Many of China's most tolerable areas, though, have foreign elements. Shanghai owes its cafe culture, its warrens of charming alleys, and its stately waterfront buildings to foreign colonization. The former foreign concession Tianjin, a municipality roughly the size of Beijing and 30 minutes away by high-speed rail, still retains some delightfully ramshackle mansions from that period. (Many Chinese, however, see the foreign concessions as a reminder of the early 20th-century colonization and therefore shameful, and some see American cities, with their GDPs expanding at glacial rates of 1 to 2 percent, as relics of the past.) Despite the best efforts of local governments and developers to raze old neighborhoods, the Silk Road oasis of Kashgar and the Tibetan capital of Lhasa still harbor majestic temples and mosques. The former foreign concession Gulangyu, a five-minute ferry ride from Xiamen in South China's Fujian province, is one of the most pleasant spots in China. A carless island, filled with less than 20,000 residents, it's experiencing a boom because tourists "want to experience Western culture," a woman named Xie Lida told me in 2010; her family owns one of the island's most popular coffee shops, called Zhu Family Garden, on the first floor of their massive villa. The European parlor-style decoration features paintings of the British countryside, overstuffed chairs with rose patterns, and Earl Grey served from an imitation British tea set.
Cities that try to replicate the success of places like Gulangyu often do so by plunking a massive Western structure in the center of their city. In 2003, Dalian erected a hulking Bavarian-style fortress above the conference center near where the World Economic Forum held its "Summer Davos"; the castle looked more at home in a Mario Bros. video game than a coastal Chinese city. (It was torn down in 2010.) The southern boomtown of Shenzhen boasts an Eiffel Tower 25 percent the size of the original; Hangzhou's version is 33 percent. In 2003, Fuyang, an impoverished city of 8 million people in central Anhui province, built a massive government office, at a cost of nearly $5 million, resembling the U.S. Capitol. ("Without the red flag, you can't tell if it's America or China," one local resident quipped to a Chinese state journalist.)
The copycat ethos also extends to domestic landmarks. The Water Cube, where Beijing hosted its Olympic swimming events, has spawned a look-alike spa in the metropolis of Chongqing offering brothel service, at least until a 2010 police raid. Chengdu has built a fake version of the Great Wall. Even China's iconic Tiananmen Square, the site of Mao's 1949 proclamation of an independent China and 1989's student massacre, has a fake version in Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia autonomous region. These faux landmarks, built for the prestige of Chinese mayors and party secretaries, rarely become integrated into the city. According to a photographer who visited Hangzhou's Eiffel Tower in 2011, migrant workers now use the land adjacent to the tower to grow crops.
And even where China's urbanization boom has produced impressive architectural feats, it's not always clear that the country's cities are ready for them: A free-spending checkbook for development hasn't yet translated to a way around the Communist Party's stronghold on history, politics, and everything in between. So yes, there are impressive new urban meccas for the performing arts, like the soaring glass Guangzhou Opera House designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid that cost more than $200 million to build, or French architect Paul Andreu's Beijing National Center for the Performing Arts, a gorgeously situated dome that looks like an egg floating in water, with a price tag of more than $300 million. But a pervasive fear of censorship means that many of the best plays and artwork -- the lifeblood of great cities -- never get created or performed.
That's not to say Chinese cities aren't improving. Pictures of Harbin in the 1980s make it look like Pyongyang with smog and traffic. Most Chinese lived in dormitories with shared kitchens or bathrooms, and few appliances.
"The yard is just two metres square," writes author Ma Jian in the travelogue Red Dust, about the "crumbling old shack" he lived in off a Beijing courtyard in 1981, an improvement from his previous quarters in a dormitory. "In the summer months, watermelon skins and empty ice-cream cartons fall from the flats and attract swarms of flies and mosquitoes, so I tend to stay indoors. Winter is the best season as my neighbours seal their windows." Antoaneta Becker, a former journalist from Bulgaria who studied at Peking University, Beijing's premier college, in the late 1980s, said that it was so boring that "there was nothing to do but sit and meditate on the meaning of existence."
Now, great noodle and sushi joints dot the capital; bars mixing $15 martinis are upstairs from little tents serving beer of dubious provenance for under a dollar. Foreign and Chinese hipsters have colonized some of Beijing's traditional hutong (small alleys that ramble throughout the center of the city) neighborhoods. The capital's best microbrewery, Great Leap, set up a bar in one these alleys -- its subversive name is borrowed from the Great Leap Forward, Mao's disastrous forced industrial campaign that led to the starvation of 20 million to 30 million people.
But there is much work to be done before China's urban wastelands measure up to the world's great cities. In a different era, but one suited to China's present condition, England-based novelist Henry James wrote, "It is difficult to speak adequately or justly of London. It is not a pleasant place; it is not agreeable, or cheerful, or easy, or exempt from reproach. It is only magnificent." After three decades of breakneck growth and 5,000 years of history, China's cities have most of that going for them. Now they just need to work on the magnificent.