Ready for Departure–musings about global cities

“Migrant Worker of China” by 枫彩
(Creative Commons License)

Well, I’m not quite “ready for departure,” but I’m definitely getting on that plane Tuesday afternoon so I suppose I will be!

I’ve been reading some Mike Davis lately–namely, the first couple of chapters of his 2006 Planet of Slums.  And this happened to be around the same time I taught Katherine Boo’s beautifully written yet heartrending Behind the Beautiful Forevers:  Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (2012), which tells a story about the Annawadi community, a slum just outside the booming global city of Mumbai.  (By the way, if you’re looking for a summer read, I highly recommend Boo’s book.)

So I’m excited but a bit apprehensive as we depart for Beijing.  I’ve not been to Beijing since 1995, when I was a second-year graduate student spending a summer studying basic Chinese language in Beijing.  Of course everyone tells me to prepare myself for how different China will look now!  I have no doubt, and I certainly remember seeing on television the technological, architectural, and economic advances on display at the 2008 Olympics.  Truly impressive.

But what continues to resonate in my mind, not just in connection with Beijing but with many booming cities throughout the world, is Davis’s discussion of the underside of these twenty-first-century global cities of the future.  What then does the impoverished underside or periphery of these cities look like?  What happens when the rural poor migrate to the city, for jobs that may or may not exist, and become the urban poor?  What kind of economic or social inequality will we observe in our visits to Beijing, Dalian, and Xi’an?  (And, yes, when my friends/acquaintances from other countries spend time in the U.S., I also insist that they visit communities of different socioeconomic status to get a fuller sense of American life.  I’m not trying to apply a one-way standard, and my guided tour of places like Chicago and Los Angeles is often quite different from what visitors expect of “America.”)  Are there still migrant settlements on the southern periphery of Beijing, and will we see any of this?  I know that many Chinese intellectuals, activists, and artists have been grappling with the implications of these new forms of poverty, and I really hope we will be able to observe some of this work.


2 Responses to “Ready for Departure–musings about global cities”

  1. 1 Martin Tracey
    May 14, 2013 at 2:42 am

    “What then does the impoverished underside or periphery of these cities look like?” I’ll be very curious to hear your impressions, Wilson, and in particular how you would compare the undersides and peripheries of China’s cities with those of our own. Your impressions will help my thinking about a related comparison of interest to me: that between the material prosperity generated, respectively, by China’s “authoritarian capitalism” and our own country’s “liberal capitalism.” I’ve been interested in that comparison since 2009, when I read an op-ed in New York Times in which Slavoj Zizek–impressed by China’s material progress and thinking about its political implications–asked “What if [China’s] strain of authoritarian capitalism proves itself to be more efficient, more profitable, than our liberal capitalism?”.

  2. May 19, 2013 at 3:50 am

    Thanks, Martin, for the Zizek reference! You’ve given me some ideas for my IDP 301! : ) Will report back later. I think you would really enjoy this trip.

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