A Letter from Chongqing

The metropolis of western China has built thousands of council flats for its migrant workers. Does it really offer an alternative to China’s state–driven capitalism?

The unfinished spaces of Chongqing reveal the blind spots of the Chinese state. (Photo by Alessandro Rizzi / Getty Images.)

Within China, Chongqing has been seen as the city of the future for a long time. The joke runs, ‘if China was a magazine, Shanghai would be on the cover, but Chongqing would be the next issue’. More and more capital is moving inland to this industrial port on the Yangtze River, several thousand miles away from the coastal cities where so much of China’s industrialisation in the last thirty years was concentrated. A developer once told me that ‘western China is the future, and Chongqing is the origin of the Belt and Road Initiative’ (the massive infrastructure programme intended to span Eurasia). Yet there’s more to what has been happening in Chongqing than just development and infrastructure. Chongqing has posed the question of what contemporary China might mean for the Left.

Over the course of the two years I lived in Chongqing I saw a kind of future being enacted on the city around me. The more run-down inner-city districts were slowly emptied of people while anti-demolition graffiti reading ‘The Communist Party are Thieves’ was still visible on the walls. The graffiti was then covered up by photographs of the former residents standing in their new apartments in the suburbs, smiling. Then, the whole neighbourhood was flattened. The Guardian published an article asking whether the ‘horizontal city’ that would replace this would solve the problem of overcrowded cities.

What kind of future Chongqing signifies depends on who you talk to. For the CEOs of Hewlett-Packard and Foxconn who relocated their supply chains to ‘China’s new Silicon Valley’ in the aftermath of the financial crisis, Chongqing means cheap land, cheap labour, a new front of capitalist accumulation. For the European journalists who come to see its spectacular new skyscrapers, bridges, and Blade-Runner-like vistas, Chongqing is a symbol of a techno-orientalist sci-fi futurism: ‘the largest city you’ve never heard of’. But for many on the left, both inside and outside of China, Chongqing has been a symbol of something quite different. A few years ago, the ‘Chongqing Model’ promised a more egalitarian mode of urbanisation than the neoliberal policies of southern coastal cities like Shenzhen and Guangzhou. Intellectuals of the Chinese new left argued that Chongqing was pioneering a municipal vision of ‘Socialism 3.0’ that could provide a new developmental mode for the world to follow.

One reason I was in the city in the first place was to find out what had happened to the Chongqing Model. It was hard to separate the hyperbole from the concrete policies, but one symbol that it all coalesced around was housing. Since the dismantling of the socialist housing system in the early 1990s, inequalities had soared. Many of the emerging middle classes live in gated luxury compounds, while the migrant workers whose labour fuelled the booming economy were forced into collective dormitories, or rented in shanty towns on the outskirts, officially called ‘urban villages’. Bo Xilai, the leader of the Chongqing Communist Party, planned to rectify this. Bo pledged to build 40 million square metres of public housing in ten years, primarily aimed at migrant workers. These were large estates built on land which was expropriated from the surrounding villages; dozens of forty-storey concrete high-rises sprouting out of green fields. This caught the attention of socialist commentators internationally. Bo was written about as ‘the Chinese Chavez’ and the Marxist geographer David Harvey argued that the Chongqing Model was a possible alternative to other cities’ embrace of neoliberalism.

A big part of this dream died in 2012, when Bo Xilai and his associates were arrested for corruption and the murder of a British businessman. Leftist websites supporting Bo were shut down. His successor declared that the Chongqing Model did not and had never existed. Images circulated on social media of scattered protests by his supporters in the city — pictures of homemade banners reading ‘Bo Xilai is the people’s president’ or criticising the corrupt government in Beijing. Many working-class people in Chongqing still talk with enthusiasm about him, even if his name has been erased from the city itself. Occasionally when getting in a taxi I’d spot that the driver had an image of Bo Xilai as their phone wallpaper.

The present reality of the Chongqing Model, though, is likely to leave many of its proponents disappointed. Public housing construction has continued after the arrest of Bo, but the housing estates are located in increasingly remote satellite towns with poor facilities. In some cases, public housing is directly leased to neighbouring factories, where it essentially functions as state-subsidised workers’ dormitories. In more central estates you see public housing apartments occupied by urban middle-class households and sublet for a profit. The streets of these estates are lined with more and more expensive foreign cars, while the house prices around them continue to rise. In the remains of dilapidated rural housing nearby, migrant workers who weren’t lucky enough to be assigned public housing rent beds in collective dormitories. Huang Qifan, the mayor who oversaw these policies until 2017, recently declared that the great innovation of Chongqing was to realise that if a city could attract migrants it would ultimately raise the value of land: the people follow the industry, and the price of land follows after them.

You don’t have to walk for too long in Chongqing before you find some of the spaces where this formula has broken down, even if only temporarily: patches of land downtown where the developer went bankrupt, stretches of wasteland under motorways, or areas of the state-owned land reserve which have never been sold. In these places you could see a different kind of development. Migrant workers and residents of what had until recently been rural areas who never moved away dig over the soil and plant vegetable gardens. While in Europe or North America this might be labelled ‘guerrilla gardening’, here it’s a form of subsistence, and one which is largely tolerated by the state.

The big question I was interested in thinking about when I first came to Chongqing was tied up with the state, and what possibilities a strong urban state offered for socialist politics. The Chongqing Model certainly offered many migrants better living conditions than they would be likely to find elsewhere in China; but it is hard to separate that out from the price, which is the exploitation of rural land and labour by global capital, guided here by the Chinese state. Perhaps that’s the pragmatic limits of a left politics in an illiberal state, but I’m also left wondering whether there could’ve been something more. The gaps of informal farming in the city reveal the blind spots of the state, even in this relatively reformist version. The upheavals of the past thirty years have forced many people into forms of life that occupy a grey area; a world of migrant workers living through the informal sector, and urbanised villagers still illegally living off the scraps of land left behind. While capital accumulation and growing class stratification is still premised on excluding these people and spaces from the formal benefits of state-led urbanisation, it’s important to approach the images of luxury skyscrapers and orderly urban progress with a degree of scepticism, even when they’re framed in the language of socialism.