What is the role of Global Cities in BRI? Global Cities, the symbiotic parts of the ongoing process of globalization, were popularized as hegemonic geographic polarities by the seminal work of Saskia Sassen. Global cities are empowered as physical infrastructures that enable the hypermobility of capital and the tentacular growth of extraterritorial transnational corporations, on a planetary scale, in the background of progressive financialization of Northern economies that followed the 1970s oil crisis. In other words, Global Cities are offshore bases for the extraterritorial functioning of multinational corporations that operate beyond the restrictions set by nation-states and take advantage of the North-South divide. Concurrently, they are places of exchange and cultural hybridization.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) stands as an ongoing attempt to shape volitional geography [géographie volontaire] aiming at territorialism. Not unexpectedly, the People’s Republic of China, in line with previous territorial hegemonic world powers, projects its global influence through a physical infrastructure, which will constitute the backbone for the material expansion of the world-system and serves as the catalyst for the investment of mobile capital accumulated through the financial expansion of the last systemic crisis. In other words, the BRI announces itself as the framework for a phase of productive exchange of a larger quantity of commodities, labour-power and gifts of nature, to the benefit of the Global South.
Under these premises, we might expect Global Cities to play a crucial role in contributing to the material expansion of the world-system within the framework of the BRI by providing mobile capitals, technological know-how and skilled labour-power. Conversely, we may expect these cities to undergo a transition from offshore financial hubs to integrated centralities of large urbanized regions served by state-of-the-art mobility infrastructures. In this regard, the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area (GBA) emerges a revelatory case.
In the early 1980s, when China started to open its door by reforming the socialist planned economy, there was a popular saying “to achieve prosperity you have to start by building a road” [yao zhi fu, xian xiu lu]. Highway construction was launched in the country together with economic expansion. The dense network of highway linked remote mountain areas to more developed urban centres, providing an exchange of commodities and labour-power that contributed to the alleviation of poverty in rural regions and to the growth of urban areas. The delta of the Pearl River [Zhujiang] had long been a vast region of paddy fields in Southern China. As a result of its proximity to Hong Kong and Macau, it developed into the industrial base for Hong Kong capital in the 1980s. A network of primary and secondary roads, bridges and tunnels followed the construction of the expressway from Shenzhen to Guangzhou, the two ends of the east side of the delta.
The Pearl River splits the delta into the east and west parts. Bridges were built in the middle to form a big “A”, with Guangzhou at the apex. At the bottom of this A shape, the 55 km Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge (partly oversea bridge, partly underwater tunnel) was completed in 2018. The bridge is a physical statement of the integration of the Pearl River Delta into the GBA, which contains 9 (Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhongshan, Dongguan, Huizhou, Zhaoqing, Foshan, Jiangmen and Zhuhai) + 2 (Hong Kong and Macau) cities. The Pearl River Delta was upgraded to the GBA in 2015, mainly integrating Hong Kong and Macau into China’s plans. Facilitated by high-speed rail, expressway and ferry, the GBA was proclaimed as “one-hour life circle” – it is possible to reach any corner of its 56,000 km2 vast territory in an hour, primarily by urban and city-link metro. Such extensive mobility infrastructure contributed to shaping the GBA as the world largest urbanized region built on the physical connection of a polycentric network of urban entities. One of its goals is to “participate to the construction of The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (One Belt One Road) together”. The GBA contributed US$ 1.5trn to China’s GDP in 2018, accounting for about 12% of the country’s total. The area is one of the wealthier in China. In Shenzhen, the per capita GDP is over US$ 25,000; Shenzhen’s citizens enjoy high prosperity and liveliness.
The BRI was initiated (2013) almost simultaneously with the GBA. The strategic visions behind both the BRI and the GBA are congruent with China’s structural global repositioning through international cooperation. The BRI is built upon the foundation of long-term endeavours: China has aided developing countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Oceania since the 1950s[i]. Conversely to the approach adopted by Western countries, China’s aid emphasized the construction of infrastructures and buildings, as China was convinced from its growing lesson that infrastructures could help to achieve “self-reliance”. Even in its extreme economic stringency of 1970s, China donated and constructed the famous 1860 km Tanzania-Zambia Railway, with hundreds of bridges and tunnels in the East African mountains and forests.
Ultimately, we would like to call attention to the diversity of the two coherent parts that constitute the BRI: (1) the Silk Road Economic Belt and (2) the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. Based on the world-system analysis proposed by, among others, Giovanni Arrighi, we may expect a territorialist hegemony like China to favour the construction of land infrastructures over the ephemeral expansion of maritime oversea trades, the latter being a typical strategy of capitalist powers. These infrastructures, which require significant investment, can play a crucial role in redistributing wealth from Global Cities to their symbiotic peripheries embedding them into prosperous urbanized regions that will contribute to shaping the human development of the Global South for decades to come. Moreover, the BRI lays the foundations for a paradigmatic shift in the production of space within urban areas of the Global Cities and their embedding regions[ii].
[i] Wei Chang & Charlie Q. L. Xue (2020) Climate, standard and symbolization: critical regional approaches in designs of China-aided stadiums, Journal of Asian Architecture and Building Engineering, DOI: 10.1080/13467581.2020.1749060
[ii] Gianni Talamini (2018) The Symbolism of Architectural Form in a Time of Bigness. Learning from the Venetian Macao, International Journal of Contemporary Architecture “The New ARCH” Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 27–35, DOI: 10.14621/tna.20180204
The opinions expressed are those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of ISPI