Fri, Aug 04, 2006 - Page 9 News List

China echoes UK industrial nightmare

China is paying the price of rapid urbanization and would do well to learn from Britain's response to it in the 19th century

By Tristram Hunt  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

This is a tale of two cities. The first is Charles Dickens' Coketown: "It was a town of red brick, or of brick which would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever and never got uncoiled."

The second is the Chinese city of Chongqing as described by (the Guardian's) Jonathan Watts: "It is just after dawn, but the sun remains hidden behind a thick haze. The giant movement of humanity that is Chongqing is about to get into full swing, working, building, consuming, discarding, developing ... We head into the hills to see the biggest of the mega-city's rubbish mega-pits ... an awesome sight; a giant reservoir of garbage, more than 30m deep and stretching over 350,000m2."

After a decade of urbanization and industrialization, China's cities now resemble the nightmare metropolises of mid-19th-century Britain. Accounts of the pollution, ill-health and overcrowding in Nanjing or Chengdu recall the worst excesses of 1840s Manchester or Glasgow. Last week the Chinese authorities finally began to face up to their urban problems with the announcement of a ?95 billion (US$178.4 billion) clean-up fund. But equally telling is Beijing's recent invitation to a British 19th-century historian, Gareth Stedman Jones, to tell them just how we managed the transition to a modern urban nation.

The similarities are striking. Between 1770 and 1840 Britain underwent one of the most dramatic urban migrations in world history.

Hundreds of thousands left their villages and farmsteads for the workshops of Birmingham, docks of Liverpool and mills of Manchester. Sheffield and Bradford doubled their populations in a matter of years.

Today that history is repeating itself in China as families from the rural hinterland decamp for the coastal cities. Every year 8.5 million peasants make their way into the urban centers. By next year China is set to become a majority-urban nation, with more than 3.2 billion living in cities and suburbs.

With the influx of China's peasantry has come the inevitable accompaniment of low wages, exploitation and tension with the indigenous working class. In Victorian Manchester the Irish, in Glasgow the Highland crofters, and in London the Hampshire laborers, became victims of a savagely flexible labor market.

In China the underemployed urban masses are known as "bangbang men": unskilled laborers hanging around docks and markets (as they used to in London and Liverpool) ready to do any work, however dangerous or dirty.

And it certainly is dirty work. From its construction sites, factories, sweatshops and car plants, China's cities have fermented a witches' brew of environmental pollution.

"A sort of black smoke covers the city. The sun seen through it is a disc without rays," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville of 1830s Manchester.

The same could be said of Xinghua or Shanghai today. China is currently home to 20 of the world's 30 most smog-choked cities. And its plans for ever more motorways and airports will only make it worse.

Meanwhile, its rivers -- even the once-mighty Yangtze -- now resemble "the fetid, muddy waters, stained with a thousand colors by the factories they pass" of De Tocqueville's Manchester.

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