As we cross the bridge spanning China’s largest river that runs through the heart of Changsha, for the first time I could see what China’s third tier cities really look like. Even in Hangzhou, what most would consider a second tier city, I had never seen so many buildings under construction. 30+ story apartment complexes and skyscrapers seemed to be sprouting up wherever I looked. Massive six lane highways were being paved through the middle of town. As we drove to the edge of the city, I could see rows of identical apartments stretching across the landscape, like American Mid-western suburbs, gobbling up farmland and transforming it into a concrete jungle…
My month living in Changsha gave me a glimpse into what life is like for the majority of the new urban Chinese. It also made me realize how much living in Beijing is like living in a developed country. Unlike Beijing, the changes taking place in these cities are massive.
The term “tier” is used to describe the level of development in Chinese cities. There are basically three first tier cities in China: Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. These cities contain all the modern conveniences of a developed country: there are hypermarkets with imported foods from around the world, internationals restaurant chains like Starbucks, Coldstone and TGI Fridays, bars, pubs and other forms of entertainment, Apple stores and outlet stores like Adidas and H&M, luxury stores (lots of them) like Prada and Gucci, giant malls that would dwarf many malls in America, modern apartments and offices, large theaters, libraries, museums, art galleries and other signs of high culture. Each of these cities has a population between 20-30 million people and is among the largest cities in the world. Perhaps most notably, these cities are also full of non-Chinese from around the world and many people can speak English.
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Second tier cities – like Hangzhou, where I spent the first semester of my junior year studying abroad – are just a little less developed, but still have most of those modern conveniences. They range in population between 5-20 million (with the exception of Chongqing, a second tier city in central China which most people outside China have never heard of but claims a staggering population of 30 million).
Third tier cities are considerably less developed and internationalized. Most provincial capitals around China would be considered third tier. These are the cities that are going through the most rapid change and will probably absorb a large amount of the 300 million Chinese people expected to migrate to cities in the next 20 years (to put that in perspective, imagine the entire population of the United States migrating from the countryside to cities in 20 years).
Like Changsha, most of these cities have a have a larger commercial district than a major US city like Chicago, Philadelphia or Houston. Besides the tall buildings and sprawling highways though, the only sign of modernization is a shopping district in the center of the city with some luxury stores, a Walmart and Carrefour, a few coffee shops, bars and clubs. Once you get outside this relatively small area, the clash between these new cities and the traditional Chinese way of life becomes evident. Landscapes are transformed before your very eyes in a frenzy of modernization madness. Everything and everyone is speeding forward in high gear, all 1.4 billion people clamoring to get away from the farmland and to snatch up a piece of China’s newfound wealth.
The attitudes of the people, too, reflect this optimism. Everyone I met in Changsha seems to have dreams of a better future. The families for which I was teaching are quite representative of China’s new middle class. They grew wealthy mainly through the export business and finally saved enough money to buy apartments in the city and purchase their own cars. The wealth accumulation doesn’t end their, as those apartments will likely double in value in the next 10 years. While none of the parents are very well educated and can’t speak much English, they have dreams of their children going to school in America and some day having even more opportunities available to them. The ability to speak English and to have an international education is seen by many Chinese as the way out of the working class and into a new arena of prosperity. Their dream is in some ways an American dream, but with Chinese characteristics.