Register Friday | October 22 | 2021

China's Pearl River Megalopolis

Shenzhen from above

“China to create largest mega city in the world with 42 million people,” announced a breathless headline in Sunday’s Telegraph, detailing plans to combine the cities of Guangdong province’s Pearl River Delta (PRD) into a massive urban conurbation. “Over the next six years, around 150 major infrastructure projects will mesh the transport, energy, water and telecommunications networks of the nine cities together, at a cost of some 2 trillion yuan,” the British newspaper reported, noting that the new megalopolis would be “26 times larger geographically than Greater London, or twice the size of Wales.”

The news generated quite a bit of chatter as it circled around the Internet, much of it predicated on the mistaken assumption that China would be building an entirely new city of 42 million. “What about all the cities already constructed but still empty?” wrote one commenter on CNNGo in reference to the master-planned, never-lived-in city of Ordos, in Inner Mongolia. “Time to beef up security on the Hong Kong border,” tweeted a former Hong Kong resident.

The reality is less exciting. The PRD is already home to more than 42 million people and it already functions as a megalopolis with an economy worth a little under US$300 billion (about the same as the metropolitan areas of Shanghai, Boston, San Francisco and Milan). The billions of dollars in new infrastructure will complement an already well-developed network of highways, railways and waterways. In fact, the concept of a huge megalopolis tied together by roads and rail is nothing new: the Taiheyo Belt in Japan is an interconnected urban area of 80 million people linked by shikumen trains running every few minutes. Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington form a mostly interconnected urban region of more than 50 million people.

What is remarkable about PRD megalopolis, and what will set it apart from other such urban areas, is the plan to administratively integrate its nine component cities, the most populous of which are Shenzhen, Dongguan and Guangzhou, which are currently linked by a rail line that travels the 200-kilometre distance between them in just over an hour. (Another rail line that will link the less-developed cities eastern cities of Zhuhai, Zhongshan and Foshan with Guangzhou is now under construction.) A single smart card will be introduced for all of the region’s public transport systems. Public services and government policies will be streamlined between the different municipalities. Long-distance phone rates in the PRD will be slashed.

Most important will be the reform of residency restrictions within the region. Currently, thanks to China’s hukou system, you lose your right to free government services like education and health care as soon as you leave your city of official residence. Changing your residency status can be an expensive bureaucratic process. Soon, though, the PRD’s residents could have an unprecedented level of mobility and freedom of movement. By the end of next year, according to the South China Morning Post, low-income earners will be eligible for subsidized housing throughout the PRD, not just in their hometowns.

The expressway between Shenzhen and Guangzhou. Photo by dcmaster

The scene along the Guangshen Expressway.
Shenzhen, Dongguan and Guangzhou form a nearly-contiguous urban sprawl. Photo by Payton Chung

In a way, the plan is a bid for survival. While its economy continues to grow rapidly, rising labour costs and workplace standards mean that the PRD’s manufacturing industries — the fuel for its recent, explosive development — are quickly moving to cheaper regions. The Guangdong government has recently announced that it will begin to focus on quality-of-life issues like pollution and access to education. The growth of high-tech and creative industries are being encouraged as a means to create more wealth.

A more integrated PRD with consistent public services and reliable infrastructure could do a lot to shepherd the PRD’s growth in a more sustainable direction. But high-minded policy initiatives in China are often sidelined by official corruption and mismanagement. White-collar unemployment is a growing problem in China; university graduates barely earn more than factory workers. As much as the government might want its service sectors to develop, most of the jobs available are still grunt work, and with its industrial base already moving away, the PRD might find it hard to stay afloat. At this point, it’s hard to say whether the plan for an administratively-integrated PRD megalopolis will create one of the world’s greatest mega-cities — or simply one of its biggest rust belts.

Abandoned factory in Shenzhen. Photo by Cory Doctorow

(From UrbanPhoto. Follow DeWolf on Twitter.)

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