This spring, I decided to look at a handful of large Chinese cities to see how history, ambition, and geography collide to produce variations on the evolving theme of China's modernity. Each of the three megacities I picked would be a considered a regional urban hub under Skinner's updated schema, but more importantly they play leading roles in some aspect of modern China's development. To see the frontlines of China's trade networks with Africa, its western development and new Silk Road strategy, or the revival of its industrial heartland, skip Beijing and Shanghai, and next time touch down in Guangzhou, Urumqi, and Shenyang.
Guangzhou: Africa Town
"By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land."
The pastor's baritone echoed through the gymnasium. Some 200 people in attendance, mostly young men from West Africa, repeated back the words of Hebrews 11:9: "By faith he lived as a foreign sojourner."
Some thumbed through worn Bibles; a few read the passages on their smart phones. Their dress was casual: blue jeans, polo shirts, flannel pullovers. In the front of the room, a crucifix hung in front of a red curtain, framed by thirty pink balloons arranged in the shape of a heart. In the back, a dozen women sat together in a separate row of chairs, and about as many children, all under the age of six, entertained themselves rolling empty soda bottles. The topic of the afternoon's service was perseverance: "Lord, give us the grace to endure," the pastor bellowed. "The grace to not change our minds."
The Bible study is held weekly in a building adjacent to Guangzhou's Sacred Heart Cathedral, which local Chinese residents call "Stone Hut." Each Sunday, it houses four Catholic masses: the first two in Cantonese, the language spoken locally (the province of Guangdong is the only non-Mandarin holdout in mainland China); then Mandarin Chinese; then English -- the last service is mainly attended by members of the city's expatriate African community, estimated to be about 20,000 strong and the largest in Asia. Those who can't find seats in crowded pews sit on blue plastic stools in the aisles.
There is a logic to how China and Southeast Asia's largest Gothic cathedral became a civic landmark for its largest African community; of course, the builders did not regard China as a promised land, but rather as one to be saved.
The cathedral, an impressive granite edifice with twin towers and flying buttresses modeled after the Basilica of St. Clotilde in Paris, was built by French missionaries and completed in 1888. The plot on which it stands was granted to a French mission in a treaty signed at the end of the Second Opium War. In a common, if misleading rendition of history, China had been hermetically sealed to the outside world until Europeans forced its ports open in the 19th century, to assert their right to sell opium and other goods. But this was not true for all of China. Guangzhou's port was never closed. Known in the local language as Canton, the city has been a busy trading hub since medieval times (in the 9th century, it was the hub of trade with the Arab world). In 1760, the security-obsessed Qing dynasty decided to restrict China's trade with foreigners to just this one city. As Cambridge historian and author Julia Lovell told me, Guangzhou thus became "the pressure point of relations, the focus of great hopes and resentments ... [for] it was the gateway to China."
And so it remains. Around 200 years later, for similar reasons -- it was a long way from Beijing, felt safe to experiment with, and had a long history of foreign trade -- Deng Xiaoping bestowed a similar role upon the southern province of Guangdong, designating it the spear tip of China's liberalization experiment, open for business and foreign capital. For as long as China has been the factory of the world, Guangzhou has been its international showroom. If taken together, the ports of Guangzhou and nearby Shenzhen amount to the largest mover of container traffic in the world. This is where the world's wholesalers come to shop.
Today, it is the growing consumer class in Africa and demand for affordable made-in-China goods that has lured traders from across the African continent to brave storms and visa hassles to live in Guangzhou, for short stints or several years. (The African Development Bank estimates sub-Saharan Africa's middle-class will triple by 2060 to 1.1 billion.) The Chinese locals refer to the neighborhood where the new traders have settled, at the intersection of Xiaobei Road and the city's eight-lane interstate, as both "African City" and "Chocolate City."