China’s Great Leap towards Rapid Urbanization

Here’s the plan. China wants to move 250,000,000 people out of its rural areas and into cities within the next 15 years.

There are 316 million people in the United States. China’s plan is to move nearly as many people as the world’s third most populous country.

To do so, China is undertaking a massive construction effort to expand, improve and build new urban centers. Reporting from the New York Times reveals that the effort to transform the country has the potential to rapidly propel China or saddle it with long term and harmful problems.

This will decisively change the character of China, where the Communist Party insisted for decades that most peasants, even those working in cities, remain tied to their tiny plots of land to ensure political and economic stability. Now, the party has shifted priorities, mainly to find a new source of growth for a slowing economy that depends increasingly on a consuming class of city dwellers.

The shift is occurring so quickly, and the potential costs are so high, that some fear rural China is once again the site of radical social engineering. Over the past decades, the Communist Party has flip-flopped on peasants’ rights to use land: giving small plots to farm during 1950s land reform, collectivizing a few years later, restoring rights at the start of the reform era and now trying to obliterate small landholders.

VICE recently reported on what it calls China’s ghost cities. Correspondent Ryan Duffy traveled to Songjiang to see a British copycat city. There are other European-based tows planned for development. The problem is that there are no people living there. The only people they see on the trip are recently married couples taking pictures in the setting. Expensive prices and the fact that nobody lives there keeps many away.

The report shows the potential problems with centrally planned development programs like the construction of entire cities.

Landesa, the Seattle-based land rights NGO, took a look at the impacts of China’s rapid development. They found that the Chinese government is increasingly taking land away from its citizens.

The costs of this top-down approach can be steep. In one survey by Landesa in 2011, 43 percent of Chinese villagers said government officials had taken or tried to take their land. That is up from 29 percent in a 2008 survey.

“In a lot of cases in China, urbanization is the process of local government driving farmers into buildings while grabbing their land,” said Li Dun, a professor of public policy at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Farmers are often unwilling to leave the land because of the lack of job opportunities in the new towns. Working in a factory is sometimes an option, but most jobs are far from the newly built towns. And even if farmers do get jobs in factories, most lose them when they hit age 45 or 50, since employers generally want younger, nimbler workers.

“For old people like us, there’s nothing to do anymore,” said He Shifang, 45, a farmer from the city of Ankang in Shaanxi Province who was relocated from her family’s farm in the mountains. “Up in the mountains we worked all the time. We had pigs and chickens. Here we just sit around and people play mah-jongg.”

The World Bank warned earlier this year that rapid urbanization must be done carefully in order to reap its development benefits. The report Planning, Connecting, and Financing Cities – Now: Priorities for City uses examples from Japan and Korea to show how countries can develop smaller urban centers. Existing mega cities are unlikely to be the points of significant urban growth says the report.

“City leaders at all levels must start now with careful land use planning that looks well into the future for the sake of their city’s economy, equity, and sustainability. How they prepare for rapid urbanization matters not only to the future of their cities but to global economic progress,” said report author Somik Lall, Lead Urban Economist at the World Bank.

China appears to be focused on the growth of new cities. The report points to the success of China’s special economic zones as examples of proper planning. Cities that are economically viable and in a good location can be successful. The city of Songjiang visited by VICE is an example of a city that is not economically viable due to the high costs.

Egypt’s attempt to alleviate the pressure of population growth in Cairo led to the development of 20 new towns over 20 years. Poor construction, distance from the city and rigid land use policies conspire to keep people from leaving Cairo. China is investing in infrastructure, but ensuring proper location is likely reflected in Landesa’s noted increase in forced evictions.

Now it is a matter of watching to see what happens. Will China’s great leap into urbanization help or harm the country?

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.