In Invisible Cities, the novel by the great Italian writer Italo Calvino, Marco Polo dazzles the emperor of China, Kublai Khan, with 55 stories of cities he has visited, places where "the buildings have spiral staircases encrusted with spiral seashells," a city of "zigzag" where the inhabitants "are spared the boredom of following the same streets every day," and another with the option to "sleep, make tools, cook, accumulate gold, disrobe, reign, sell, question oracles." The trick, it turns out, is that Polo's Venice is so richly textured and dense that all his stories are about just one city.
A modern European ruler listening to a visitor from China describe the country's fabled rise would be better served with the opposite approach: As the traveler exits a train station, a woman hawks instant noodles and packaged chicken feet from a dingy metal cart, in front of concrete steps emptying out into a square flanked by ramshackle hotels and massed with peasants sitting on artificial cobblestones and chewing watermelon seeds. The air smells of coal. Then the buildings appear: Boxlike structures, so gray as to appear colorless, line the road. If the city is poor, the Bank of China tower will be made with hideous blue glass; if it's wealthy, our traveler will marvel at monstrous prestige projects of glass and copper. The station bisects Shanghai Road or Peace Avenue, which then leads to Yat-sen Street, named for the Republic of China's first president, eventually intersecting with Ancient Building Avenue. Our traveler does not know whether he is in Changsha, Xiamen, or Hefei -- he is in the city Calvino describes as so unremarkable that "only the name of the airport changes." Or, as China's vice minister of construction, Qiu Baoxing, lamented in 2007, "It's like a thousand cities having the same appearance."
Why are Chinese cities so monolithic? The answer lies in the country's fractured history. In the 1930s, China was a failed state: Warlords controlled large swaths of territory, and the Japanese had colonized the northeast. Shanghai was a foreign pleasure den, but life expectancy hovered around 30. Tibetans, Uighurs, and other minorities largely governed themselves. When Mao Zedong unified China in 1949, much of the country was in ruins, and his Communist Party rebuilt it under a unifying theme. Besides promulgating a single language and national laws, they subscribed to the Soviet idea of what a city should be like: wide boulevards, oppressively squat, functional buildings, dormitory-style housing. Cities weren't conceived of as places to live, but as building blocks needed to build a strong and prosperous nation; in other words, they were constructed for the benefit of the party and the country, not the people.
Even today, most Chinese cities feel like they were cobbled together from a Soviet-era engineering textbook. China's fabled post-Mao liberal reforms meant that the country's cities grew wealthier, but not that much more distinct from each other. Beijing has changed almost beyond recognition since Deng Xiaoping took power in 1978, but to see what Beijing looked like in the past, visit a less developed part of China: Malls in Xian, a regional hub in central China famous for its row upon row of grimacing terracotta warriors, look like the shabby pink structures that used to dot western Beijing. Yes, China's cities are booming, but there's a depressing sameness to what you find in even the newest of new boomtowns. Consider the checklist of "hot" new urban features itemized in a 2007 article in the Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, including obligatory new "development zones" (sprawling corporate parks set up to attract foreign direct investment), public squares, "villa" developments for the nouveau riche, large overlapping highways, and, of course, a new golf course or two for the bosses. The cookie-cutter approach is such that even someone like Zhou Deci, former director of the Chinese Academy of Urban Planning and Design, told the paper he has difficulty telling Chinese cities apart.
This model of endless fractal Beijings wouldn't be so bad if the city itself were charming, but it is a dreary expanse traversed by unwalkable highways, punctuated by military bases, government offices, and other closed-off spaces, with undrinkable tap water and poisonous air that's sometimes visible, in yellow or gray. And so are its lesser copies across the country's 3.7 million square miles, from Urumqi in the far west to Shenyang way up north. For all their economic success, China's cities, with their lack of civil society, apocalyptic air pollution, snarling traffic, and suffocating state bureaucracy, are still terrible places to live.
I spent seven years in China, living there until the end of last year. I've visited 21 of China's 22 provinces and all five of its questionably named "autonomous" regions. In a traffic jam in the central metropolis of Wuhan, a barrage of car horns honking at once nearly made me deaf; smog the color of gargled milk hung over Nanjing the week I spent there, obscuring the city's old rivers and bridges; at one of the nicest hotels in Tangshan, a city of 3 million famous for its steel industry, its 1976 earthquake, and its cabbage, I opened my window and found myself surrounded by smokestacks. I spent six years in Beijing, two months in Shanghai, a week in Tianjin, and 45 minutes in a cab on the way to the Chongqing airport. But of all the places I've been, I'd vote Harbin China's least livable metropolis, at least during the three winter months I spent there as a student in 2005.
Chinese central government propaganda has gotten more sophisticated, even believable over the years, but official descriptions of cities are a major exception. Xiamen, for example, a sweltering concrete mess across the strait from Taiwan, is known as the "Garden of the Sea." Harbin, a gray Manchurian industrial powerhouse 300 miles south of Siberia that McKinsey says will be the world's 55th-most dynamic city in 2025, gets the award for the worst abuse of language: It is widely known in China as "The Little Paris of the Orient," even though the two cities have nothing in common besides roads, people, buildings, and a fondness for bread.