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If You Want to Understand Cities in the 21st Century, Read This Essay

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In 2008, a young model from rural Canada was brutally murdered in a Shanghai apartment building. The story of how her assailant was (maybe) caught, chronicled by journalist Mara Hvistendahl her engrossing essay And the City Swallowed Them, reveals how 21st century cities are changing the world.

What seems like a cut-and-dried crime story becomes, in Hvistendahl's capable hands, a tale of two young adults adrift in a city far from their rural homes. Diana O'Brien traveled to Shanghai from a small island off the cost of British Columbia, on a dubious modeling contract with a fly-by-night company. Chen Jun, the man convicted of her murder, was also a migrant to the city. He came to Shanghai from rural China, drifting between low-paying jobs at companies just as sketchy as Diana's modeling agency.


The story of how Diana and Chen's lives collided is as bewildering and complex as Shanghai itself, one of the world's biggest and fastest-growing megacities. Home to roughly 25 million people, the city seems like a land of opportunity to people all over the world. But as Diana's parents discovered after her murder, it's also a place where foreigners can get dangerously lost.

Looking for clues, the police discover that the modeling agency that hired Diana has disappeared overnight from its "offices" in an abandoned apartment building. But with the Olympics around the corner, they're under pressure to find a suspect — any suspect — to blame. People from rural China are often arrested for crimes in Shanghai, Hvistendahl notes, because they are far from family and have few connections. With a government that demands a set number of convictions from law enforcement each year, sometimes it's easier to convict strangers than it is to find the truth. Even after Chen confesses to the crime, we never know for sure whether he actually did it.


Hvistendahl is no stranger to difficult topics that raise thorny ethical questions. She published a fascinating book a couple of years ago called Unnatural Selection, about what happens when parents use reproductive technologies to choose the genders of their children. A large part of that book focused on China's one child policy, and Hvistendahl exhaustively researched how that policy and others led to highly skewed gender ratios in many parts of the world. In And the City Swallowed Them, she's used her familiarity with Chinese cultures and her unflinching investigative perspective to tell a story that's just as incendiary.


Hvistendahl's turns the ambiguity at the heart of this crime into a clear-eyed account of how cities are transforming us in the twenty-first century. This isn't a story about about a westerner lost in China. Instead, it's about two people from the countryside lost in a city. Despite their different national backgrounds, Chen and Diana have more in common with each other than either of them does with the metropolitan residents of Shanghai.

Both Chen and Diana are foreigners — they are not city people, and this sense of dislocation is made worse because they are not rich. The two of them are struggling financially, and both are being eaten alive by an urban economy that thrives on endless waves of migration from outlying areas. Over the past decade, urban populations have grown larger than rural ones, and urban migrants are growing in number every year. Global cities like Shanghai have become economic engines whose populations are caught in a tangle of unregulated industries and temporary communities, often without any social services at all.


All of that sounds terribly abstract, until you read Hvistendahl's haunting essay. In this meticulously-researched account of two lonely young people whose lives erupted in deadly violence, we discover the human face of the urban future. Cities may soon make foreigners of us all.

You can get And the City Swallowed Them as a Kindle Single. It is the first essay in a series from a new editorial collective called Deca.