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Mass Migration: China and the Urban Era

News & Features | October 21, 2013

Within the next 12 to 15 years, the Chinese government plans to relocate 250 million people from the countryside into urban areas. Within the next 30 years, 70 percent of China’s 1.3 billion citizens may reside in cities. This ambitious relocation of people, if successful, will be the largest migration in human history. Premier Li Keqiang, who was elected earlier this year largely based on his expertise in economics, has spearheaded this massive urbanization project. Although Li has expressed that it is pivotal to China’s economic growth, the scale of the task has raised many questions.

While large cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou naturally attract migrant workers with hopes of greater success in an urban environment, the urbanization plan does not necessarily incorporate these places. Rather, the Chinese government, working on a local level with provincial governments, is striving to increase the number of moderately-sized cities across the vast country. Previously rural areas such as Qiyan, a small town in Shaanxi Province, have been outfitted with scores of concrete apartment buildings, along with roads and other forms of urban infrastructure.

Currently, the Chinese economy is largely based on export and credit to foreign nations. While domestic businesses are on the rise, much of China’s economy is still dependent on the United States, the European Union, and Japan, among other nations. The purpose of this urbanization project is to foster and develop China’s already burgeoning consumer culture. Tuned in and plugged in, the markets and products that city folk are exposed to are much more numerous than those that villagers are exposed to. China hopes that its new urban population will stimulate local economies by purchasing electronics, appliances, and utilities. Residents will naturally fill their modern apartments with modern items.

Furthermore, the government believes that concentrated urban populations will attract businesses to these areas. Already, both domestic and foreign firms flock to cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou, looking to capitalize both on China’s workforce and market. Dispersing firms across the country, according to Li, will create boundless new job opportunities.

Farmers in these transformed areas are moved to apartment living; the government offers them a subsidy for their new home, as well as a loan to help cover other costs. But this subsidy is rarely enough as many residents are left unemployed and without benefits following the move. It is clear that the government must put more effort into ensuring the quality of life of the new urban dwellers post-relocation. Many people have also reported difficulty finding jobs; while these urban areas have the potential to attract jobs, it is clear that their development may take a while. Critics have also expressed fiscal concerns; many prefecture level governments may fall into debt as a result of these ambitious building projects.

In order for the plan’s success, it is clear that Li and those involved in this effort must address the concerns of their critics. According to the China Daily, Li has met with 10 of his closest advisors and experts about smoothing out the urbanization effort. Li has stated that he intends to be “active and orderly in pushing the process forward.” The National Development and Reform Commission is due to present a fleshed out urbanization plan later this year.

China has seen much change since the twentieth century, perhaps more change than any other country in the world. During the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, Mao instigated a massive ideological movement centered around the relocation of the population to the countryside. The growth of a rural population, Mao believed, would help bolster China’s agricultural and industrial output, thereby making China more self-sufficient and centralized.

The induction of more moderate policy into the government resulted in China’s deep integration into the globalized economy. Largely thanks to its massive population, China has experienced GDP growth of 7–15% per year since the 1980s. Since 1990, the urban population has doubled; Shanghai’s population has increased from 7 to 19 million, while Beijing’s has increased from 6 to 17 million. Since Mao’s time, development and progress has clearly shifted away from the countryside and into urban areas.

I grew up in China between the northern Beijing and the southern Guangzhou. During my time there, I witnessed much change and in a way, China was growing up as I was. When I arrived, the Chinese renminbi stood at 13 to the dollar; when I left, it hovered around 6.5. I saw the entire population of Beijing mobilize for the Olympics, and likewise, the population of Guangzhou for the Asian Games. Modern, urban Chinese culture is an astounding phenomenon; the lives of urban Chinese middle class are centered around the city. Every night, the vast shopping streets, underground malls, and nightclubs, explode into life as public trains and buses ferry passengers to and fro. Public parks fill with street vendors, roller-skaters, and crowds of senior citizens performing coordinated dance workouts. On the surface, cities like Beijing and Guangzhou exude positivity and progress. Modern urban China consists of an incredibly intimate relationship between citizens and their city. Together they work towards an even better future.

Given the economic success of China’s established cities, it is clear why Li and the current administration value urbanization so much. Time will reveal whether or not the government will make it valuable to those who are supposed to benefit in the first place.