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China's Emerging Urbanism


Rapid Growth of China’s Cities Challenges Urban Planners, Migrant Families

by Zijun Li on June 27, 2006

Next year, for the first time ever, more than half the world’s population will live in urban areas, according to the United Nations. As huge “mega-cities” gain ground across Asia, Latin America, and Africa, developing countries are projected to be home to 80 percent of urban dwellers within the next two decades. China, not surprisingly, is contributing a substantial share of this growth as urbanization and modernization fuel a dramatic restructuring of society.

Nearly all of China’s population growth in the past 20 years has occurred in cities. Over the past 50 years, the country’s urban population has increased more than seven-fold, from 72 million in 1952 to 540 million in 2004. Demographers project that if urbanization continues at the rate of 1 percent annually, an estimated 900 million Chinese will live in cities by 2020.

This transformation has created huge challenges for the nation’s city planners. Some have begun embracing more systematic development approaches as they recognize that “urbanization” is not just the expansion of municipal boundaries or an increase in resident numbers, but rather the core of a society-wide transition, bringing new economic forms, public life, and human relationships. Yet China’s current stage of urbanization has a unique character and faces different challenges than those that appeared during early urban development in the West.

By 2004, 183 of China’s 661 cities had plans to position themselves as “internationalized” metropolises—modern cosmopolitan cities like New York, Paris, or Tokyo. In addition to Shanghai and Beijing, many smaller cities along the country’s booming eastern and southern coasts are rushing headlong into development, a trend that is worrying both local preservationists and government planners. “City planning is losing its function in the country’s urbanization process,” proclaimed China’s leading business newspaper, the 21st Century Business Herald. According to the Herald, it is now common for cities to seek to meet 20-year planning guidelines in as little as five years.

Profit is a key driver of this growth. Land grants generate huge economic benefits for local governments, so many cities are desperate to expand, refurbish, and reconstruct their older districts on a large scale. Vast public squares, luxurious office complexes, and western-style buildings have spread throughout the country. Currently, there are more than 6,000 “development zones” nationwide, covering a total area of 3.6 hectares, reports the 21st Century Business Herald.

Yet China doesn’t have sufficient land resources to sustain such aggressive urbanization. Between 1996 and 2003, the country’s arable land decreased by 6.6 million hectares, of which 1.5 million hectares was used for construction. Domestic experts have predicted that a total of 10 million hectares of arable land will be available for construction by 2030 based on the current rate of land utilization. Yet the urban population alone is projected to consume 26 million hectares.

Although land use for urbanization has increased at a record-breaking pace, the growth in the Chinese population officially registered as urban has remained relatively stagnant. The majority of rural migrants working in cities do not remain long, as they face low wages and lack social security and labor insurance. Moreover, while China’s current urbanization policies encourage the extension of towns and cities over larger, less populous agricultural areas, tight restrictions on converting from rural to urban residency have meant that a large number of people with rural registration live and work in high-density urban areas, explains David Satterthwaite, a senior fellow with the International Institute for Environment and Development.

In 2003, about 110 million rural laborers left China’s farming sector, and 69.1 million of them—or 61 percent—went to work in cities, according to experts from the Central Leading Group of Financial and Economic Affairs. While a small number of these migrants have settled permanently in urban areas, most tend to fluctuate between rural homes and cities. Many Chinese households are not strictly “urban” or “rural,” but a combination of the two, with family members deriving income from both sectors.

The rapid influx of migrants puts increasing pressure on municipal governments, many of which do not have sufficient resources to invest in additional education, health care, social security, and law enforcement. Cities’ inabilities to accommodate significant floating populations also creates problems for those family members—particularly children—left behind in rural areas. With large numbers of migrant workers leaving their children in the villages, younger generations have fewer opportunities to interact with and learn from their parents, critical elements of child developmen