Mass migration to cities a blessing for millions

Updated: 2013-06-14 09:33

By Cecily Liu in London (China Daily)

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 Mass migration to cities a blessing for millions

Tom Miller, author of China's Urban Billion, says urbanization generates immense benefits for China's economy. Cecily Liu / China Daily

China will switch roles and become big buyer of global goods, says author

Urbanization will shape the future of China's relationship with the world as it facilitates the country's strategic economic shift from exports to consumption, says author Tom Miller.

"China's role in the global economy is going to get bigger and bigger and bigger, and urbanization is a part of that process. I think the biggest thing will be China becoming a source of demand for global products," Miller says.

"At the moment the model is based on migrants going to work for factories for export goods. But I think as more people move into Chinese cities, these cities will become big markets for foreign retailers and brands, so China will no longer be a source of products, but a destination."

Miller, who is managing editor of the research company GK Dragonomics' publication China Economic Quarterly, last year published the book China's Urban Billion: the Story Behind the Biggest Migration in Human History.

Its title refers to the commonly cited forecast that China's urban population will reach 1 billion by 2030, which reflects enormous commercial opportunities considering China's urban population last year was only 711 million.

The book details Miller's first-hand observations of China's urbanization process but also points out some challenges that he believes should be addressed urgently.

One challenge Miller wrote about is the division of citizens' household registration, or hukou, into rural and urban, which means migrant workers registered as rural do not enjoy basic welfare provisions like healthcare when they work in cities.

Another challenge Miller documents is inefficient urban planning, which led many cities to look similar with big roads and skyscrapers instead of maintaining their uniqueness and diversity.

Other issues discussed in the book include disputes over the sale of rural land, overly ambitious construction plans leading to the creation of ghost towns, and social problems such as urban inequality.

However, Miller says he is pleased to see that many of the issues detailed in his book are acknowledged by the Chinese government, and he looks forward to learning more about the policy plan on urbanization the Chinese government is expected to issue in the second half of this year.

Last month, a government spokesperson said the new plan will be drafted based on Premier Li Keqiang's proposal of a people-oriented "new type of urbanization", with social and economical sustainability at its core.

"I think the new plan will have guidelines for integrating migrant workers into the urban society. I suspect the Chinese government will want cities to introduce 'resident permits' for them, which is not hukou, but could allow them more access to rights," Miller says.

"The other aspect is the physical shape of urbanization. I think the plan will talk about developing satellite cities around megacities."

Miller says some cities are already adopting this new approach to urban planning. One example is Wuhan, in Hubei province, which in 2006 launched a city plan for 2020 based on a hub-and-spoke model of urban development.

According to the plan, the population of the city center will be kept at 5 million, but the total population will rise to nearly 12 million, so that the majority of residents will live in six residential suburbs, and every suburb will be linked to the city center with expressway and rail.

"You could see from their plan that they want to have greenery between the city center and suburbs, so they don't want the core city to totally expand out, but the challenge is controlling it," Miller says.

"The best solution to avoid the expansion of megacities is to build lots and lots of subways, and China is already doing that."

Challenges aside, Miller acknowledges that urbanization generates immense benefits for China's economy. "In one way urbanization equals development; every developed country has quite a high level of urbanization.

"So simply moving somebody off the farm where they can make little money into the city, whatever they do, even just mopping the floor, they are making more cash."

He says China's urbanization rate of 52.6 percent last year indicates huge potential for further growth considering many developed countries have around 80 percent.

Because Western countries urbanized earlier, they now have many lessons to teach China and they are in a good position to find commercial opportunities in the Chinese urban market, Miller says.

"There is a lot of knowledge in the West. Unlike in Japan and South Korea, which have been built up for many years, China for many reasons doesn't have knowledge because it started a lot later."

But Miller says it is important for China to examine the mistakes Western countries made, and try to avoid them.

Miller says one example is the low density urban planning model of some US cities like Los Angeles, which wastes resources, but he says luckily Chinese cities have learnt to improve density in the planning process. "China is not doing the same, because China is building high-rises."

Another example is the destruction of old buildings during the process of building new cities, which is a mistake Western countries once made but China is now repeating on a bigger scale, he says.

"I think one of the reasons is that old Chinese buildings are sometimes made of wood, which are easy to burn down, whereas old Western buildings were often made from stone, which are easier to survive.

"The other reason is the difference in how the West and China look at history. Westerners often want to see history as a physical thing, but Chinese sometimes see it as something in their heads. Chinese people generally are not sentimental about old buildings."

Encouragingly, Miller has noticed some Chinese developers being increasingly aware of the importance of heritage, and he says one example is Xintiandi in Shanghai, an affluent car-free shopping, dining and entertainment district.

Considered a lifestyle center, Xintiandi reconstituted traditional stone gate houses in narrow alleys, and some adjoining houses have been turned into book stores, cafes and restaurants, and shopping malls. "It shows people that you can make money out of old buildings," Miller says.

Miller says that his decision to write China's Urban Billion originates from his passion for travel writing, which led him to visit many Chinese cities. As he visited more and more cities, he noticed that many Chinese cities look similar to each other and he started asking why.

"Everywhere I visited, I saw migrant workers constructing tall buildings and I thought 'what are their lives like'? I always wanted to write a book, so writing about urbanization was a useful way of doing that, and a very useful way of looking into the development of China."

He says the other thing that prompted him to write the book was a desire to present the topic of urbanization to a Western audience.

"No one has written a book about urbanization, drawing all the threads together, at least in English. There are plenty of academic papers on hukou reform, land reform and all other related issues, but I didn't know any books that put them all together."

Looking into the future, Miller says he envisages successful urbanization in China's context to be defined as a process without instability and immense inequality.

"So far China's urban population has grown peacefully. If they can keep on growing without massive instability in cities and without creating a huge urban underclass of people who don't have anything, China's urbanization would be successful."

Susanna Ma contributed to this story.

(China Daily European Weekly 06/14/2013 page8)