Major centers look for ways to cure ‘ big city disease’
Unbalanced urban and rural development is driving up the populations of China’s largest cities and resulting in a lack of basic amenities and social services. reports.
This is the last in a series of special reports looking at the effects of hukou, China’s household registration system, on the lives of ordinary citizens who have left their homes to work in other areas and regions.
This week’s pollution red alert in Beijing and many other large cities not only aroused public concern about air quality, but also drew attention to what has become known as “big city disease”, a key urban issue the government has attempted to address in recent years.
This “disease” — environmental pollution, traffic congestion and a shortage of public services, including education and medical care — has been caused by the rapid rise in the populations of megacities such as Beijing and Shanghai.
In part, the problem is the result of the unbalanced allocation of resources between rural and urban centers, which has caused economic disparities and prompted people to rush to the largest cities in search of work, banking on more opportunities and fairer systems of resource allocation.
Every Chinese citizen must be registered with their local public security department at birth. However, there are two types of hukou, or household registration — rural and urban — which are accorded different rights. Traditionally it has been hard to change classification.
In October, the State Council, China’s Cabinet, announced a plan to narrow the gap between urban and rural areas and promote better-balanced development by lifting the requirements on people with rural hukou who want to settle in cities.
The plan encourages rural people who are able to work and live without the aid of government subsidies to register in cities and change their hukou status to “urban”.
The objective is clear: By the end of 2020, about 45 percent of the population should be living in urban areas, according to the central government. That will mean that during every year of the 13th Five-YearPlan period (2016-2020) as many as 13 million rural households will have to become registered urban citizens.
This apparently simple solution is proving problematic, though, because the government has only lifted the registration requirements in third- and fourth-tier cities, which offer limited job opportunities and public resources.
The lack of facilities and limited opportunities mean lower-tier cities are rarely attractive enough to tempt people to settle in them.
Meanwhile, the nation’s larger cities, those that provide higher levels of education and medical care as well as better jobs, are tightening their policies on household registration to control population growth.
The Beijing municipal government plans to cap the city’s population at less than 23 million by 2020, which will see the permanent populations of six major downtown districts reduced by 15 percent. The government estimates that the city’s permanent population was 21.7 million at the start of this year.
Meanwhile, Shanghai plans to plateau its population at less than 25 million people by 2020. According to data from the National Bureau of Statistics, about 24 million people were living in the city in 2014.
Both Beijing and Shanghai have imposed limits on the approval of land for construction and are working to move a number of non-core sectors, such as heavy industry, outside the city limits.
To limit the scale of the city, Beijing has forbidden approvals for residential construction on land within the Fifth Ring Road, and by 2020, the total area earmarked for construction projects should be reduced to 2,800 square kilometers.
Yu Hongsheng, head of the cities and population development institute at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, believes that the area of construction land is in lockstep with a city’s population.
“At present, the urbanization of land is moving faster than the urbanization of the population, while the latter is faster than industrial urbanization. The situation has caused a waste of construction land and very low land-usage efficiency,” Yu said, in an interview with the 21st Century Business Herald.
“For cities like Beijing and Shanghai, reducing the area of land available for residential construction is an important way of controlling the population, especially the number of residents who have hukou in other locations,” he said.
Du Juan in Shanghai during the evening rush hour. The growing number of cars on China’s roads is a major cause of air pollution in many cities.
Population control is just one part of the solution. Another way of improving the population structure and easing the problem is to relocate certain businesses.
The Beijing government has already relocated some non-core sectors to nearby regions. In the past decade, Shougang Group, once the largest steelmaker in the capital, has gradually moved its plant to Caofeidian, Hebei province.
Meanwhile, a decision has been made to relocate Beijing’s three biggest wholesale markets to nearby cities.
In the future, the service sector will become Beijing’s prime economic driver, replacing heavy industry and manufacturing, as the city strives to reinforce its role as a hub for four sectors — politics, culture, international communications and technological innovation.
Shanghai, the country’s financial center and a major economic driver, will reduce the number of non-core functions within the city by strengthening integrated development with urban agglomerations in the Yangtze River Delta.
“The relocation of certain sectors will lead to some of the population moving out of the city as people follow the industries that employ them. Added to the reduction in the total area approved for construction projects, the population will decline as the structure changes,” Yu said.
Wang Taiyuan, a professor of population management at the People’s Public Security University of China, said the nation’s urbanization process has taken just 30 years, compared with several centuries in Western countries, and the rapid rate of change has resulted in a number of difficulties.
“The problems include a shortage of education and medical services and a huge developmental gap between urban and rural areas,” he said. “However, modern transportation and convenience of information mean people ignore opportunities in small- and medium-sized cities and only focus on the larger cities. That has exacerbated the problem.”
Contact the writer at dujuan@ chinadaily.com.cn
Recently, I’ve noticed a sharp decline in the number of food stands in the streets around my community. These places usually serve cheap, instant food such as fried potatoes, pancakes and malatang (boiled vegetables and meat in a spicy sauce). Owing to concerns about hygiene I have never bought anything from them, but I always see crowds standing around them on my way home from work.
My neighbor told me that the authorities have been urging migrant workers who live in basements in nearby residential communities to move out for their own safety. However, the workers are the main customers of the food stands, so their sudden departure has resulted in a fall in business.
Most migrant workers make about 1,500 yuan ($216) to 3,000 yuan a month working in restaurants, shops or other unskilled jobs, so basements are probably the only places they can afford to rent and the food stands are their “restaurants” for every meal.
While I’m saddened that the workers have been asked to leave, and I hope they can find somewhere more pleasant and safer to live, people really should not be forced to live in basements in China.
When I studied in the United States, I rented an apartment in a converted basement. It was a half-sunken chamber with a small window, but the facilities were brand-new — a brightly lit bathroom, a dining room and a bedroom with carpet on the floor. Even so, after a few months I moved into an upstairs room in the same house.
In China’s large cities, many apartment owners earn additional income by renting out their basements to migrant workers. The basements in my community haven’t been upgraded into living spaces, though — instead, they are just dank, dark and unsafe rooms used to store infrequently used items. If a fire were to occur, it would be difficult to evacuate the room.
Of course, it’s not wrong for the authorities to close this safety loophole, but for the individuals who come to Beijing and chase their dreams by working hard, higher rents are an extra burden they don’t need.
So, why do migrant workers struggle on in China’s large cities? My guess is “hope”.
If you live in a small city in China for a while, you will discover that guanxi, or “connections”, are extremely important, so people only help people they know. That means they tend to contact a relative or friend who works at a school or hospital before they send their children to study at that school or bring their parents to see a doctor.
Most of my relatives and former classmates in my hometown of Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi province in North China, got their jobs through their parents or other connections instead of applying online like everybody else. My mom even asks an acquaintance to buy shoes on her behalf to avoid paying over the odds, and to guarantee quality.
People are used to the fact that China is a society based on guanxi, and they know that injustices occur sometimes, but if a person has no connections, it’s hard for them to get things done.
Corruption is another obstacle that prevents ordinary people from realizing their life targets, although the situation is slightly different in Beijing and Shanghai, which provide relatively equitable ways for people to enroll in schools or get a job.
I believe that if people could find decent jobs in their hometowns and lead relatively prosperous lives, they would not choose to come to Beijing, risking their health in the heavy smog that blankets the city every winter.
“Big city disease” — overcrowding, pollution and a lack of social amenities — is an economic issue.
Only when enough cities are able to provide more land for construction and buildings for newcomers to live in, along with equal job opportunities and good education and medical care services, will migrant workers be freed from the ignominy of living in basements and desperately hoping that their hard work will allow them to live “upstairs” someday.
On Wednesday, Beijing and Shanghai, two of China’s biggest cities, announced new rules on carhailing services that will ban drivers without local hukou, also known as household registration, from working in the sector.
The move hasn’t been universally popular: when the local governments put the proposals out for public consultation, 25 percent of respondents said unregistered residents should be allowed to work in the industry.
However, as super-sized conurbations with serious cases of “big city disease” — severe air pollution and a lack of housing and public services — Beijing and Shanghai have already set targets for popula- allowed free settlement, the situation would become chaotic and large numbers of people would head to the biggest cities despite a lack of professional skills, he added. “If that happens, Beijing and Shanghai may become (overcrowded) like Dhaka or Mumbai, and 10 percent of China’s land will not be suitable for development because it will be too crowded, while the remaining 90 percent will remain underdeveloped because nobody will want to live there.”
Moreover, because Beijing and Shanghai plan to cap their populations by 2020, some of the measures employed to achieve the targets will unavoidably result in some people losing out, he said.
People wear masks during a heavily polluted day in Beijing.
Yu Hongsheng, specialist in urbanization