Victorian Britain vs. Present-day China

After a decade of unprecedented urbanisation and industrialisation, China's cities now resemble the nightmare metropolises of mid-19th-century Britain. Accounts of the pollution, ill-health and overcrowding in Nanjing or Chengdu recall the worst excesses of 1840s Manchester or Glasgow.

The similarities are striking. Between 1770 and 1840 Britain underwent one of the most dramatic urban migrations in world history. Hundreds of thousands left their villages and farmsteads for the workshops of Birmingham, docks of Liverpool and mills of Manchester. Sheffield and Bradford doubled their populations in a matter of years. Today that history is repeating itself in China as families from the rural hinterland decamp for the coastal cities. Every year 8.5 million Chinese peasants make their way into the urban centres.
China is currently home to 20 of the world's 30 most smog-choked cities. Meanwhile, its rivers - even the once-mighty Yangtze - now resemble "the fetid, muddy waters, stained with a thousand colours by the factories they pass" of De Tocqueville's Manchester.

This ever-present pollution causes chronic health problems. Just as the squalor of the Victorian city led to an explosion of cholera, typhus, typhoid and smallpox, the noxious cloud in China's cities has resulted in marked increases in lung cancer, bronchitis and other respiratory diseases.

The initial Victorian response to the state of their cities was lackadaisical. Pollution and inequality was considered the price of progress, and the middle classes solved their problems by simply moving upwind. But in the end a combination of religion, officialdom and civil society forced the cities to change. But in modern China there exist few if any of these reforming tendencies.
Britain held back the urban masses from rebellion in the early 19th century, not with an immediate transfer to democracy, but by cutting sales taxes, stamping on bureaucratic bribery and curbing the elite aristocracy.

But all this is history and the past cannot be recreated. Taking Britain as an example could be giving false hope, for there is another story of rapid urbanisation. Across the Channel, France too was trying to cope with startling rates of immigration and industrialisation. But the consequence of its political fumbling was a Paris engulfed in flames in 1830, 1848 and 1871. That is a history the Chinese are all too keen to avoid.

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