As China is getting bolder the West is losing confidence

LIVING and working in China – where I teach urban design to eager architecture students – is a constant adventure. Unlike the UK, where we seem to spend our time discussing what, how or even whether to build, it is exciting to be in a country that is actually doing it. China is building 20 cities a year. Britain hasn’t built a city in the last 50 years, instead imbuing existing towns with the magical label: “city status”.

I recently returned to the UK to chair a Bookshop Barnie at Foyles in Charing Cross Road. These events are alternative book launches, whereby an author presents his or her work to an audience who are yet to be convinced. This time, it was the turn of professor Robert Skidelsky (coincidentally born in China), who has written How Much is Enough? Another in a long line of similar books that question the merits of growth and cast doubt on the progressive nature of economic development. This was a shock – in China, enough is never enough.

Over the last ten years, China has emerged as the second largest economy in the world; it’s the world’s largest importer and largest exporter, and it’s the largest holder of foreign reserves. News of its imminent demise is overstated. This year its GDP growth “slumped” to a healthy 7 per cent.

When I visited London’s Olympic stadium three years ago, the engineers told me that the central aim was to use one-tenth the steel that Beijing used. The fact that it looked one-hundredth as impressive was not an issue. China’s economic growth coincides with its growth in confidence. It is a country in a hurry. It is not content with enough, it wants more.

In 20 years, China has elevated 300m of its people out of poverty and urbanised half of its population. Admittedly, all Chinese statistics are open to interpretation but it is unequivocal that Chinese growth and development has created the conditions for the greatest, swiftest improvement in humanity’s living conditions in history.

Admittedly, China is riddled with contradictions. It is a country of dynamism and restraint, of exciting urbanism but terrible urban design; of space stations and rickshaws; of leadership elections, where the Communist Party of China will “appoint” a new head of state. But at least these contradictions are visible and contested. In the West, we are growing increasingly glib. It is obviously legitimate to point the finger at the lack of democracy in China, but it’s not as though we have enough of it over here (see, for example the rise of the Euro-technocrat).

The question is not how much is enough? It is how to improve the lives and lot of the millions who need – and want – more. Asking people to live with less in the middle of a recession clearly represents a crisis in confidence about the capitalist project. It is richly ironic that it takes a notionally communist China to show the West how to realise material ambition and economic dynamism.

Austin Williams chairs the Bookshop Barnie at Foyles Bookshop. The next Barnie is with Martin Jacques on 26 Oct www.futurecities.org.uk