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.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CHINA - Edi­tor’s note:

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.

ZHANG GUANGYAO / FOR CHI­NADAILY

An over­pass

WEI XIAOHAO / CHINA DAILY

Peo­ple wear masks dur­ing a heav­ily pol­luted day in Bei­jing.

Yu Hong­sheng, spe­cial­ist in ur­ban­iza­tion

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