My Take

Urbanisation will drive democracy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 March, 2014, 4:09am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 March, 2014, 4:09am

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.