Urbanization against dissent: Cairo to Beijing

China is comprised by a world of superlatives: the fastest train connecting Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport with the Longyang metro station on the outskirts of Shanghai by hitting 431km/h; the world’s largest radio telescope eavesdropping into space; and – not to forget – the One Belt One Road (一带一路) initiative spinning a network of infrastructural projects over land, air and water fostering China’s global power – even in frosty Antarktika.

In 2015, China added a new item to the list: it’s called Jing-Jin-Ji (京津冀), a future megatropolis that merges the cities of Beijing, Tianjin and the province Heibei. Over 130 million people will reside in this vast urban cluster, with the capital Beijing being its heart. One obvious reason is the economic boost the Chinese Communist party (CCP) expects from this unique urban experiment. But what is the political momentum? For answers, one has to turn to the dry deserts 45 kilometers east of Cairo.

Image: Clay Gilliand

How to turn the city into an arena of politics

In 2014, the protests in Cairo found a preliminary endpoint marked by a military coup d’état which pushed Abd al-Fattah Said Husain Chalil as-Sisi (عبد الفتاح سعيد حسين خليل السيسي) into office. Today there is no doubt, that al-Sisi even exacerbates the authoritarian rule of his predecessors. One of his major projects is the relocation of the administrative body of the Egypt state to a newly built capital outside of Cairo. 5 million people should live here one day. Project plans hint at prices for housing that could only be afforded by the wealthy and fortunate. Yet, from a historical perspective, building a new capital to relocate the administration is not something unique. Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw is hidden in the Burmese jungle and rather a ghost town instead of a lively capital.

Since the Tahrir Square protests, debates in newspapers and academia provided various explanations for the revolution by identifying different actors. Among them, prominent narratives credit the uprisings to the educated, middle class youth. According to the sociologist Asef Bayat and the political scientist Salwa Ismail these narratives are leaving out one major driving force of the protests: a group they refer to as Al-Sha‘b (the people) or urban subalterns. This particular group is discerned from the dominant political, social and cultural elites. They are sharing a form of socio-spatial proximity by residing in informal quarters and in general representing a large part of the Egyptian informal sector.

Asef Bayat and Salwa Ismail approached the political agency of the urban subalterns via two concepts, which I argue, complement each other. The first one by Bayat addresses so called social non-movements. Hereby Bayat refers to a large number of individuals who pursue similar objectives, namely changing their social status and thereby the society at large without being guided by a particular leader or ideology. Hence, their actions can be described as “collective actions of non-collective actors”. Already in the 90’s, Bayat described these actions as “street politics”. Hereby he acknowledges the political potential of the Al-Sha‘b to immediately turn the state regulated public spaces into a contested “arena of politics” through collective actions of people who usually pursue individual objectives. It is important to notice that this is a rather passive process, where in the end every individual is following its own ambition to improve its social status. Moreover, the dichotomy between the poor and the rich is thereby crucial and is reflected by Cairo’s architectural DNA: informal quarters on the one hand and gated communities on the other.

The subject of opposition 

The second concept is by Salwa Ismail, who argues that one major cause for the Cairo uprisings lay in the conflictual relation between the government and the popular forces taken place in the “micro-processes of everyday life”. This explains, why one of the main targets were police stations and resistance bursted out in a particular spatial context – for example markets. As a consequence of daily encounters with state repression, the urban subalterns can be viewed as “oppositional subjectivities” who developed an infrastructure which inherits the capacity and resources to contest state authority. In comparison to Bayat, Ismail credits the urban subalterns with a stronger active role where collective opposition was formed due to the daily experiences of authoritarian rule.

Both concepts ascribe first, power to the ordinary people of Cairo who take over the streets in their everyday life and can turn into political subjects, forming a passive network and rather pursuing individual objectives or, like Ismail argues, doing this rather actively. Secondly, the space of the city of Cairo is the arena for this act of protest, where the authorities can be addressed hands on and are forced to respond. So what’s the counter strategy to prevent future protests: a new capital located 45 kilometers outside of Cairo that is likely to increase and foster the dichotomy. By doing so, al-Sisi administration discerns the ordinary people even further from dominant political, social and cultural class and breaks the spatial importance that Bayat and Ismail both line out with their concepts. Additionally, where in the past protests were able to incapacitate the city, in the future the Egypt administration will be able to pursue its daily businesses when the relocation of the administration is completed.

Paralyzing Hong Kong: The Umbrella Movement

The strategical similarities with the urban cluster Jing-Jin-Ji (京津冀) are obvious. Even the timing of the announcement in May 2015 is noteworthy. At the end of 2014, the Chinese administration caught a glimpse of a possible revolution. Thousands of yellow umbrellas swamped the streets of Hong Kong to protest the CCP’s attempt to reform the Hong Kong electoral system — a novum for Hongkongers. Since 1997 the parole of one land two systems granted the Hongkongers a certain degree of autonomy and democratic rights. A pre-screening of candidates for the Hong Kong administration, as the CPP aimed to do, would have infringed that system. Already during the Arab Spring the censor apparatus prohibited information about the developments in the Middle East. Now, that the umbrella movement paralyzed Hong Kong, the CCP decided after 72 days to break up the protests violently, fabricating images of Chinese police forces beating the nonviolent protesters, thus confirming for many the image of Chinas authoritarianism around the world – a PR disaster for the CCP.

The megatropolis Jing-Jin-Ji is an attempt to get ahead of events. Part of the project plan is – similar to Cairo – to outsource the administration to remote areas and thereby depoliticizing the spatial proximity of the capital Beijing for future protests. Under Xi Jinping (習近平) surveillance and repression has increased tremendously. The security apparatus tries to control the everyday life of the ordinary Chinese people. It does not take much to spark resentment.

Obviously, you cannot simply compare Cairo’s architecture and society with Beijing or other megacities in China. Yet, both concepts “social non-movements” and “oppositional subjects” exemplify the development of protests by identify one particular group of actors – those who are discerned from the dominant political, social and cultural class. One group that at least to some extent fit the profile in China are migrant workers, comprising around 280 million people nationally. In Beijing alone, every third person belongs to that group of society, trying to improve the social status while enduring state repression on a daily basis. Many of them residing in informal housing which were recently destroyed by Beijing authorities to get them out of the city. The authorities are fully aware, that the worst case scenario would easily exceed Tahrir Square protests in Cairo. Consequently, the umbrella movement and subsequent gatherings of sympathizers in Beijing itself proofs the CCP’s greatest fear: the power of the people. So the new urban cluster has not only economic implications, it is also part of a political bet: even if one day resentment against the authorities would end in civil unrest, it would be impossible to turn the city into an arena of politics as the umbrella movement did in Hong Kong.

Domestic politics of leeway

In another article on InPRA I argued, that the CCP pursues with its island forging in the South China Sea a certain strategy that I characterized as politics of leeway. By building the islands, China attempts to deter the US presence in the pacific by simultaneously gain literally ground. With its megatropolis project, the CCP is adapting the same strategy to its domestic politics. By creating a superlative urban cluster, the authorities gain again ground and thereby leeway to prevent future spatial mobilization of those who possibly could turn into social non-movements or more actively oppositional subjects: the educated, middle class youth – like in Hong Kong – and, for instance, migrant workers. Moreover, by creating such a vast city, the authorities simultaneously annihilate space that is essential for occupation. In sum, forming Jing-Jin-Ji will turn politics of leeway inside-out and will buy the CCP itself at least a higher ground to react when push comes to shove.

Michael Lehmann

Michael Lehmann

Michael Swen Lehmann was born in Germany and lived in Vietnam and Austria. After he obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Popular Music and Media Science, he decided to pursue a stronger international focus. In order to do so, he enrolled in the Erasmus Mundus Global Studies Master at the Universities of Vienna and Leipzig. Since Micha already wrote his Bachelor thesis on blogger-movements in Vietnam, he decided to center his research on non-state actors in Southeast Asia and East Asia. Additional fields of interests comprise conflict transformation and the democratization process in Myanmar. Micha already worked as a Journalist for the German news agency Deutsche-Presse Agentur (dpa) and the German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW).
Michael Lehmann

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