By Tom Miller for China Brain.
The journey from farm to city is the story of China’s transformation from a poor and backward country to a global economic superpower. By 2030, when China’s urban population is projected to swell to 1 billion, its cities will be home to one in every eight people on earth. How China’s urban billion live will shape the future of the world.
Nowhere is China’s urban miracle more obvious than in Chongqing, the largest city on the upper reaches of the Yangtze River. Once a rusting laggard, marooned far from the dynamic cities of the eastern seaboard, this rough-and-ready river port is undergoing a spectacular transformation. Over the past decade, hundreds of towering apartment blocks have sprouted from the city’s deep red soil, and new bridges have soared across its muddy riverbanks. The skyline, a thicket of skyscrapers, already resembles Hong Kong’s. Yet the construction frenzy shows no sign of slowing: entering Chongqing is like walking into a giant building site. On the city’s northern outskirts, bulldozers flatten wooded hills and lush ravines to satisfy property developers’ insatiable appetite for land. Near the airport, teams of construction workers lay track on a new monorail, which will eventually run to nine lines. And at the heart of the old city, wreckers armed with pickaxes hack at a tangle of grimy slums.
Chongqing municipality is often wrongly called the world’s largest city. It is actually a mostly rural city-province a little larger than Scotland, with a resident population of 28 million. Around one-quarter of these people live in the city proper, which is rapidly expanding to accommodate an enormous influx of new urban residents. By 2020, planners expect the city’s population to top 12 million. A model of central Chongqing at the municipal planning centre shows a sea of skyscrapers and smart residential compounds dappled by green, verdant spaces. Accompanying captions confidently proclaim that six big cities, 25 smaller cities and 495 towns will surround the core megacity, “just as many stars encircling the moon”. In the local government’s cosmic view of their city’s development, “A new Chongqing is galloping to the world.”
Amid all this spectacular development, it is easy to miss the poverty on the ground. Urbanization has brought enormous wealth to the city, but the millions of rural migrants who work on building sites, serve in restaurants, and rub flesh in massage parlours remain poor. Many new arrivals from the rural counties that surround the metropolis struggle to scratch out a living. Not far from the city centre, scrawny men flog pirated porn DVDs from pavements sticky with cooking slop, rows of women sweat at sewing machines in dank basements, and crowds of unemployed migrants gather at an outdoor labour market. On the mossy stone steps that lead down to the Yangtze River, shirtless old men toil under stout bamboo poles laden with heavy, wicker panniers, their muscular calves bulging like tennis balls. Chongqing’s famous army of “stick men” are just as much a part of the modern city as rich businessmen sipping cocktails in glitzy bars.
Chongqing’s leaders want many more rural people to migrate to the city and other towns within the municipality. They believe that faster urbanization will unlock economic growth and boost rural incomes. Their ambitious goal is to double the municipality’s urban population from 10 million in 2010 to 20 million by 2020. This kind of direct promotion of urbanization is new: for the past 50 years or more, China deliberately held back the pace of migration, partly for fear that cities would not be able to cope with a vast influx of migrants. Chongqing’s plan jibes with a shift in national policy: China’s 12th Five Year Plan, which runs from 2011-15, explicitly calls for more urbanization and supports the emergence of giant megacities. Li Keqiang, the incoming premier, has consistently expressed his support for speedier urbanization nationwide. But policy makers are playing a high-risk game: forced urbanization could dramatically improve millions of lives—or vastly swell the ranks of the urban poor.
Even without explicit central-government support, China is already urbanizing faster than expected. In 2011, the country passed a development milestone: for the first time, more than half its citizens lived in towns or cities. The number of people in urban areas jumped to 691 million, taking China’s urbanization ratio past 51%. In the development stakes, that puts China many decades behind rich economies like the United Kingdom and the United States, which became predominantly urban countries in 1851 and 1920 respectively. But China’s urbanization process is occurring at a mind-boggling rate. In 1980, fewer than 200 million people lived in towns and cities. Over the next 30 years, China’s cities expanded by nearly 500 million—the equivalent of adding the combined populations of the US, the UK, France and Italy.
The primary driving force behind urbanization is economic. Migrant workers earn far more than those who stay on the farm. And the productivity gains from the twin processes of urbanization and industrialization are vital for the national economy: moving hundreds of millions of people out of economically insignificant jobs on the land, and into factories and onto building sites in the city, produces enormous economic growth. Mass migration to the cities makes sense both for individual farmers and for the country as a whole. For this reason, nothing is likely to halt the huge migration from farm to city—bar economic collapse, political turmoil, or some other cataclysmic event. Historical experience, economic logic and government policy all point to the same conclusion: by 2030, 1 billion Chinese will live in cities.
This leaves two central questions. What kind of lives will China’s urban billion lead? And what will China’s cities be like?
China’s urbanization numbers are very impressive, but they hide an unpalatable truth: a large chunk of Chinese urbanization is bogus. At least 230 million people in Chinese cities do not live genuinely urban lives, because migrant workers from the countryside are not entitled to urban social security and face institutionalized discrimination in the cities. China’s household registration—or hukou—system legally ties migrant workers to their rural home, preventing them from putting down proper roots in the city. Rural migrants in the city lead segregated lives, hidden away in worker dormitories or slum villages. As temporary residents with few legal rights, most migrants remain trapped in low-income jobs, save as much as they can, and buy few goods or services. For this reason, China has failed to reap many of the economic benefits from its huge surge in migration.
The rapid modernization of urban China over the past couple of decades is astonishing, but social stratification is worsening. Without hukou reform, China’s cities will soon be home to several hundred million second-class citizens. Even the lucky residents who enjoy full urban rights must put up with clogged roads, polluted skies, and cityscapes of unremitting ugliness. China is trying hard to make its cities more liveable, but the sheer speed and scale of the urbanization process mean this will be extremely tough to achieve. The problem is made worse by urban planners’ impoverished view of modernity, which often requires obliterating the past to make way for the new. China’s cities will continue to shock and awe—but they will struggle to inspire hearts and minds.
For 30 years, China has pursued an exploitative model of urbanization that allowed it to industrialize on the cheap. But that model has run its course. As China’s cities grow, their biggest challenge is to find a healthier path to urban development. This book aims to show why this must happen and to explain how it can be achieved. First, it describes the process by which hundreds of millions of people will move off the land and into the city. And second, it suggests how China can begin to create liveable cities that fully capture the economic benefits of urbanization.
China’s internal migration bears comparison with the great migration from Europe to the US a century ago. Every year, millions of farmers leave the drudgery of the fields for the bright lights of the cities. Most migrants arrive in the city empty handed, live in squalid conditions, and do the dirty work that no one else wants to do. In return, they are denied health care, schooling for their children, and basic social security. As more migrant families begin to settle in cities permanently, equitable access to affordable housing and social welfare is becoming a pressing issue.Integrating hundreds of millions of rural migrants into urban society is one of the greatest challenges, both economic and social, that China faces over the next two decades.
A crucial step will be reforming the household registration system. Because migrant workers do not have local residence permits, they are treated like illegal immigrants in their own country. Pressure to reform the dispiriting hukou system has been growing since the late 1990s, but the central government has failed to make any fundamental changes. New plans to extend an alternative system of local residence permits to migrant workers in cities across China are encouraging. But city governments will struggle financially to provide migrant workers with more urban benefits. If China is serious about delinking social security entitlements from citizens’ hukou status, the central government will have to bear much more of the financial strain.
Tom`s book: China`s Urban Billion, is available from Amazon
Tom Miller is Senior Asia Analyst at Beijing-based research firm Gavekal Dragonomics and a former China correspondent for the South China Morning Post. Tom has spoken at Chatham House in London, the Friends of Europe think-tank in Brussels, and the World Bank in Beijing. He has written op-eds for the Financial Times and appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Economist, Guardian, Reuters, BBC and CNN, among others. He has lived in China for 13 years.