Are Chinese-built “instant cities” becoming a global phenomenon?

Ronja Yu’s film “Chinatown” chronicles the failed project of a large Chinese product distribution hub combined with real estate development in the small town of  Kalmar in Eastern Sweden, which hoped it would revive its flagging fortunes. One of the returning motives in the film is the scale model of the new city, with tree-lined avenues, condos, and street lights: something clearly more metropolitan-looking than today’s Kalmar.

The first time I encountered this motive was in Southeast Fujian Television’s drama series Into Europe (走入欧洲), produced at the turn of the millennium, one of a number of dramas about audacious Chinese migrants who make it in the world. There, the protagonist unveiled a similar scale model of urban modernity — for a Chinese trade city near Paris — to an applauding French audience.

Since then, the fantasy of a Chinese hero bringing modernity to the West has come close to turning into reality. The Kalmar project may have fallen through, but others are on the way in Illange-en-Moselle in France and in Milan, Michigan. Both are large greenfield (literally!) developments aimed at attracting Chinese investors an providing them with residential real estate; the Milan project has the additional selling point of in-state tuition at the University of Michigan.

In northern Laos, I have seen a similar scale model in the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, an ambitious Chinese-invested gambling enclave with plans for tourism and logistics. Golden Boten City, a similar place nearby, already began looking like the plans before it went bust. Recently, the BBC described a Chinese-built satellite city of Luanda in Angola as a “ghost town,” an allegation promptly denied by the Chinese embassy.

Many of the newly announced “instant cities,” like Bui City in Ghana, may never materialise. Others are struggling. In Peru, the Chinese state aluminium company Chinalco is spending $50 million to build a new town next to the Morococha copper mine to resettle locals whose houses are in their way. With 1,050 new houses, the company describes this as the largest non-state “social project” in the history of Peruvian mining. Nonetheless, it admits that not all locals have been persuaded to move.

Even so, the appeal of instant cities, both as investment hubs and as modern places, seems wide. The way a journalist describes the Morococha new town is typical of the developmental enthusiasm of these stories:

Unlike the precarious labyrinth of corrugated metal shacks and painted brick houses that make up the old town, the houses built by Chinalco all have quality inside plumbing and concrete walls.

According to a (…) mine official, most of Morocoja’s residents used to rent their living spaces. After the construction of the new town, some families own their houses and enjoy modern comforts that had not existed in Morocoja before, such as running water, sewage, 24-hour electricity, and a police office.

While the residential appeal of instant cities, particularly their low-end rural versions, may not be as high as hoped by the investors, it would be a mistake to dismiss them summarily as prestige projects intended to whitewash extractive exploitation. My bet is that these new export products of Chinese urbanism are here to stay.

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