City State Revival Likely to Skip Authoritarian China

China’s big cities won’t rival London or New York unless they’re given more power over their own affairs.

Shanghai, China, July 2010
Shanghai, China, July 2010 (Andy Brandl)

City states might seem a thing of the past. Athens, Danzig, Venice — all became part of nation states. Except for Monaco and the Vatican in Rome, the only true city state remaining is Singapore although Hong Kong and Macau enjoy a high degree of autonomy within China. But as cities rise and become global cities, could the city state make a comeback?

In the West, high-profile mayors make the case for increasing cities’ autonomy. Consider London’s Boris Johnson and New York’s Michael Bloomberg. Both are larger than life figures who are able to enact policies and regulations that affect millions under their administration. Indeed, there was talk of letting London become a city state not so long ago.

As they become ever more just a node in the new global economy, such Western cities’ economic and political power rises. London has seen property prices increase 70 percent since the financial crisis of 2008 while in other parts of the United Kingdom, they remain below the peak level. To someone from the English Midlands, the capital feels like an entirely different world culturally.

The same pattern is emerging in other Western global cities such as New York. Their interconnectedness with a globalized economy and their political autonomy seem to reenforce one another.

Economically, the coming global city revolution will be in the East, however. Of the 74 most powerful cities, 29 are expected to be in China by 2025. Some, like Shanghai and the manufacturing hub Shenzhen, can already be considered global cities. Others, such as Fuzhou and Xiamen, are little known outside China, even if they rival London and New York in size.

Europe, meanwhile, will manage only three cities on the list by 2025 — London, Paris and Germany’s Rhine-Ruhr conurbation. The United States finishes second to China with thirteen.

It will not only be the mega- and global cities contributing to global growth. McKinsey, a consultancy, found that 577 cities with populations between 150,000 and ten million will be seen contributing more than half of the world’s economic growth by the year 2025.

To give scale to China’s urbanization: the country will have nearly a billion urbanites by 2025 and an astonishing 221 cities with populations over one million. China’s urbanization is happening at one hundred times the scale of the world’s first country to urbanize — Britain — and at ten times the speed.

Will the Chinese cities come of age politically, as they will economically? Will they follow the trend in the West and assert autonomy?

This can only happen if China’s cities become connected with the global economy as well. A global city isn’t defined by economic output alone. It must have an influence in world affairs, attract foreign businesses and workers and be altogether considered cosmopolitan in its outlook. Most of China’s cities, no matter how big, do not yet qualify.

To get there, China’s cities will have to become better places to live, especially if they are to attract expatriates. This means cutting down pollution, traffic — no more nine day traffic jams! — and weakening the central government’s authority. China’s cities won’t rival London or New York when they can’t properly police themselves, provide for local infrastructure and maybe levy some of their taxes as well.

Elected mayors would also help. But that sort of political reform still seems a long way off in authoritarian China.