Identity of Chinese cities

By Zhang Hao (张昊) on 12 May 2014

workers on a construction site

The outstanding work of The Spirit of Cities [1] by Bell and de-Shalit gives a very interesting point of view at how some cities are unique for their citizens. As a matter of fact more and more Chinese citizens feel detached from their cities. They find it difficult to recognize their city identity whereas identity might be a key factor to integrate millions of people in a short time to new urban area without them feeling they do not belong here or that they live just-another-lambda city.

Several obstacles stand in the way of Chinese planners we would like to emphasize: wealth gap, integration of migrant, worldwide disinterest for citizenship responsibility, city official planning expertise among the stronger ones.

The authors argue that it is a key factor for promoting urban identity that the city does not have a huge gap between rich and poor or between ethnic and racial groups. Argument is that if people live separate lives and strongly dislike one another, they will find it difficult to share a common interest. Given the huge class/social gap in Chinese cities (according to the numerous researches published on World Bank report [2], Forbes [3], NY Times [4], NBC News [5], it will be very hard for Chinese cities to promote urban identities effectively without proper integration of different class of population.

The gap is especially true when speaking about the severe living status of migrant workers. In recent decades, Chinese migrant workers came to cities for jobs taking benefit of the construction boom but as Isabel Hilton stated for ChinaDialogue [6]: >With no right of abode they are locked into the status of a disadvantaged underclass, allowed to work in cities but not to enjoy the right of residence that would give them and their families access to health care or public education. .

Consequently, how do we expect them to contribute to create a strong urban identity while they are struggling to meet the basic needs of life? According to the research by ChinaDialogue, prejudice against migrant workers plagues urban society. Marginalization has left many migrants disenchanted. A 52-year-old migrant worker in Beijing expressed trenchantly what people think [7]: >No matter how long we live and work here, Beijing could never be our home

The deterioration of urban identity is closely related to issues of social justice since it is difficult for the marginalized to feel they belong somewhere. But if such a climate makes it difficult for a city identity to emerge, contribute to the emergence through integration of migrant culture into design, planning, and city life is also a solution to give citizens something they can all relate to regardless of their income levels, cultures, age, etc. City might be the good place to embody this craver for harmony [8].

Another factor mentioned by Bell and de-Shalit is that the residents have a strong motivation to struggle to keep their identity when the urban identity is threatened by outside forces. Such as the people of Hong Kong fight to maintain their capitalist way of life as opposed to mainland China [9]. Unfortunately, public participation and conceptions such as “fighting for the rights” are not deeply rooted in Chinese people’s minds [10]. Many citizens don’t take fighting for the urban identity as their obligation. Instead, they see it more likely as a “government business/affair” even though regulation in China ask for citizens approval.

According to Urban and Rural Planning Law of the People’s Republic of China, Article 26: >Before filing an urban or rural planning for examination and approval, the organ establishing it shall announce the draft of the planning and collect opinions from experts and the general public by way of argumentation, hearing or other. The draft shall be announced for at least 30 days.(《城乡规划法》第二十六条:城乡规划报送审批前,组织编制机关应当依法将城乡规划草案予以公告,并采取论证会、听证会或者其他方式征求专家和公众的意见。公告的时间不得少于三十日。)[11].

The fact citizens do not feel involved in their city life is not specific to China. Here technology have a strong role to play here by making citizen experience their city present and future. Smart city and smart government are beginning to answer this need. It is our duty to design effective ways to stimulate people’s passion for public participation on reviving or promoting urban identity.

The book also points out that it is essential for cities to have great urban planners to enact transformative plans that help to realize a common public urban identity. Environment contributes most to urban identity since they provide a space to experiment and live in to both residents and tourists. However, urban planning in China became a manufacturing process which creates numerous soulless and homogeneous cities. Local governments leave the planning jobs to design companies or schools, and most of them merely take it as an opportunity to make profits instead of an invaluable chance to revive urban identity. Therefore, urban planning in China often turns to drawing grand blueprints to meet local officials’ ideas.

What makes it worse is, since most officials are not well-trained with professional knowledge of planning or urban studies, many of their visions are merely impacted by the image conveyed by the media of what future cities should look like. As a result, we see massive imitation of used planning models in many Chinese cities [12], especially in new-built areas, such as car-oriented big streets, oversized city halls, etc. But to be fair, China’s urbanization face a unique situation. Many cities are preparing themselves to welcome millions of people in the next 10 years or so and this situation is unique in the world. Therefore time is an issue and it is pretty hard to foresee what society needs will be. To keep or develop an identity based on history and culture might not be the top priority even if it guarantees social stability in the future to connect to the past and gives everyone a reason to be proud of living somewhere.

CEOs for Cities [13] argues that: >Unique characteristics of place may be the only truly defensible source of competitive advantage for regions. If Chinese cities are willing to achieve their ambitions and be highly competitive and attractive in the 21st century, it is essential to keep their own unique characteristics, engage people’s emotions and bring people a new whole experience about the city they live and work in by reviving urban identity. After all, the only way to mark the city in the trend of globalization is to effectively nourish and promote the particularity of city.


  1. Bell, Daniel A., and Avner De-Shalit. The spirit of cities: Why the identity of a city matters in a global age. Princeton University Press, 2011. (see it on GoodReads)
  2. Dollar, David. “Poverty, inequality and social disparities during China’s economic reform” The World Bank. June 6, 2007.
  3. Rapoza, Kenneth. “The China Miracle: A Rising Wealth Gap”. Forbes. January 20, 2013.
  4. Wong, Edward. “Survey in China Shows a Wide Gap in Income”. The New York Times. July 19, 2013.
  5. Schoen, John W. “China’s wealth gap strains social fabric”. NBC News. October 20, 2010.
  6. Hilton, Isabel. “China’s Urban Dilemma”. November 11, 2013.
  7. Lin, Luna. “Chinese migrants struggle to find urban dream”. October 18, 2013.
  8. Barber, Benjamin R. “If mayors ruled the world.” Why cities can and should govern globally and how they already do. Yale University Press, 2013. (see it on Amazon)
  9. Lipin, Michael. “Honk Kong Anti-Mainlander Protest Highlights Frustration With Visitor Influx”. Voice of America.March 2, 2014.
  10. Yi, Li. Public Participation Issues in Preservation Planning: Practices of Chinese Historic District. (Masters Thesis). University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, 2012. (see it on University of Pennsylvania ScholarlyCommons)
  11. 中华人民共和国城乡规划法 (Urban and Rural Planning Law of the People’s Republic of China)
  12. Xu, Jiang and Anthony G.O. Yeh., “City Repositioning and Competitiveness Building in Regional Development: New Development Strategies in Guangzhou, China.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 29 (2005): 283–308. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2427.2005.00585.x (see it on Wiley Online Library)
  13. CEOs for Cities
Zhang Hao (张昊)

Hao is a research engineer in urbanism.

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