Chinese Urbanization Enters a New Phase




AFTER adopting its reform and opening-up policy in the late 1970s, China has witnessed rapid economic development, as well as large-scale construction of cities. Over the last decade, in particular, the country has undergone one of the largest-scale and swiftest urbanization processes in the world, with average annual growth exceeding 1.3 percent. The urbanization rate has kept escalating, from less than 20 percent before reform and opening-up, to 52.6 percent in 2012, and further to 56.1 percent in 2015. Rapid urbanization has changed the face of this traditional agricultural country.


However, the "rash advance" of urbanization has wrought such side effects as poor urban planning, with the effacement of local features and lagging public services. Over the last several years, the Chinese government has raised awareness of such problems, putting forward a new policy package on urban construction. The new plan puts people first, and aims to better protect the environment and develop a sustainable economy, which is of great importance in terms of the country's economic restructuring.


Problems Emerging at the Early Phase

Looking back on Europe's urbanization in its early stages, yearly growth rates remained merely 0.16 to 0.24 percent on average. The time span ranged from decades to 100 years for the urbanization rate to increase from 20 to 40 percent, and further decades for the rate to rise from 40 to 80 percent. As a developing country, China made a late start in modernization and also lacked experience in urbanization. Its relatively heady approach to urbanization in earlier years has resulted in multiple problems.


The first phase of urbanization in China appeared, to some extent, as an "enclosure movement." Scenes of demolition and construction could be witnessed across the country. Cities, big or small, competed in becoming more cosmopolitan, regardless of geographic, historical and cultural differences. Time-honored neighborhoods and alleyways that embodied historical memory and tradition were ruthlessly knocked down and bulldozed, to be replaced with wide avenues, big squares, and high-rises. Big cities and small towns all rushed to build dashy "landmarks" – pastiche construction in different styles, some even constructing replicas of Tiananmen Gate, the Arc de Triomph, and the White House. Faceless cities cut off from their historical heritage, emerged lacking in beauty or soul. Furthermore, these constructions usually required high levels of energy consumption and resulted in serious waste of resources.


GDP growth rate was the key index in China's first round of urbanization, while supporting infrastructure was more or less neglected – including underground pipe lines, sewage system, hospitals, schools, green spaces, parks, and waste treatment plants. Many cities became less livable, especially those emerging large or mega cities that face water and electricity shortages, constrained educational and healthcare services, severe pollution, and traffic congestion. On the other hand, small and mid-sized cities and towns are suffering deficiencies in urban management and public services.


Another acute problem is that social process of urbanization has lagged way behind spatial urbanization. Rapid industrialization has resulted in labor surpluses in the countryside who need new employment. Statistics show that China's general urbanization rate has surpassed 50 percent, but the urbanization of its population is below 40 percent. In other words, while the number of towns and cities keeps increasing, about two thirds of rural people yet to become urban residents.


The high number of migrant workers or transients in cities, under the existing household registration system, are not able to access comparable levels of resources as permanent city dwellers, such as healthcare and, in particular, education. Many migrant workers have no recourse but to leave their young children behind in their rural homes. As of 2015, over 60 million children are living in the countryside without their own parents.


The problem is rooted in the realities of major cities being too crowded to accommodate more people, while small and middle-sized cities, lacking industrial support, have failed to create sufficient job opportunities to attract more migrant workers. Therefore, many urban districts and towns that have emerged in the recent wave of urbanization have become to a large extent dormitory towns or "empty-shell" cities.



Focus on People

After reflecting on the first round of urbanization, the Chinese government issued an overall plan in 2014 to encourage a new type of urbanization. The plan puts people first, and attaches greater importance to environmental protection and sustainable development. The aim is to build intensive, smart, green, and low-carbon cities and towns.


People and social issues have thus become a high priority in this new type of urbanization, instead of GDP growth or steel and concrete structures. This new concept is in line with broader new economic and social patterns in China: the country's economy had largely relied on exports since late 1970s, yet having been hit by the 2008 global financial crisis, the Chinese government started to spur domestic demand in an effort to steer the economy towards the home market.


Furthermore, the extensive economic development mode of the last several decades has built up pressures on the environment. The Chinese government therefore is planning to spare no effort in promoting resources conservation and a more environment-friendly society. This new type of urbanization focusing on developing small and medium-sized cities appropriately echoes the need to achieve a more sustainable economy and society.


The core of this new-type urbanization is the people – to realize urbanization in terms of people rather than simply land use. In other words, urbanization should transform the surplus agricultural population into urban residents. To this end, cities, especially small and medium-sized cities, should develop supporting industries to expand the job market for people leaving the farming sector. They should facilitate the development of small and medium-sized businesses and such tertiary industries as found in the cultural and tourism sectors. This will not be an easy task, but demands constant exploration, innovation and practice.


One especially noteworthy issue is that new city residents should be guaranteed not only job opportunities but also equal access to urban social security, healthcare and compulsory education systems. Only in this way, can the surplus rural population become real urban residents, thereby also guaranteeing the cities' sustainability and prosperity.



Respecting History and Nature

This new type of urbanization advocates due respect to history, culture, and nature. Certain past practices, such as filling in lakes for more lands, chopping down trees for lawns, or knocking down old buildings for new ones, have destroyed the original fabric of cities, cutting their connections with the past. But all these actions have been halted – natural landscapes and historical physical features such as old neighborhoods and residential buildings are now being preserved.


The cities need to keep green mountains and clear rivers, and also culture and history as their soul. In other words, history and culture should act as guard-stones against the more destructive tides of urbanization, as proven in other countries.


This new type of urbanization favors green and conservation-conscious cities, or a good environmental habitat. Cities are encouraged to improve facilities that make life more convenient and comfortable, such as parks and ample green space between buildings, evenly distributed hospitals and schools, while also improving both underground and above-ground utility networks. There are reports that deficient urban planning has caused some cities to suffer from flooding after rainfalls and others surrounded by mountains of garbage.


In the process of urbanization, one key fact should be kept in mind: China is the most populous country in the world with limited resources. In light of shortages of resources and environmental capacity, cities should adhere to the path of green and low-carbon development. For example, new buildings need to adopt natural ventilation and lighting systems to reduce the use of air-conditioners to a minimum, avoiding any further deterioration in an already fragile eco-system in urban areas.


This new type of urbanization has accomplished a first round of pilot projects, and the second round was launched last December. Driven by the new concept, urbanization in China is expected to proceed along the right track.



PENG SHUYI is an associate research fellow at the Institute of European Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.