How China Became a Country of Suburbs

If there’s a “Chinese Dream,” it can be found on the fast-growing outskirts of Beijing, Shanghai, and other major cities.

Image Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters
Yoko Wu walks toward an Uber car as she leaves her house in Shunyi District, a Beijing suburb. (Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters)

On a rainy winter’s afternoon, I went with a friend to the train station in Shanghai to head to a wedding in Nanjing. On the train, stations flicked by us in the mist. The undulating, highly developed landscape of Jiangsu province didn’t seem to change much: fast-food restaurants, apartment towers, shopping malls, factories and warehouses, university towns—a new normal that is miles away from what we might think of as “Chinese.”

As of the 2010 census, the vast majority of Shanghai’s population lived in suburban areas. Between 2000 and 2010, suburban areas grew by 50 percent or more, compared to the city’s central districts, which grew slower or in some cases even shrank, according to an analysis by the researcher Fulong Wu. Outside of Beijing, too, suburban or satellite urban districts like Fengtai, Shijingshan, Mentougou, and Shunyi together eclipse the population of the city core.

A visualization of Shanghai’s runaway growth by the architect Neville Mars shows the region in 2000 (pink) and in 2010 (yellow). (Courtesy Neville Mars / BURB)

These past few decades of development in China have passed as rapidly as the towns on our train journey. Inside many towers on the city fringes live doctors, lawyers, and minor businessmen and executives; they have a car, maybe two, and their kids play video games. It’s easy to forget how recently these places were created—and indeed, how recently the class of people living there was created. Today, more than 50 percent of the population of Shanghai and Beijing is middle class, defined nationally as earning, on average, $30,948 (about three and a half times what the working classes earn).

As China transitions to an urban society, villages are increasingly abandoned. At the same time, hyper-saturated urban cores are barely more practical for new arrivals than moving to Manhattan would be for a Kansas farmer, with costs of housing and food that are exponentially higher than in villages.

The villagers who join the urban economy, then, don’t go downtown, but to the settlements that dot the fringes of the city. The industries that really help China to grow are here, too; as Pan Wei, a researcher with the Dynamic City Foundation (a think tank) notes, “the suburb is a means of facilitating economic activity.”

Usually, when the foreign media comments on these Chinese urban fringes, it is to single out the unusual or bizarre: the ersatz European towns near Shanghai, or the replica of the U.S. Capitol building that Tongzhou, in suburban Beijing, uses as a headquarters for its local government. Some of these observations recall sophisticates sneering at American suburbs in the 1960s (look at these vulgar people whose vigor we secretly fear). And just as a generation of artists and writers satirized the life of America’s postwar suburbs, writers such as Han Han do so for China’s suburbs today.

A woman pushes a stroller in a suburb of Zhuhai in southeastern China. (James Pomfret / Reuters)

But if what Xi Jinping has called “the Chinese Dream” has a place, that place is probably Beijing’s Shijingshan, or Jiangsu Province’s Kunshan, or one of the innumerable suburban settlements of white-collar workers and their families that have seethed into being over the past decade or so. In China, the very rich (or their children) often emigrate; the very poor have essentially no way to dictate anything. The middle-class activists who protest environmental pollution, who ask for reform of the public education system, who demand food-safety regulations, who go to underground Christian churches—they live here, in the villas and complexes of high-rise apartment blocks.

Unlike the very rich, they don’t have air purifiers, imported foods, and frequent vacations. Unlike the poor, they are on the Internet, citizen consumers demanding that their technocratic society function more effectively.

New apartment buildings for former miners and farmers in Mentougou, near Beijing (Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters)

At our table at the wedding, all of our companions were residents of these suburbs. They are what a Chinese idiom calls “people mountain, people ocean”—a vast populace that grabs breakfast at KFC and shops in Dalian Wanda malls. They go about daily routines that simply did not exist ten years ago, in buildings and on roads that were constructed since President Obama took office. Yet these landscapes now seem so durable that the young people buying apartments here consider this path the obvious one.

The suburbs have their origin in the late 1980s, around the time of Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour, which confirmed China’s economic reforms. The new middle classes, residing on the urban fringes, are building a new world; they are subjects but, increasingly, also masters of their government. When they took to the streets to protest the building of chemical plants, the plants weren’t built; when they demanded that the high-speed rail network be made safer, their wishes were obeyed, albeit in a delayed and hypocritical fashion.

Today, in the United States, we feel nostalgia for the suburb at its high tide. The Chinese suburb looks a bit different, but the people living there are quite similar to our parents or grandparents in their funny haircuts back in the 1960s. As China becomes more important in the world, it’s important to understand these communities and realize how basically similar their lives are to our own.

About the Author

  • Jacob Dreyer is a Shanghai-based writer and editor. Recently, he edited a special issue of LEAP magazine, and he has contributed to the Architectural Review and Domus. His book The Nocturnal Wanderer was recently published, and he is researching a second book about urban space and the creative economy in China.