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China’s urban leap forward: challenges and opportunities

Alice Rezková / Ed. 21. 12. 2015

For many people, the Western dream consists of building a house, planting a tree and raising children. The new urban dream in China often means that everyone should be able to buy two city flats, drive a luxury car and raise a child. In order to fulfil this dream, millions of people have moved from the countryside to urban areas. The official Chinese plan is inspired by Western countries, and envisages an ambitious goal of 70% of citizens living in cities by 2030.

China is drawing nearer to its objective, with urbanisation having reached 51% of the population. The pace of Chinese urbanisation is impressive, and offers many economic opportunities. However, integrating millions of new people into urban society is one of the greatest social and economic challenges China will face over the next two decades, and Europe can play an important role in making China’s urbanisation more sustainable.

The first challenge involves the 700 million people already living in cities, one-third of whom do not qualify for urban residence permits (urban hukou). The hukou system ties all citizens to their place of registration, usually their place of birth. Without local hukou, a person is not entitled to the urban social security benefits or the housing opportunities of that city. More than half the citizens in the Chinese megalopolises, Shanghai and Beijing live without resident permits. Many of these workers, young undergraduate students and urban migrants are locked in urban slums due to the lack of affordable housing. Even though China hosts the world’s largest population living in urban slums, it does not face an increased criminality often associated with very low living standards, as is common in much of Latin America.

The rapid pace of Chinese urban development is also significantly reshaping people’s lives, challenging them to abandon their old ways. Developers need new spaces on which to build, and they push people out of their homes. At the same time, these new construction projects create new opportunities and pull people back to the same areas. However, some Chinese do not want to leave their land simply because they are concerned that they will not find any jobs in cities, or because they are not offered adequate compensation for their land. According to surveys, up to 23% of land displacements are not compensated. If farmers could rent out or sell their land, they would be able to migrate to cities with more financial security.

China needs to find a solution to this urbanisation puzzle. Some experiments have been carried out in cities including Shenzhen, Shanghai and Chengdu in order to make local social security services available to migrant workers. Other cities are trying to find a way out of the system of collectively owned land. All such reforms are in the early stages, but the Chinese government hopes to come up with more innovative solutions that could make Chinese cities more affordable and liveable for its citizens. Hopefully they will create a unique Chinese vision, one that would not be based on visions of modernity which have failed elsewhere. Such a vision might not be based solely on the premise that “we must urbanise, we must modernise, therefore we have to get rid of everything that we consider backward”.

China can further expand its vision by learning from other urbanisation experiences from around the world. The EU can definitely offer a hand in many areas. EU companies and EU think tanks can contribute by sharing lessons learned from projects that have proven successful in Europe. On the other hand, Chinese municipalities can contribute with various experimental projects. They are able to rapidly implement new and innovative approaches, whereas European cities sometimes lack the political resolve or the funds to carry these out.

There are various fields with potential for cooperation. Most of the congested Chinese cities fight a seemingly endless battle with traffic congestion, which causes the further deterioration of air quality. European companies could offer systems to effectively manage traffic, and to design solutions for the efficient and safe use of public transportation. Moreover, Chinese cities need a more sustainable management of natural resources. This could include systems that manage outages, control costs, and deliver only as much energy or water as is required.

All Chinese cities also need to produce enough food to feed their citizens. Vertical agriculture has triggered much interest in China as a new way of utilising light in skyscrapers. Also, in order to assure an easy, citizen friendly and cost-effective delivery of government services, many opportunities will be created in the area of e-government technologies. Chinese municipalities need to increase their availability, and at the same time, reduce the costs of health care and education, so they will look for new solutions to achieve these goals. Furthermore, public safety can be improved using real-time information in order to anticipate emergencies, and China can take advantage of related systems that are already used in Europe.

To sum up, it would be helpful for both China and the EU to create a list of companies that are ready to offer solutions in these areas, and develop a database of examples of successful cooperation. These could serve as an inspiration, and encourage new companies to step into the process and participate in the building of sustainable Chinese cities.

Originally published: China’s urban leap forward: challenges and opportunities

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China 268
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