspaper growing up, and was a staunch member of the Party. He was an amateur historian, documenting much of Zunyi’s modern history, contributing all research and text to a reference book on Chinese cities. He was the most nationalistic person I’ve ever met. His wife was a semi-professional photographer, still active in her late age. She regularly took part in ‘red’ social clubs, meeting with friends and acquaintances on regular basis to sing old Party anthems.

---------------------I sat in a room with Wangyue and her godparents. A married couple, between the ages of 60 and 70, they had helped Wangyue acclimate to living in Zunyi upon her arrival almost eight years ago. I was a welcome guest in their home. They lived in a dense community of old, brick, danwei style homes. We arrived in the evening time, just in time for dinner. The godmother had promised a home-cooked meal and some of her special homemade red wine. I was not sure what to expect.

As the Godfather sat back in his chair, tooth-picking meat from his mouth, he proudly revealed that his entire apartment, his entire support-system was all being taken care of the Chinese government. He worked his time, paid his dues, and he was reaping the rewards and benefits of his pension. Him and his wife now spent much of their time traveling around Western China, writing and documenting new villages and tourist spots around Zunyi; he contributing the words, she taking the photos. They had recently landed a plum cover shot on a recent issue of a Zunyi County travel magazine.

As an outsider visiting Zunyi, my presence was unusual. Zunyi’s relative isolation and distance from other major cities in China made a foreigner like myself stand out. The lack of international or colonial influence on Zunyi was unique from other small or medium-sized cities I had visited in China. Zunyi’s growth was a direct by-product of its Communist relationship as well as the fortitude of its hard-working people. It felt contained and honest in its Chinese-ness, albeit a convoluted harmony between ‘red’ culture and

They did not have much to say regarding Zunyi’s urbanization policies or plans. They were 29


stable and content in their provided-for lifestyle and trusting in the government’s motives. But some areas of life were getting harder they admitted. Traffic and congestion in the city was becoming a problem, it was no longer easier to get from point A to point B. There were too many cars, grossly outnumbering the people who needed them, the Godfather told me. But he didn’t have any solution for this, chalking it up as just another inevitable consequence.

that allow it to have a unique competitive advantage over other similar small cities in China. It’s ancient and modern history offer pride and a reason to live out one’s life in Zunyi. It’s relatively slower pace of life and access to nearby towns and villages creates a dynamic urban-rural relationship that needs to continue to be developed. As I’ve learned from The Godfather and Wangyue, both individuals who’ve chosen to reside in Zunyi by choice - not by force, Zunyi’s cultural development is intrinsic to making the city a more livable place. Both have elevated their status above that of the common blue-collar worker, instead focusing on cultural and service-led positions that align with their interests while not sacrificing their belief systems.

We sat on the couch and watched ‘Chinese Characters Dictation Competition’ on CCTV1, a reality competition show pitting some of China’s smartest high-school students together in a Mandarin ‘spelling bee’ of sorts. Participants are given a word and must recall from memory the correct character strokes. As we watched, The Godfather yelled out 错! 错! (cuo! cuo! Wrong! Wrong!) frantically as another student incorrectly wrote a character. It was easy to see why this show carried resonance with one of China’s early ‘red’ journalists. The standardization and proliferation of Putonghua nationwide is one of modern China’s greatest achievements.

But significant problems remain and provide lessons to other small Chinese cities seeking to successfully urbanize and encourage in net-migration rather than out net-migration. The growth in automobile purchasing contributes negatively and positively to a city’s growth. On one hand, drivers are able to achieve greater convenience and autonomy within their lives. Moving in and out of the city is now easy and safe. On the other hand, traffic and congestion make life harder for those without automobiles. The city no longer is bike or walking friendly. The city becomes less concentrated and services spread out into further regions as the city expands outward. Pollution becomes a concern to public health. Urban residents are no longer as active with an automobile.

During dinner, as The Godfather continuously pushed overflowing bowl of hong xiao ruo in front me, he gave me a clear message from the heartland of Communist China: “China will never back down! Go tell that to your President Obama!” ---------------------I learned from the Godfather that urbanization did not mean cultural change had to occur, in fact urbanization is made more impactful when a city identifies a cultural advantage and uses this to embed and imbue within its modernization policies.

Fast growth leads to significant societal and infrastructural problems. Planned urbanization puts decisions into the hands of the government and government contractors. Many who are out of touch with human needs and understanding how intricate organic growth reflects a more natural and suitable lifestyle to residents. Focusing solely on ‘cleaning up’ or ‘controlling’ urban design glosses over human-centric needs, forcing people to adjust to new societal and community systems that they are not used to. So what can be done? What can we learn from my journey into Zunyi, exploring the overlap of Communism and modernity?

Tapping into cultural historians like The Godfather can only help cities urbanize successfully. Zunyi is an ideal case study for arriving at solutions for successful small city urbanization in China. Zunyi has leadership and cultural assets


CURB LARGE-SCALE INFRASTRUCTURE SPENDING, PROMOTE CULTURAL DEVELOPMENT Although unlikely to stop in the near future, massive infrastructure spending often leads to unsustainable growth, public corruption and diminishment of culture. By allocating financial infrastructure into cultural development offers a stronger opportunity to compel local residents to maintain their urban roots as well as attracting both rural migrants and middle-class to your city.

A city’s cultural identity is often distinguished by its historical elements. Chinese cities must focus on cultural and historical preservation as a means of creating local pride amongst citizens. Cultural and historical preservation also leads to direct economic benefits from tourism which can help create competitive advantages against nearby, larger cities.

It’s vital for cities to focus on city-branding and finding a unique cultural identity that can extend across tourism and industrial growth and be used as a mechanism for influencing net in-migration, rather than net out-migration.

In relation to preserving cultural and historical city elements, connecting disparate architectural design styles into more cohesive forms helps establish a more defined over-arching city identity as well as improving the overall livability of a city.

Governments can additionally support cultural-led education programs that offer alternative paths in cultural and service-related careers that can ultimately be used to expand the cultural identity of the city through private and public organizations.

Reaping the benefits of cultural development may not be as tangible as having a nicer road to drive on, or a bigger house to live in, but ultimately cities depend on cultural growth to offset the negative aspects of modernity and urbanization.



IDENTIFY A VIABLE PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION SYSTEM Small city growth is only as successful as moving people from point A to point B. Car ownership is an aspiration that that people in lower-tier cities are now beginning to realize. Car ownership opens up channels of transportation and exploration never before realized. It also creates headaches for local residents without access to automobile usage.

Imagine a public transportation system that is fast, efficient and safe, offering clear and navigable routes between a small cities urban center and its outer nodes. This is starting to happen in larger cities like Shanghai and Beijing, but there’s room on a smaller scale through bus and car systems to implement similar infrastructure.

Zunyi has seen success improving its outer road network, providing paved, safe roads for those who move products in and out of the city, dependent on the urban center for economic survival.

Downtown transportation hubs can also be improved to provide more efficient and clearly communicated access points in and out of the city. Buying a ticket or navigating a schedule to these outer areas is often a crap-shoot and unreliable.

But more can be done to connect the other regions of a small city to one another. Small villages and towns that dot the countryside are still part of a small city’s jurisdiction. Their growth is directly linked to the urbanization at the center of the small city. It’s vital to connect these dots and encourage repeated travel between the areas.

Creating greater efficiencies in public transportation will also enable smaller cities to grow in an environmentally efficient way.



CREATE URBAN ENTRY POINTS AND ASSIMILATION STRATEGIES FOR MIGRANTS Managing and reforming China’s hukou system is to be one of China’s greatest challenges. This not only applies to rural residents who are often forced to transfer their land into control of the government in exchange for a displacement package. This also applies to middle-class residents moving back into smaller cities seeking a slower-pace of life along with greater environmental and cultural benefits. From my experience in Zunyi, the flow of migrants into the city is chaotic and dis-organized. There’s areas of dense concentration and signs of the dreaded dual-urban structure that re-creates a rural lifestyle within the city center. This is not a suggestion of forcing people into a overly planned designated zone or area, but instead understanding the needs of migrants to create functionary and proper social assimilation into the city. This relates to housing, public services and commercial pursuits. These areas do not need to be isolated or removed from the city centers. Instead they should be integrated and promoted as a vibrant part of the city.


Relaxing policies that restrict private business and sellers from selling goods in the downtown area can create a level of cultural and economic integration that is beneficial to both sides. These areas can become cultural areas where local residents and visitors can interact and receive trust-worthy goods and services. Cultural and career-assimilation programs can also benefit local residents and incoming migrants. These can influence small city residents thinking about leaving for better opportunities elsewhere as well as incoming migrants seeking better opportunities. Transition life-stages (after middle-school and after high-school) are often the most frequent periods where residents move seek opportunities in other cities. Promoting university and schooling programs can help facilitate advanced academic or technical training, incentivizing people to stay in a smaller city and improve themselves, rather than choosing to leave solely for economic benefit in another city.


SOURCES PAGE 7 Premier Li Keqiang. “Promoting Coordinated Urbanization - an Important Strategic Choice for Achieving Modernization” March 2013 PAGE 10 PAGE 13 PAGE 14 Dr. Zhiyi Hu. “A study of red tourism in China: exploring the interface between national identity construction and tourist experience” Yu Luo Rioux. “Marketing the Revolution: Tourism, Landscape and Ideology in China” PAGE 16 PAGE 20-21 PAGE 28



Joey Dembs is an American-born qualitative researcher with a passion for urbanization and understanding nuances of modern Chinese society

Flamingo is a London-headquartered brand consultancy with 6 worldwide hubs - Shanghai, Tokyo, Mumbai, Singapore, New York and London

Joey has worked and lived in China since 2008, attempting to scratch the surface of consumer understanding

Flamingo understands consumer and cultural insight to get to big ideas for clients worldwide

Contact Joey at

Visit the Flamingo Shanghai website to find out more


Exploring China's Middle Ground

Read more
Read more
Similar to
Popular now
Just for you