• Wed
  • Oct 22, 2014
  • Updated: 9:07am
My Take
PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 March, 2014, 4:09am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 March, 2014, 4:09am

Urbanisation will drive democracy

The greatest driver for democracy in China will not come from its dissidents, overseas subversives or bleeding-heart expatriate busybodies. It will come from the Communist Party's own urbanisation drive. In this, the Chinese are, to a large extent, replicating the experience of Europeans two centuries before, but at an accelerated pace.

Last week, the World Bank released recommendations on how China should implement its urbanisation policy. This includes allowing more farmers to move into cities, enhanced social and educational services for new urbanites, and better protection of farmers' property rights stemming from land they leave behind. To cope with the influx, the report, published jointly with China's Development Research Centre, says local governments must be allowed to raise taxes and fees, so they can reduce their dependence on land sales for revenue, a major cause of corruption, exploitation and social conflicts.

There is nothing new in the report. Practically all its recommendations were tabled earlier this month by the State Council. Beijing knows what's at stake: the nation's future and the party's continuing rule. The projected migration of another 100 million into cities by 2020 will further weaken or undermine the hukou or household registration system, allowing more freedom of movement. Compare that with European history with its land-tied peasants and serfdom.

"The world of 1789 was overwhelmingly rural," wrote the late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, "and nobody can understand it who has not absorbed this fundamental fact." The same can be said about China at the dawn of the 20th century. Even in England, the home of the Industrial Revolution, Hobsbawm wrote: "The urban population only outnumbered the rural population for the first time in 1851."

China reached that crossover point two years ago. Property rights, rule of law and rise of the bourgeois middle class - the basis of Western democracy - became reality for the majority as part of a vast historical process of which urbanisation across Europe was a key part. Beijing has long argued urbanisation will be the engine for economic growth. It must realise it may have even greater political implications.


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Here's hoping that urbanization also drives education, which is a step that is still lacking in today's China. For not only does history suggest a correlation between urbanization and democratization, but also one between it and the level of education. The Chinese populace as a whole will not be ready for "democracy", or be able to function under its pillars, until they reach a requisite level of education. The same too can be said for some visitors to this board.
Of course, each and all of these correlations do not serve as proof of any causative relationship. Hopefully, China will one day accumulate enough of these correlative drivers to sustain the momentum for positive change.
And here's the thing with the focus on economies: it may well be true that the model of governance itself does not guarantee a certain level of economic performance over the long term. All the more reason then for members of such states to determine for themselves the model of governance under which they choose to live at any given point in their society's own economic progress. And I always love the rich and delicious irony of those who choose to live in democracies while extolling the apparent and supposed virtues of authoritarianism. If it's so wonderful, whatever on earth are they still doing here?!?
This is a disturbing picture for me. Most disturbing is the ambivalent feeling it instigates in me. I am not sure if I should choose those single family houses and low rises with plenty dotting trees or those modern high-rises in the background. But my disturbance is unwarranted because there is no choice for all of us. The modern high-rises will prevail.
What we must be looking out for not much about what politics those high-rises would affect us. We should be more concerned of our ground at street level. What goes up must come down again and again. We know we are safe with the single family houses and low-rises mostly they are trouble- free at the ground. Not those high-rises.
CY Leung, being a professional well versed in land use and land value as a surveyor, you must listen to good advice from proper city planners to go further of your training.
You mustn’t blindly ask for even taller buildings in Hong Kong as a means to increase land use capacity to meet housing shortage. It is being irresponsible to the people and the future generations who must live with unresolved issues arises from the super tall buildings.
kctony, honkiepanky, Decentralist:
My answer here is for other readers but not to dignify sarcastic comments from economics illiterates.
Advanced OECD economies' stated goals are built into graduated income taxes and transfer payments. As I have pointed out, these fiscal policies are not always successful.
China is a developing economy. It resembles more like the US during the Gilded Age and through the roaring 20s into the Great Depression, with Chinese corruption and social upheaval today matching America's robber barons, lawlessness, corruption (notably Teapot Dome) of yesteryear.
Anyway, America became the top industrial power at the turn of 20th Century, although the country still appeared very corrupt, chaotic, with insufficient law enforcement against the Mob (Black Hands), the union busters and corrupt capitalism cronies.
Even at a 7.5% growth rate, China will likely pass the US in nominal GDP in 10 years and in GDP adjusted for PPP in 5 years if the foreign exchange rate remains the same.
So eat your heart out with your hate-China passion.
BTW, if you know how to calculate GINI with Lorenz function, then come back for another conversation. You may have to relearn some schoolboy calculus first.
Meantime, stop passing around words and names, i.e., democracy and other jargons, which are beyond your depth.
Real economics has very little to do with the quarterly publications released by the monopoly of violence's statistics departments, which are at best only fragments of human action selected and filtered to serve as political tools. Anyone deciding to cut their work hours to spend more time with their children or devoting more time for their hobbies have, despite reducing the national output, reached a subjectively higher level of life satisfaction. Higher satisfaction for the serfs has never been a political goal though (that would be an oxymoron), and GDP only represents values that can benefit the power elite.
How do you explain the USA? We are quite urbanized, are we not?
I thought urbanization was related to alienation
so, are alienation and democratization each a part of the other?
Is this some kind of neo Maoism?
It is too far fetched for me to connect the dots that urbanization will bring about democracy -- at least the kind of democracy as practiced by US which I shallowly understood. If there is a connection, so be it even if it is accidental.
Mr Lo,
I am totally flummoxed by your thoughtless use of the word democracy. Chinese urbanization is driven by our nation's goal to offer equal opportunities and effect a "fair" wealth distribution. It's all about developing a more sustainable and balanced economy. A productive modern agricultural sector requires only a few per cent of its population working in farms to feed the nation.
In the UK, wealth has become more concentrated in London, a city immersed in a single smoke and mirrors industry, finance, which is now the bloated overhead for the world economy, especially when one takes into consideration wealth destruction in financial meltdowns. So is the US, where wealth and income are becoming more and more inequitable with a tax code favoring the wealthy. This is now a trend even in small, well functioned democracies like Norway, Sweden and Denmark, as hard as these nations try to equalize wealth distribution with fiscal measures.
Why? Democracy has little to do with the rich getting richer, or more middle class going on welfare. The culprits here are government policies and the environment: technology and globalization.
I read your column every day even during my two weeks in a Caribbean island just to make sure you don't lapse into a verbal zombie state habitual to all HK Democracy Cultists and airheads.
10% of China's wealth is in the hands of 2,900 families.
China is the 2nd largest economy yet GDP per capita is 89th in the world. Go figure.
"fair" wealth distribution. Dream on.




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