VIEW LI YANG Urbanization means making regional integration work
Regional integration is an important part of China’s urbanization. But it remains an unanswered question as to whether the government can really integrate areas separated for so long.
The State Council agreed to set up the first trans-provincial “golden triangle” development zone in the middle of the Yellow River region late last month. The approval excited the four city governments in three provinces because the central government will increase its financial input.
China has successfully integrated regions, and the Yangtze River Delta is the best example.
The delta region generates 18 percent of China’s economy with 11 percent of the country’s population living on 2 percent of national area. A free-market environment and free-flow production factors are the keys to regional integration.
Good climate and convenient water transportation have made the region the most productive agricultural area and commercial hub since the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Locally developed education has meant more technicians, artists and capable officials than in other parts of the country.
The national urbanization plan issued by the central government late last month highlighted nearly 20 city groups. The integration of BeijingTianjin-Hebei is one of the most noteworthy initiatives. The three provinces are famous for their local protectionism.
To ease Beijing’s environmental and population problems, Beijing will transfer some industries it does not need to the more polluted Hebei and crowded Tianjin. But the people from Hebei and Tianjin can only work as migrant workers in Beijing without enjoying local welfare because of residenceregistration limits.
The “golden triangle” zone is arousing analysts’ concerns.
The largest selling point of the initiative is the Yellow River. But the river is too shallow to carry big ships during most of the year because of sand and mud. And regions to its east and west are largely isolated in their cultures and economies.
Analysts worry that regional integration will result in a new round of relocating polluting industries to inland China, which happened before the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 and Shanghai World Expo in 2010.
Besides, each city group under the plan will have at least one crowded center city. So the integration will likely evolve into a new round of creating new cities or satellite cities to ease the pressure on the center cities.
Building new cities is the fastest way to boost local economic growth, and can also ensure the government a stable revenue source from selling land.
Zuo Xuejin, an economist with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, thinks the over concentration of industries in one regional center city cannot bring about real city groups.
“The new cities and satellite cities should not simply depend on the center cities. They are not created to solve the center cities’ issues. The new cities should have their comparatively independent industries, create their own jobs, and have their own functions for living and consumption, which are coherently connected with the center cities,” Zuo said.
To secure the central government’s support, most county and city governments close to the aforementioned city groups have established special offices to lobby the central government to include their cities and counties in the planned city groups.
According to the research of Song Yaping, an economist with the Social Academy of Social Sciences in Hubei, all of the six cities and 12 counties he sampled have set up special departments to get into the city groups.
“If the government does not change its mindset from an almighty Keynesian administrative authority to that of a major public service provider, it is impossible for China to transform its investment-driven growth model,” said Song.
A popular way to convince the higher authority is to invite prestigious universities’ researchers to help edit the proposals of local governments. It is difficult to “book” some relevant researchers from universities from Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and even Singapore before submitting the plans.
In this sense, the natural industry development and city evolution have become an artificial process controlled by the government.
Among the 200 plus prefecture-level cities in China, more than 180 have proposed to become a “national center city”, and dozens of them even claim they will become an “international mega city”.
A similar craze appeared in the mid-1980s when many counties were allowed to be upgraded to cities and towns became counties. Many grassroots officials felt quite happy with the changes, because their ranks were promoted. More civil servants were employed, some of whom were actually relatives and friends of local powerful officials, causing serious redundancy and nepotism in local governments.
Yet, the increasing number of Chinese cities has not come with a prosperous countryside, but has caused a declining rural China. Villages become vacant, leaving farmland uncultivated.
“Shanghai is a good example for not only aggregating urban factors, but also spreading the factors to the whole Yangtze delta,” said Wang Yingli, a geographical economist with Nantong University in Jiangsu.
“The Prussia land revolution hundreds of years ago also shows the importance of letting farmers have access to urban factors without leaving their lands. Giving Chinese farmers their overdue equal citizenship is the prerequisite for urbanization,” Wang said.
It is far better for the central government to increase its input in education and medical care of the rural areas, than to subsidize local governments to build new cities.
Otherwise, the local governments are simply creating new villages in cities.