Focus on people not buildings
The urbanization strategy is meant to integrate the rural population into urban areas, not fuel a construction boom
China formulated its urbanization strategy at the beginning of this century and it has gained widespread social recognition over the years. However, a misconception has also arisen about the urbanization strategy, with some believing it is the process of accelerating urban construction and urbanizing rural areas. This misconception has led to an urban building boom and the loss of arable land to urban expansion.
In essence, though, the urbanization strategy should be the transfer of the rural population to urban areas. Over the past three decades or so, since China launched its reform and opening-up drive in the late 1970s, millions of farmers have migrated from rural regions to work in cities. They have been the driving force behind China’s urbanization and industrialization.
From a statistical perspective, migrant workers are categorized as permanent residents in the cities where they work, but in reality they are not, due to limited access to urban social services and welfare. That these people, who mostly come from the country’s mid-western regions, such as Guizhou, Sichuan, Hunan and Henan provinces, often migrate across provinces to work in eastern coastal areas, compounds the difficulty of addressing their rights and interests in the places where they work.
One prominent problem is that migrant workers usually move to cities alone without their family members. This has led to the phenomena of long-separated couples and a generation of vulnerable “leftbehind” children and elderly.
The urbanization strategy, therefore, must encompass the task of addressing the problems facing migrant workers in cities. The right thing to do is to encourage them to stay in the cities where they work and create conditions so their family members can join them. The fundamental approach to this should be facilitating their acquisition of urban citizenship, localizing them in the urban context and embracing them in cities in a family-friendly way.
The aim should be to ensure that all migrant workers in medium- and large-sized cities, small cities and townships, enjoy the same public services and social welfare as urban residents, are entitled to the same rights and shoulder the same obligations, so that they will no longer be on the fringes of the urban landscape.
Some people argue that integrating migrant workers into urban life on an equal footing as those fully recognized as urban residents means enticing them back into small cities and townships, where the problems related to household registration, healthcare and their children’s education can be more easily solved. However, this is actually unfeasible and unattainable, given the limited job vacancies in small cities and townships. Others suggest that the citizenship movement should be aimed at breaking the barriers of the household registration system, and in this sense all the related problems will be solved. But the fact is, the household registration system is just a format, while all the benefits that come attached to the household registration system are the real substance. Therefore, we need to enable migrant workers to access social welfare and services in cities.
Undeniably, urbanization has become a policy focus for the government. Urbanization was, for the first time, written into the 10th Five-Year Plan (2001-05) when China pledged not to miss the opportunity to implement the strategy of urbanization. The significance of urbanization was reiterated in the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-10), as the central leadership vowed to coordinate the development of small, medium and large cities, enhance the carrying capacity of cities and towns, actively promote urbanization and steadily transform the dual rural-urban structure step by step. The 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15) has specifically proposed that the country facilitate the transfer of the agricultural population to urban areas and made implementing the urbanization strategy a key task.
The country’s new leadership pledged at the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, in November last year, that reform of the household registration system will be accelerated, rural migrant workers will be incorporated as permanent urban residents in an orderly way. The government will also endeavor to ensure that all permanent residents have access to basic urban public services.
With proper policy support the livelihoods of migrant workers and their family members will be enhanced, and this is the true purpose of the urbanization drive.