x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Chinese migrate to a 'Better Life'

Extraordinarily large cities are an inevitable part of the future for China, but as the phenomenon develops, the government is trying hard to avoid a division in which cities are rich and rural areas poor.

Shanghai's new financial district at night.
Shanghai's new financial district at night.

BEIJING // China's future will be lived out in the cities. Urbanisation in the world's most populous nation is happening fast and the government is anxious to make sure it is balanced.

Expo 2010 Shanghai, which opened last week, has a stated aim of advancing the process of urbanisation. "Better City, Better Life" is the slogan. The Beijing authorities often cite the wealth gap between the urban rich and the rural poor as one of the great threats to the country's stability, and the government has introduced many policies aimed at smoothing the urbanisation process. And what a process it has been, as the largely agricultural society has been turned into a country of super-cities.

One of the chief drivers of this process in recent years has been the reform of the hukou registration system, where citizens were registered in the towns of their birth, and for years that was where they would stay. But the process of opening up and economic reform in the late 1970s led to demand for labour on the building sites and in the factories that were suddenly springing up as China's industrialisation quickened.

The hukou system was reformed to allow people to move and they did so in their millions. Soon, armies of migrant workers were on the road seeking their fortunes in Shanghai, Guangzhou and other cities. China has seen the number of city dwellers rise from 17.8 per cent of the populace in 1978 to 45.7 per cent in 2008, a rise of 27.9 percentage points in the past 30 years. Some 300 million Chinese now living in rural areas - equal to the population of the US - will move to cities in the next 20 years.

Han Jun, the director of rural economic research at the development research centre of the State Council, expects the country's rural population to shrink by more than half in the next three decades, to 400 million from 900 million now. By 2025, at least 220 Chinese cities will be likely to have more than 1 million people, requiring a huge amount of construction and infrastructure development. "The trend of rural-to-urban migration will continue for a protracted period. The rural residents will be reduced to only 400 million in 30 years," Mr Han has said.

Beijing has a population of about 19 million, including the floating population of migrant labour. Prof Pan Jiahua is director of the centre for urban development and environment at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, and one of three authors of the book Urban Development in China: 30 Years (1978-2008), which has proven influential in the debate on urbanisation in China. "Beijing is not developing into a megacity - it already is a megacity in terms of its economic scale, its population and its infrastructure," Prof Pan said.

That status has long-term economic effects, as well as social ones. Big cities are an efficient way of managing resources because people are concentrated together and can easily be provided with the essential services needed to keep a community working, such as water, power and transport. Xu Zhongwei, the deputy policy director of China's ministry of housing and urban-rural development, believes urbanisation could prove to be the main engine for China's big-picture economic growth, boosting domestic consumption and reducing the economy's reliance on exports.

Mr Xu believes China's rapid pace of urbanisation will create investment opportunities worth at least 1 trillion yuan (Dh538.15 billion) in building water supply, waste treatment, heating and other public utilities in the cities. "Such a big urban population will result in huge market demand," he says. "We need a balanced policy to prevent people from living a poor urban life in high-rise buildings. If that happens, fast urbanisation is meaningless."

In January, the central committee of the Communist Party of China issued a document urging that urban and rural development be better balanced. A key part of such a mission is to make the household registration system fairer for "a new generation of migrant workers". If migrant workers are able to register in the cities, they will have better access to social services and other benefits. "Hundreds of millions of farmers are now working for the development of cities and contribute a great deal to tax revenues where they live," Zhang Hulin, a professor with the Party School of the Central Committee of the CPC, told local media.

"However, they cannot enjoy the public services offered in cities. It is not fair." business@thenational.ae