Is urbanisation the only way?

October 27, 2013 by Timothy Beardson

Beijing regularly reports the statistics of China’s rapid urbanisation with the appearance of satisfaction. The higher the percentage of people living in cities, it would seem, the better. In 1978 the figure was 18%. It has been exceeding official forecasts and was reported in early 2013 as 53% and the authorities are targeting 70% by 2025

What this means is that in 2010 over 260m migrants were living for more than six months in towns where they are not registered. These are essentially rural migrants in urban areas.

For decades there has been a wide gap between average incomes in urban and rural China. Urban incomes are over three times as much. There are also substantial differences in the quality of education and healthcare. This creates a sense of entitlement through urbanisation.

However it is not clear that urbanisation should be treated as a self-evident public good. There are many examples of how urbanisation leads to undesirable outcomes.

The tendency of senior, educated and wealthier Chinese to retire in the cities rather than the country has been long noted – and with concern. As early as 1966 Y C Wang wrote of the late nineteenth century that “the attachment to the ancestral seat, and the close bond between persons of the same district. These factors no longer held…One result was their limited knowledge of peasant conditions…” Of the 1930s, he observed “the reluctance of most Chinese city-dwellers to go into the countryside where living conditions were poorer”. He specifically says after 1911 that the “absence of educated men from the rural areas rendered good government impossible”.

Urbanisation has a close correlation with declining fertility. This was the conclusion from a major study led by Michael White of Brown University in 2008 carried out in Ghana who said that “urbanization hastens fertility decline”. The study confirmed earlier 1991 research by Y Zeng who said that “urban populations have lower levels of fertility than do rural populations, and permanent migrants from rural to urban areas generally have even lower fertility levels”.

We should contextualise this with China’s post-2020s impending long-range demographic decline, leading to a reduction by between one- and two-thirds in the total population by 2100. Few would have anticipated that China would voluntarily take extra measures to reduce its population further or faster by encouraging urbanisation.

The urbanisation policy could lead, according to McKinsey, to the building of 170 mass transit railway systems and 50,000 skyscrapers. Such additional construction can exacerbate the existing widespread national tendency to urban subsidence, as has been seen with collapses and sinking land in both Shanghai and Beijing.

One major result of urbanisation is environmental deterioration through greater fuel consumption – indeed greater consumption overall. Another feature is that rising inequality, as exemplified in the urban-rural income divide, and poor education, as characteristic of the rural areas, are highly correlated with China’s rising crime rate. However, we should tread warily as other work shows no correlation between rural migrants and urban crime. What research suggests is urban crime is rising rapidly and by 2007 was much higher in the big cities and Eastern seaboard as a result of inequality of income and opportunity but not necessarily caused by migrant workers.

The expansion of cities leads to the conversion of surrounding rural land from farming to development. This has at least two undesirable side-effects. First, the land is often taken by local officials from farmers at nominal consideration and sold to developers at a substantially higher price, thus enabling a corrupt environment.

Second, there is national guideline on maintaining a steady 300m acres of arable land to grow grains. By late 2011 this was under 304m. As a result, provincial governments will frequently replace fertile acres sold for development with less productive land in more remote and often inhospitable areas. One result of this is that such land – for example on windy mountain slopes – may suffer from soil erosion and and will need large quantities of fertiliser. This is turn is likely to run off into river networks and pollute downstream water supplies and ultimately create dead zones in the coastal ocean zones.

China’s urbanisation has caused changing patterns of personal behaviour. Medical experts have noted that “the aging of the population, urbanization, nutritional changes, and decreasing levels of physical activity, with a consequent epidemic of obesity, have probably contributed to the rapid increase in the diabetes burden in the Chinese population”. They go on to state that “diabetes has reached epidemic proportions in the general adult population in China.” New social habits are also changing the nature of Chinese illness from infectious to chronic.

There is both the perception that rural life is disdained through the very act of policies encouraging urbanisation but also through the long-term habit of the authorities of providing greater social benefits in the urban areas, the continuing migration of rural labour to the cities and the persistent survival of the discriminatory hukou, or identity card of residence, revealing vital urban origins or despised rural roots.

Although official figures say 53% now live in the cities, only 35% have an urban hukou. The rest have no clear rights to urban social services such as health and education. All of these suggeste that rural traditions, values, indeed life itself, are not valued.

It is not clear that, overall, China will be better off by encouraging hundreds of millions more to forsake the countryside for ever more crowded and polluted cities. An alternative might be to refresh rural life by judicious investment in education, healthcare and transport and make it more attractive to live there. A sensible balance between better planned cities and substantial improvement in rural life would lead China towards a more balanced social future.

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