Economists face urban dilemma

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 March, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 March, 2001, 12:00am

China faces the dilemma of whether to build mega-cities - where the infrastructure is shared by millions of people who live in high-rise apartments - or follow the country's coastal regions, where the lines between rural and urban areas are hard to define.

Economists agree China must embark on urbanisation to cope with a growing population and declining arable land, but disagree on how to achieve it.

Andy Xie, chief economist with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter Asia, said mega-cities with populations of between 30 million to 50 million were the only way to soak up China's surplus labour. Beijing is now home to about 10 million people, while Shanghai, the largest metropolis in China, has about 14 million residents.

'China will have to take advantage of its scale and minimise the cost of creating each job. Global experience shows that the bigger the city, the lower the cost of creating each job,' Mr Xie said.

'China's ultimate challenge is to create 20 million jobs a year to absorb the entire surplus labour over two decades. This is what development is all about.'

China has four times as many people as the US, but only half the habitable land. Urbanisation will therefore have to be carried out on a huge scale.

'China should anchor its development in creating such mega-cities over the next two decades,' Mr Xie said.

But Professor Yuan Jiafang, urban planning professor with the China Economics and Trade University, said there were many problems associated with mega-cities, as seen in the urbanisation processes of many Western countries and in Chinese cities such as Beijing.

'Beijing's residents are forced to move out of the centre of the city to make way for the commercial centres and office buildings,' he said. 'The commuting times are getting longer, the traffic is always congested, despite the road-widening projects. This is not to mention the damage and serious threat to cultural relics in such cities rich with history.

'We must not repeat mistakes made by Western countries.'

Professor Yuan has been urging the Government to halt several projects aimed at revamping the capital.

Among them are the Pingan Avenue reconstruction and Guangan Avenue widening project, which have seen several historic sites destroyed.

Li Qingyun, professor at the Economics Institute of Beijing University and also a NPC delegate, is also not convinced by the mega-city proposal.

'I think the urbanisation process should be a natural process,' Professor Li said.

He predicted China's urbanisation drive would bear fruit in 30 to 50 years, when more provinces raised their living standards.