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China dreams of urban empire

Bruno Maçães

FOREST CITY, Malaysia — Trees grow on buildings here, planted on the roof, sprouting from the balconies, hanging from the walls, and so they called it Forest City.

Cities have been carved out of the jungle or reclaimed by the jungle when their time was up. In Forest City, the jungle and the city exist as one — you know you have arrived when the trees take over.

My hotel stands in the middle of an immense construction site. The buildings around, hundreds of them, outfitted with cranes like giant insects with wings, keep rising. When the night falls, they keep rising. Sometimes a skyscraper will be finished in as little as a week.

There are other peculiarities about Forest City. Its future inhabitants are just starting to move in, and they’re almost all Chinese. Shop signs are written in Mandarin, and the restaurants serve Chinese food. But the city is being built in Malaysia, not China.

Forest City offers an early glimpse at a world reshaped by China, built according to Chinese rules and furthering the goals of a Chinese civilization, unhampered by national borders. Not the old China — but the China of the new science fiction being created by Chinese millennials. The world of Forest City resembles the world of science fiction author Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing” — with a splash of Plato’s Republic.

From the moment you arrive it is impossible to miss that there will be four separate social strata in the city. First, the residents: wealthy Chinese from the mainland, who may be looking for a new life outside China or at least a safe haven protected from undesirable developments at home.

Second, those providing them with professional services of all kinds, from health to education and entertainment. They tend to be Chinese, although in some cases — like in the posh prep school opening next month — Europeans or Americans may be preferred. Third, the guardians: Nepalese security guards, polite and distant. Fourth, the workers: Bangladeshi and Indian, responsible for construction and cleaning.

The city’s scale is hard to compute. There is a very large hotel and a shopping mall at the center. But the city is still growing, the buildings under construction are only a small portion of the whole island that will one day be reclaimed from the sea. And this island will be joined by three others in the near future, and then by an extension on land, bringing the total area of the city to about half the size of Manhattan. The first resident will move in next month. But in 10 years, close to 1 million people are expected to live here.

I take a walk on the beach. There are numerous warnings against swimming. Forest City sits on one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, and the heavy construction is not helping keep the waters clean. Fishing boats have all disappeared, replaced by construction trucks parked on the sand.

I walk all the way to the end of the artificial island. Across a narrow channel there is still an old mangrove and then in the distance the port of Tanjung Pelepas, one of the largest in Asia. Just a couple of miles across the Straits of Johor lies Singapore. On a good day you can drive from Forest City to the Lion City in less than half an hour.

“When Shenzhen was just a jungle,” a sales agent tells me, “no one would have bought a house there. But it was across from Hong Kong and now everyone wants a house in Shenzhen. So why not buy a house across from Singapore?”

Forest City is a $100-billion joint venture between China’s giant homebuilding company Country Garden from Guangdong Province and the sultan of Johor, the sovereign ruler of the Malaysian state where Forest City is rising.

Forest City’s sales representatives proudly advertise the links to power as a guarantee that the project has political support. And the sultan — so fabulously wealthy he owns a gold Boeing 737 airplane — indeed has delivered.

The problems the city will experience will likely come from the capital Kuala Lumpur, where the newly elected prime minister has compared Forest City to Singapore at the time of its establishment by the British — given away to foreigners in exchange for almost nothing.

Welcome to the world of Chinese post-imperial expansion. The best image of the One Belt One Road Initiative — China’s long-term project to transform the world in its image — is not the trains crossing the Eurasian supercontinent, or the ports and industrial parks opening up along the way. It’s the cities like this one being built from scratch.

These are what will change the physical and human landscape of the planet, creating new ways of life, new ideas, new adventures. And they are where the real competition between states and between political models will happen.

The new scramble for advantage is not about territory; the economy is what’s important. Nor is it about who has the biggest companies; those can relocate or be disrupted. It’s really about ecosystems: collections of companies, workers and consumers — clusters of culture, social life and economic activity. In other words: cities.

And in Forest City, China is betting that those can be built as easily a new app or a gadget.

I had flown to Malaysia from San Francisco, where I had met tech people who are seriously thinking about how to build technologically optimized cities and realize the old dream of Google’s founders: “Give us a city and put us in charge.” They seem to regard it as the natural next step for those who have already mastered how to build social networks on the internet. And so, the race is on — between two Bay Areas: San Francisco and the Pearl River Delta.

Forget Facebook. That’s the past. Forest City may well be the future.

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