Book review: China's Urban Billion, by Tom Miller

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 January, 2013, 3:55pm

China's Urban Billion
by Tom Miller
Zed Books

This is a lively and readable book about one of the biggest challenges for the mainland's rulers over the next 20 years: how to build well-planned and affordable cities for the one billion people who will live in them by 2030? How to avoid the giant slums full of drugs, crime and unemployment in many countries of the developing world?

Over the past 30 years, China's urban population has increased by 500 million and it is planning to add another 300 million by 2030, meaning one in every eight people on earth will live in a mainland city. It is the biggest and fastest urbanisation in human history.

Tom Miller is managing editor of the China Economic Quarterly, and a former Beijing correspondent of the South China Morning Post. He has lived in Beijing for more than a decade. This is his first book.

"Since 1978, China's leaders have made all the necessary changes to ensure that the country's economic growth machine kept purring along. It is now time to make some more … the present model cannot continue," Miller writes. "Its leaders must find a healthier, more inclusive and, ultimately, sustainable model of urban development."

Two chapters on two core issues stand out: land ownership and the hukou (registration) system.

"Individual farmers must be given effective ownership of their land," argues Miller. This is their most important asset; allowing them to sell or trade it is the best way to transfer wealth to them.

But private land ownership, as in Taiwan and Japan, remains taboo. Instead, in 2008, the government allowed farmers to sub-contract, lease, exchange or swap their land-use rights. Chengdu and Chongqing are pioneers, opening rural property exchanges that allow farmers to transfer their assets and land-use rights in exchange for lump-sum payments or annual rent.

In late 2011, the Chongqing government said the exchange had been a great success; it said 6,000 hectares of land had been sold, more than 9,000 hectares of rural construction land cultivated as farmland, and farmers received 17.5 billion yuan (HK$21.5 billion).

While the truth is probably not so rosy, it serves as a model of how to transfer land, put money into the hands of farmers, and consolidate land holdings to make them larger and more productive.

Chongqing is also a pioneer in reforming the hukou system. Nationwide, 460 million people have an urban registration, entitling them to schools, housing, welfare and pension benefits, while more than 200 million city residents - migrant workers - do not.

In Chongqing in 2010 and 2011, 2.3 million migrant workers swapped their land-rights for an urban hukou; the city aims to persuade seven million resident farmers to do the same thing over the next eight years.

Again, the plan is good - but subject to abuse when officials force farmers to sign and do not pay them the promised compensation.