NOTE: An edited version of this piece was published in the Shenzhen Daily on April 8.
Newly elected Premier Li Keqiang said on March 14, the biggest development potential for China lies in the process of urbanization. China is a country where about half of its people are still living in rural areas decades after the biggest urbanization wave in history began.
According to the Global Times, the vice premier has had a life long interest is urbanization, and considers its continuation imperative to healthy economic growth.
Li was quoted in People’s Daily saying, “Urbanization is not about simply increasing the number of urban residents or expanding the area of cities., More importantly, it’s about a complete change from rural to urban style in terms of industry structure, employment, living environment and social security.”
What does this mean? Simply put, urbanization is the process of country people moving to cities in attempts to better their lives. What do rural immigrants into the cities hope to find in their new homes? Mainly relatively high paying jobs, but the lure is not just economic. Immigration is also a result of loss or degradation of farmland and pastureland due to development or land grabs, conflicts, the attractions of anonymity, proximity and ease of mass transport, and the opportunity to assert individualism.
Cities offer a larger variety of services that aren’t available in rural areas. Supporting the provision of these services requires workers, resulting in more numerous and varied job opportunities. Elderly individuals may be forced to move to cities where there are doctors and hospitals that can cater for their health needs. Varied and high quality educational opportunities are another factor in urban migration, as well as the opportunity to join, develop, and seek out social communities.
Cities are a cause of, and a response to, world economic growth. Cities, both large and small, are at the heart of the fast changing global economy. Writing in 2012, Li noted that urbanization is a “huge engine” powering China’s growth. Generally, urbanization is viewed as a positive for a society or an economy, but like most everything it is neither all good, nor all bad.
Li noted that China’s urban population of just above 50 percent is “much lower” than the 80 percent average in developed nations. Li’s championing urbanization has been a central theme of his career. As he once said, “Urbanization is not about simply increasing the number of urban residents or expanding the area of cities. More importantly, it’s about a complete change from rural to urban style in terms of industry structure, employment, living environment and social security.”
Asian urbanization has been studied in depth in Thailand. Professor Iam Thongdee of Mahidol University in Bangkok found Thai farmers are seen as poor, stupid, and unhealthy. As young people flee the farms, the values and knowledge of rice farming and the countryside are fading, including the tradition of long kek, helping neighbors plant, harvest, or build a house. He found Thais are losing what they call Thai-ness, the values of being kind, helping each other, having mercy and gratefulness. A similar pattern may be emerging in China.
In addition to the disappearing long kek, Thailand urbanization has also resulted in massive increases in other problems such as obesity, disease, pollution from dirty cooking fuels and primitive stoves, and poor access to clean water and sanitation. In addition urbanized populations are exposed to modern environmental hazards, such as air pollution, exhaust fumes, food poisoning, and industrial pollution.
City life, especially in modern urban slums of the developing world, is hardly immune to pestilence or climatic disturbances such as floods. Yet they continue to attract migrants. Examples of natural disasters include the 2011 Thailand floods and 2007 Jakarta flood. Urban areas are also far more prone to violence, drugs, and other urban social ills.
The cost of living in cities is usually very high when compared to country life. While it is probable that earned income is much higher in a city, the cost of living can eat it up, sometimes leaving the urban immigrant living a poorer lifestyle that before his relocation.
There are other drawbacks to urban living in China. Many find a lack of housing, and an infrastructure that has not kept pace with population growth. Others decry the lack of property and other rights because of the Chinese hukou system. Estimates run as high as 60% of newly urbanized people in south east Asia live in slums without power or running water. They are subject to poverty, crime and disease.
A study recently released showing the quality of urbanization of 246 Chinese cities using a number of social and economic criteria. Shenzhen came in at the top of the list with a score of 77.63%. It was followed by Beijing and Shanghai. The CPC called for the country to “noticeably enhance urbanization quality.”
City populations are growing faster than city infrastructure can adapt. This can be addressed by the government re-allocating resources to adequate infrastructure development, including roads, hospitals, water treatment facilities, and schools. Adequate living spaces and good sanitation must be made affordable to even the most poor.
Social services must be developed and developed to be able to cope with the new and growing problems resulting from urban poverty. Medical attention must be available. Slum dwellers need police protection from the base elements of society. Schools and universities must give equal treatment to the children of immigrants.
The government must enable the immigrants to participate in being members of society. They should not be forced into invisible corners and then overlooked.
The pace of growth in China’s cities is at risk of slowing, according to Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographer China’s workforce may shrink, with the number of 15-24 year-olds forecast by the United Nations to decline by almost 62 million people in the 15 years through 2025. The one child policy must be examined.
All of these things require scarce government resources. Li has a daunting task ahead of him as he attempts to make urbanization a benefit to both immigrants and to all of society.