Urban Life in China's Brave New World | Wilson Center

Urban Life in China's Brave New World

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At a seminar organized by the Comparative Urban Studies Project, the China Environment Forum and the Asia Program on January 3, Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a U.C. Irvine China specialist and urban historian, drew on material from his book China's Brave New World – And Other Tales for Global Times (Indiana University Press, 2007) to reflect on the dramatic way that Chinese cities have changed over the past two decades. Dr. Wasserstrom gave an overview of the book, highlighting the second chapter, "All the Coffee in China" which delves into themes missing from prevailing narratives on China. One such theme is the unprecedented strength of local pride and local identity in the lives of urban Chinese; ironic in the context of the current era of nationalism and rampant globalization. In the late 1980s China's streets were filled with placards extolling the virtues of communism. By 1996, however, there was a shift in the use of public space related to commerce, evidenced by imported logos, phrases, and activities. Another shift in the use of public space to promote specific cities and local interests could be seen on the shelves of Shanghai bookstores, filled with works about local history not necessarily contextualized in larger national narratives, and new books comparing and contrasting cities.

China's urban residents have a strong local identity that manifests itself in stereotyping of the other and their divergent reactions to similar events, observed Wasserstrom. Differences in local pride and identity are exemplified by the reaction in Shanghai and Beijing to the opening of a local Starbucks. While Beijing reacted negatively to a Starbucks located outside of the Forbidden City, eventually forcing it to close, in Shanghai the opening of a Starbucks around the corner from the Communist Party's Founding House failed to spark any real controversy.

Wasserstrom shared another example of the resurgence of localism in "born-again global Beijing," found in the Shanghai History Museum. Exhibits depicting the 1930s, in which young Chinese men wearing western suits are drinking coffee and carrying on a spirited conversation, are significant in their omission of political association. Even more remarkable, said Wasserstrom, is the absence of any mention of the Communist Party in the museum's written material. This could suggest a separation of identity from the national government, with a shift to local history, tradition and increasing individualism.

Jordan Sand, Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Georgetown University, discussed China's Brave New World, drawing from his work on urban development and transformation in Japan to reflect on contemporary urbanism worldwide.

Sand added examples from Japan to Wasserstrom's discussion of the move from the era of ‘couch-potato consumer' (a passive consumer) to the ‘karaoke-singer consumer' (an active participant in creating his own fantasy environment) Sand also reflected upon the importance of memory in the context of changing culture. Increased wealth and leisure have enabled the emergence of ‘museum culture' since the 1980s, an appreciation for the physical stock of the old city but do not explain entirely the different forms in which the past is being brought back. Rather, Sand agrees with Wasserstrom that people desire a different kind of narrative beyond those resting upon ideas of progress and those presented by the state or large corporations. Sand illustrated his conclusions about memory with urban and architectural images from Japan such as the reconstructed landscape at the Shin Yokohama Ramen Museum (See Powerpoint presentation), created to be reminiscent of back alleys from the 1950s, invoking feelings of nostalgia.

Weiping Wu, Associate Professor in the programs of Urban Studies and Planning and International Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, emphasized the complexity of urban issues in China today. Wu's remarks focused on migrants and the inability of this huge segment of the Chinese population to integrate into a globalized China or take part in the urban experience detailed in Wasserstrom's book. Wu suggested that China's urban transformation was producing problems and processes that are evident in cities elsewhere; such as inequality, stratification, and marginality. Localization is a parallel process to globalization, Wu explained. Although there is strong dissatisfaction on the part of the populace, localization is still driven by central politics. In addition to globalization, China is undergoing tremendous transformations, moving from an agriculture- to a manufacturing-based economy and from a rural to urban population. These trends are contributing to an unprecedented tide of migration, the foundation of a new urban poor marginalized from the formal city. Limited access to shelter, education, and employment creates a dichotomous condition in which the migrants constantly move in search of jobs and housing but are restricted in their mobility to marginal areas of the city. In order to overcome these housing barriers they rely on informal networks of friends and relatives, as is the case in cities around the world, indicating that China could easily begin to replicate patterns of urbanization that have occurred elsewhere (e.g. Latin America) in terms of informal housing settlements, entrenched marginality and socio-economic immobility.

Drafted by Lauren Herzer.


  • Jeffrey Wasserstrom

    Professor of History, Department Chair, University of California, Irvine
  • Jordan Sand

    Associate Professor, East Asian Languages and Cultures, Georgetown University
  • Weiping Wu

    Associate Professor of Urban Studies and Planning, Virginia Commonwealth University