I went to Linyi, China, in June because a chance to teach in Thailand suddenly evaporated due to the May crackdowns on “Red Shirts,” leaving me with under-utilized air tickets. So I asked a colleague to arrange for an invitation to lecture at the University of Linyi, China, in her home town. She has always apologized for her home town, which as a demographer she points out is “not that important” even in Shandong Province which has several cities more important than Linyi. As for Linyi itself, it only has about ten million people. Unimportant though Linyi may be, that type of population should be enough to put it in the top 20 large cities for the world, i.e. somewhere between New York City and Los Angeles! Alas, a search of Wikipedia’s list revealed that while Linyi did indeed have 10 million people, but apparently such raw numbers are insufficient for getting it on any of the top-20, or even top 100 lists. Apparently raw numbers is not only what such biggest cities lists are about. China is big, but why shouldn’t a city of 10 million make some kind of list?
So what does the city of 10 million which makes none of the lists look like? The answer is that it really looks new. Proud citizens of Linyi drove us around at night and during the day to show off the new construction. Remarkable was the multi-story apartment buildings of which there were scores, if not hundreds. Indeed, there were at least 100 thirty story buildings under construction, and expansive hopes that China’s they hope rural poor will soon fill them. Hundreds of other buildings between about eight and 30 stories were already filled.
Equally remarkable were the many public plazas, parks, and beaches constructed during the few years. Sand was imported to make miles of the river shoreline into public beach front. Public art was erected in many locales, and an impressive suspension bridge, and artistic lighting added an enchantment to the bridges and t.v. tower.
I lectured at a sprawling university which was newer, or under construction. Linyi University dates from 1941, but construction on the new campus I went to began in the 1990s, and students first arrived in 2002. Today Linyi University has 30,000 students. The ninety or so I lectured to (in English) were attentive and eager to listen to what I confess became a lot of very dry sociology. Children of China’s rural areas, they were eager to identify how sociology could fix what they call the “economic gap” between rich and poor. Anyway, they laughed at most of my jokes.
Linyi of course is part of China’s policy of rural transformation which is about the government’s attempt to address that “economic gap.” In yet another giant leap, the city planners of Linyi are hoping to revolutionize life for the rural poor of Shandong, this time pouring them into the modern new skyscrapers. In doing this they hope to re-create some semblance of the old life by keeping village groupings together, while serving the very new needs of what is hoped will be a new industrial economy. This is of course a high risk plan—many earlier attempts have foundered on the limits of planned central change, and the laws of unintended consequences. Whether China’s newest attempt at rural transformation will depend on the success of places like Linyi, and their capacity to absorb the hundreds of millions still living in China’s impoverished country-side.
In the context of such scale, it is of course easy to forget that point my colleague first made: Linyi is not that big or unusual in the context of a larger China. Indeed, broader questions abound. What will a Linyi of 15 or 20 million people look like in 2025? Or more important how many Linyi-size cities will there be in China? As this happens, not only will China change, but so will the top ten, twenty, and hundred largest cities lists on Wikpedia.
Or just maybe this is another case of China and the eyewitness fallacy I wrote about before?