Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Weekend Australian Magazine: The long march

© Tom Miller

This is an edited extract from China's Urban Billion, by Tom Miller published in The Weekend Australian Magazine

A couple check out the city skyline at a viewpoint overlooking Chongqing. Source: AP
THE journey from farm to city is the story of China's transformation from a poor, backward country to a global economic superpower. By 2030, when China's urban population is projected to swell to 1 billion, its cities will be home to one in every eight people on Earth. How China's urban billion live will shape the future of the world. 
Nowhere is China's miracle more obvious than in Chongqing, the largest city on the upper reaches of the Yangtze river and the fastest-growing economy in the country. Once a rusting laggard, marooned far from the dynamic cities of the eastern seaboard, this rough-and-ready river port is undergoing a spectacular transformation. Over the past decade, hundreds of apartment blocks have sprouted from the city's deep red soil, and new bridges have soared across its muddy river banks. The skyline, a thicket of skyscrapers, already resembles Hong Kong's. And the construction frenzy shows no sign of slowing: entering Chongqing is like walking into a giant building site.

On the city's northern outskirts, bulldozers flatten wooded hills and lush ravines to satisfy property developers' insatiable appetite for land. At the heart of the old city, wreckers armed with pickaxes hack at a tangle of grimy slums. Chongqing municipality is often wrongly called the world's largest city. It is actually a mostly rural city-province a little larger than Scotland, with a resident population of 28 million. Around a quarter of these people live in the city proper, which is rapidly expanding to accommodate an enormous influx of new urbanites. By 2020, planners expect the city's population to top 12 million.

 Amid all this spectacular development it is easy to miss the poverty on the ground. Urbanisation has brought enormous wealth to the city but the millions of rural migrants who work on building sites, serve in restaurants and rub flesh in massage parlours remain poor. Many new arrivals struggle to scratch a living. Not far from the city centre, scrawny men flog pirated porn DVDs from pavements sticky with cooking slop, rows of women sweat at sewing machines in dank basements, and crowds of unemployed migrants gather at an outdoor labour market. On the mossy stone steps that lead down to the Yangtze river, shirtless old men toil under stout bamboo poles laden with heavy wicker panniers, their muscular calves bulging like tennis balls. Chongqing's famous army of "stick men" are just as much a part of the modern city as rich businessmen sipping cocktails in glitzy bars.

Chongqing's leaders want many more rural people to migrate to the city and other towns within the municipality. They believe faster urbanisation will unlock economic growth and boost rural incomes. This kind of direct promotion of urbanisation is new: for the past 50 years or more, China deliberately held back the pace of migration, partly for fear that cities would not be able to cope. Now the country's 12th Five-Year Plan, which runs from 2011 to 2015, explicitly calls for more urbanisation and supports the emergence of so-called "megacities".

 Even without explicit central government support, this country of 1.35 billion people is urbanising faster than expected. In 1980, fewer than 200 million people lived in urban areas. Since then China's cities have expanded by nearly 500 million - the equivalent of adding the combined populations of the US, the UK, France and Italy. In 2011, the country passed a development milestone: for the first time, more than half its citizens lived in towns or cities.

Moving hundreds of millions of people out of economically insignificant jobs on the land and into factories and onto building sites in the city produces enormous economic growth. Mass migration to the cities makes sense both for individual farmers and for the country as a whole. But what kind of lives will China's urban billion lead? The country is trying hard to make its cities more liveable, but the speed and scale of urbanisation mean this is extremely tough to achieve. The problem is made worse by urban planners' impoverished view of modernity, which often requires obliterating the past to make way for the new. China's cities will continue to shock and awe but they will struggle to inspire hearts and minds.

Integrating hundreds of millions of rural migrants into urban society is one of the greatest challenges that China faces over the next two decades. Every year millions arrive in the city empty-handed, live in squalid conditions and do the dirty work that no one else wants to do. In return they are denied healthcare, schooling for their children and basic social security. As more migrant families begin to settle in cities permanently, equitable access to affordable housing and social welfare is becoming a pressing issue. Nearly half of all young migrants work in manufacturing; a large number are women, who are favoured for their diligence and deft fingers. Prostitution is rife in cities, and the vast majority of women who earn money this way are from the countryside.

Nothing better illustrates migrant workers' secondclass status than their living conditions. Almost all urban natives today live in modern housing units with private kitchens and bathrooms. But this is an unheard-of luxury for the vast majority of rural migrants. Two-thirds sleep in company dormitories or temporary housing on building sites - sometimes in prefab huts, often in large canvas tents - or simply curl up on the shop floor. Those migrants who settle in the city typically rent private bedsits in rundown urban villages or dingy basements.

In other developing countries, the simple megacity model predominates: migrants overwhelmingly head for the big smoke, be it Manila, Mexico City or Bangkok. China appears set to follow a dual model of concentrated and distributed urbanisation. This is almost unique. China has around 700 small cities or big towns with populations below 1.5 million. This is not the most efficient pattern of urban development that China could pursue, but it is too late to change the facts on the ground.

China's wasteful pattern of development explains, in part, why international comparisons suggest that its cities are underpopulated. This sounds crazy: China's cities do not feel short of people. But of the 858 Chinese cities identified by a study by the McKinsey Global Institute, only 13 have populations above 5 million. This matters, because China has to feed one-fifth of the world's population with just 7 per cent of its arable land. Around 80 per cent of China's urban residents live in cities with a population below 5 million, similar to the figure in the US, whose land resource per head is eight times greater.

An old building is demolished to make way for a new construction project in Chongqing.
If China had fewer small cities and more big cities, it could fit many more residents into a smaller area. McKinsey's analysis, however, suggests that won't happen; it predicts that by 2025 more than 100 new cities with populations of between 500,000 and 1.5 million will have mushroomed across the country, and that they will be joined by a further 60 new mid-sized cities with populations of between 1.5 milion and 5 million.

Making urbanisation work will require three conditions. First, around 300 million farmers need to move from their villages and into cities. To ensure that farmers are not forced off their land with little compensation, China must abandon the principle of collectively owned land and give farmers secure private property rights. It must also reform its discriminatory household registration and residence laws, so that rural migrants enjoy a social safety net when they arrive in the city.

Second, China must build larger, denser, yet more liveable cities. This means creating patterns of urban growth that use resources efficiently and avoid irreversible urban sprawl. Beijing's jammed roads and filthy air show what happens when cities expand around ever-widening ring roads and ever-higher rates of car ownership. Third, China must integrate hundreds of millions of rural migrants into city life. This will probably prove to be the toughest challenge of all. Since the bulk of China's urban population growth will come from low-income rural migrants, the expansion of the urban population will not magically create a new middle class of consumers.
If China's leaders get urbanisation right, they may succeed in tilting the world's second-largest economy away from its reliance on investment and manufacturing towards greater consumption of goods and services. But if China's leaders get it wrong, the country could spend the next 20 years languishing in middle-income torpor, its cities pockmarked by giant slums. If China gets urbanisation right, it will surpass the US and cement its position as the world's largest economy. But if it turns sour, the world's most populous country could easily become home to the world's largest urban underclass. That would be a disaster.

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