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Open Access Publications from the University of California

"Global Cities" and "Globalization" in East Asia: Empirical Realities and Conceptual Questions


For most of the Twentieth Century, East Asia was among the least urbanized parts of the world; now it is a region where cities are growing the most rapidly and becoming increasingly important centers regionally and in terms of the global urban hierarchy. Tokyo is unquestionably a key "global city," with Hong Kong probably following not far behind, and Seoul and Taipei also moving up in the world city ranks as crucial national articulates of highly successful newly industrialized countries (NICS). At the other end of the spectrum, the teeming cities of the poor in southeast Asia seem to epitomize the appellation of Third World megacities. All the urban churning and foment that accompanies these dramatic transformations raise many questions. The very diversity of development trajectories and urban forms, functions and dynamics in the region is a caution against facile and premature attempts at generalization. But sensitivity to historical and cultural nuances and appreciation for variation also should not force social scientists to abandon a search for some comprehensive conceptual framework to understand the global dynamics of urbanization and (under) development.

This paper approaches this problems sensitized to the theoretical notion of global cities, worlds cities, and global urban hierarchies. These terms are only theoretically meaningful (and empirically useful) if we think about cities in global urban networks and in the context of their places in the larger structure of the world-system. After laying out a conceptual framework, we provide some preliminary ideas about how East Asian urban patterns–and particular cities–might fit into the schema. Extending the conventional discourse of global city analysis, the discussion l also focuses on those swelling metropolises in southeast Asia that are at the bottom of the world hierarchy, and suggests that perhaps we need to return to old debates about dependent/peripheral cities and the relationship between urbanization and underdevelopment. Mindful that oversimplified images that flatten the diversity of urban trajectories in different countries and regions are unhelpful, we call for a more theoretically informed sociological analysis of comparative urban patterns and processes.

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