Bursting at the seams

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 June, 2010, 12:00am

Who wants to live in the mainland countryside? Not many people, according to a recent survey published in the China Business News. The poll revealed that almost 80 per cent of rural residents aged 18 to 30 believed they would be better off if they lived in cities. Unsurprisingly, their overwhelming preference is to move to first-tier metropolises like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

That won't come as news to anyone living in the mainland's major cities and especially not to Beijingers. The capital already has close to 18 million residents, which is precisely the number the municipal government forecast would be living there in 2020, when it issued its last urban plan in 2003. Now, Beijing officials have revised that figure to 21 million.

But the rush to escape the countryside is happening at such a pace that their new number is still likely to be an underestimate. McKinney Consulting expects 1 billion people to be living in cities by 2025. By then, there are likely to be eight metropolises with populations of 10 million or more on the mainland, and urban centres will be responsible for 95 per cent of the nation's gross domestic product.

In a country that boasts of 5,000 years of history, 15 years is like a second and 2025 will be on us before we know it. Yet, despite the evidence in front of them, there has been a deafening silence from both central and local authorities on how exactly the cities will cope with such a huge influx of people. It's telling that Beijing hasn't updated its urban general plan for seven years.

Urban planning, though, has never been a strong suit on the mainland. Official strategies for cities and towns seem to involve throwing up as many big government buildings and office and apartment blocks as is physically possible, while letting the surrounding environment take care of itself. It's the reason so many places lack basic facilities such as pavements and proper drains.

There is an equally casual attitude to the provision of the services that will be needed when there really are 1 billion people living in mainland cities. Schools and hospitals are already oversubscribed in the major metropolises, while little thought has gone into how to care for their rapidly ageing populations, increasing numbers of whom do not have family to look after them.

Also, the urban job market is ever more competitive. The mainland struggles to create enough jobs for its college graduates, so unqualified migrants from rural areas face the prospect of both high unemployment and low wages. That means the labour unrest already spreading through the country's manufacturing hubs will probably reach the cities as well.

Then there's the question of where people will live. Ironically, urbanisation is helping to drive the unsustainable property boom. With so many people moving to the cities, land values continue to increase because homes are needed for them. But the high price of land means apartments cost more, a vicious circle that is already pricing many out of the property market.

So immense are the problems cities already face that it is perhaps understandable that officials seem to be in a state of collective denial over the exodus from the countryside. It's the reason they continue to cling to the outmoded hukou system.

Denying economic migrants the rights available to those born in the cities helps keep the numbers of new arrivals at a manageable level - so the logic goes. But, as is clear from Beijing's booming population, the lack of a residence permit stopped being a disincentive a long time ago.

Nor have the authorities explained what will happen to rural areas once they have been depopulated. Will vast tracts of China become a new Siberia, only with better weather? And if most of the farmers swap their rice paddies for a one-bed flat in the city, who will feed the country?

When the European and American populations shifted to the cities, mechanisation enabled farms to be run with far fewer people. That is not an option in much of rural China, where geography alone means that peasants and water buffalo have to do the job that combine harvesters and tractors manage elsewhere.

Above all, though, are the seemingly intractable environmental issues that come with urbanisation. Four hundred mainland cities already suffer from water shortages and pollution is increasing inexorably as more and more cars crowd roads that are perilously close to gridlock.

If the urbanisation of the mainland is to be a dream rather than a nightmare, now is the time for cities to make their plans for the future, rather than 2025 when it will be too late.

David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist