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From urbanization to the new urbanization: rationales and critiques

February 27, 2014

konjaku: in the next series of posts, I turn from the micro level (the effects of urbanization on one village, Liulangzhuang) to the macro level: attempts to describe urbanization policy on a national scale. In these articles, we can see the size of the expectations, and intensity of the hopes, for the process of urbanization. When urbanization is completed in China, if recognizing a stage of completion is itself possible, then China will be transformed– not just the exterior landscape, but the inner selves of the people as well. It seems impossible to imagine future prosperity in any other shape than a fully urbanized space in which the “peasants” of a rural past will take on new lives as urban residents. According to the government, this involves new systems of social services, census-taking, and population management, the consummation of which must be “accelerated,” just as the urbanization drive has always been accelerated. It is against this demand to go faster, as though the huge project will somehow escape control if not pursued at ever increasing speed, that the words below “one should wait till conditions are ripe, than seize the opportunity” or “the drive forward must be positive and stable” have meaning.

After the formulation of urbanization, now comes the “new urbanization.” This refers to concentrating the population in urban spaces of higher density, surrounded by green zones. This is supposed to to bring about more efficient use of energy and other resources. One commentator says the new urbanization will solve China’s air pollution problem.

New urbanization

New urbanization

Pushing forward with urbanization — we cannot rely on paper plans


2013-06-29, deliberations on the urbanization project at the 12th National People’s Congress were made public. During the deliberations, many committee members believe that, although the urbanization development situation is overall favorable, there exists one blind spot. Urbanization should not be about transforming rural areas into cities. Rather,  what the government should devote its energies to is formulating its development plans, and to setting up a system of public services in the areas in which urbanization is taking place. This will accelerate the pace of urban construction and improve the quality of urbanization.

Because urbanization is an important factor in the future development of the overall economy, the delegates yet had some pointed criticisms over the feverish rush to urbanize. The delegates all believe that current urbanization suffers from the malady of “ greed for the big, speed at all costs.” There are some areas that, having already begun to meet their construction targets, are adding on more and more. There are areas that believe, as their urban population increases, that they must respond by building cities on an increasingly larger scale, with more wide public squares, and more roads. Delegates said that if the pace of urbanization exceeds the rate of development of the economy, that inevitably “we will see an old familiar scene again –massive debt.”

For a long time the government has exercised monopoly power over the economy. Since the reform and opening to the outside world 30 years ago, the government has managed the economy to enlarge the GDP at a high rate of speed, keeping a firm grasp over and control of all the economic resources of society. Although the government have achieved its goal of making China the second largest economy in the world after the U.S., in the wake of this rapid expansion it has allowed serious problems to remain, in regard to sustainable development. In particular the system of income distribution is not in good order, and the great majority of the people cannot enjoy the benefits of the economic achievements. Indeed, many have had to sacrifice themselves for the sake of economic growth. Therefore, as the government now pushes to decentralize, there is the hope that its influence on the economy will lessen and market forces will be more free to operate.

However, this change will not happen overnight. In regard to new urbanization targets, the government still has the extraordinary custom of using paper plans to control everything. Actually, urbanization is a natural outgrowth of economic growth. Starting in the 80s, as the economy developed in the coastal areas, small towns sprung up like mushrooms after the rain, and gradually became connected together. The peasants living in these areas began living the lives of urban residents, even though they did not have the privileges of urban household registry. In these cases, the motive power for urban development did not come from the government, but from the market. When the government substitutes its will for the market, the peoples’ freedom to do things their own way often conflicts with the government plan and is repelled.

Propelled forward by the government’s magic power to “overcome difficulties when they arise,  bridge streams when encountered,” urbanization has rapidly gone forward according to the government blueprints, and in the same way, under government urging, the GDP has displayed a string of handsome numbers, and risen continuously. But when this type of rapid expansion overtakes the overall economy, it prevents people from making and acting out their own choices. This insistence on going forward without any attempt to raise the income levels of those on the lower levels of society, only increased the burdens on the masses. Even though there is an upsurge of consumption, this type of consumption is merely, “tearing down the east wall to build the west wall,” something without any real advantage, not really responsive to internal demand.

After the government became the driving force pushing urbanization forward, even though the targets are reached, its influence over the market becomes further enlarged, inevitably leading to a distortion in the urbanization process. As some of the Congress delegates pointed out, this is “urbanization by the mayor”[by government decree] not “urbanization by the market.” This sort of development only satisfies the government official who gets an achievement noted on their career record, but it cannot truly benefit society, and certainly brings no happiness to the people at large. The government cannot continue driving forward as it has been, without creating a hidden snare that threatens to undermine future economic development. In this year’s upcoming working conference on urbanization, let us hope it does not become a mobilization meeting, or a meeting to pledge mass effort [to continue urbanization on the present course], but rather, that the delegates look seriously at the harmful effects brought about by recent urbanization efforts.They should demand that the government transform the way it functions, and come up with practical corrections to redress the rash and anti-scientific development trend we have seen up to now.

Zhou Junsheng (Shanghai, scholar)

Urbanization cannot rely on paper plans to go forward

Source: Xinhua net 2013-05-27

konjaku: translation is the last paragraph of the article

The government is that which is engaged in social management and social services. But when the demand for urbanization is generated by a government plan,  the government exceeds its function, becoming the designer of society, and the volition of the people is unable to be expressed. It is worth noting that the idea that urbanization is something that gradually forms as a result or outcome of economic development is rejected. Rather, urbanization today is used to accelerate economic development. Over the next few years, under the direction of the government, the percentage of urbanized areas will increase substantially, but what will this give to society, what will it give the hundreds of millions of rural residents? This is a question that deserves careful thought.

In pushing forward with urbanization, the results are spoiled by excessive zeal

On 12-14 Xinhua  (reporter Zhang Xiaosong) reported that the Central Working Conference on Urbanization advised that, to firmly fix the objective of urbanization, they must seek truth from the facts, be practical and realistic, and not rely on government decrees to add more and more projects. Better to examine and re-examine step by step, do not be impatient for results, and not spoil things by excessive zeal. Henceforth the course of urbanization must be energetic, reliable, and solid.

Haste makes waste. There are local governments which use urbanization as a way to bolster official careers, and go against the popular will. They go beyond the actual situation and the development stipulations, go over normal limits and get into debt. Lacking insight and understanding they build cities, displacing an agricultural population that finds it difficult to enter into urban life. The land allotted for urban development is not used efficiently, and the scale of construction oversteps capacity. Increasingly what appears is an “urban blight” which does no good to the economy or society, and holds within it many hidden dangers for future economic development.

Urbanization is really the only road to modernization, to grow the economy, to regulate the industrial structure, to improve the peoples’ livelihood. But the next step is for the drive forward to be positive and stable. The various regions must be practical and consider the problems they face as they urbanize:  act according to their capacity, consider their financial resources, sustain their real estate values, have a safe food supply, etc. They should formulate a scientific plan and calculated rate of advance, without making urbanization into another “Great Leap Forward.”

A positive and stable advance of urbanization means valuing the wishes of the people. The new urbanization means putting people at the core. The goal is to enhance the inherent characteristics of the population and improve their lives.  Regardless of what type of urban renewal is in progress, and regardless of what arises in the process of transforming an agricultural population to live in an urban environment, the people must be allowed to act voluntarily, things must be orderly — no one should be forced to do something which is difficult for him or her, in order for the project to advance.

In spoiling things with excessive zeal, the results often contradict the original plan. Rather, one should wait till conditions are ripe, than seize the opportunity. This would truly be the urbanization that would benefit the nation and the people.

The New Urbanization: firmly set the objective,  and stick to the initial goal, without adding more and more

konjaku: this is an excerpt of the article

Four questions about urbanization:

Why has China recently been pursuing urbanization?

The drive to urbanize is an important way to solve the problems of agriculture, rural areas, and the rural population. It supports regional coordinated development, expands internal demand, promotes industrial upgrading. It produces a comparatively good living standard across the board, and accelerates the the drive toward modernization of socialist institutions. In this way, the significance of urbanization is both immediate and practical, while also being of deep historical significance. The goal of urbanization is correct, the direction is on the right track, going along this path will set free the huge latent capacities of internal demand.

What is the guiding principle underlying the urbanization drive?

In all of human history there has never been an example of 1.3 billion people bringing about urbanization together. The process of urbanization must be joined to overall economic development of the society. The drive to urbanize started off in the early stages from the conditions of our country as a socialist society. Adhering to principles, but acting according to circumstances, it is a matter of seizing opportunities. When conditions are ripe, success is assured.

What problems does urbanization solve?

Urbanization steadily improves the ability of the population of registered permanent residents to engage in the amenities of urban life, it improves the efficient use of energy sources, lowering energy depletion and carbon dioxide discharges, it pays more attention to care of the ecological system, enlarges the proportion of green ecological spaces, such as forests, lakes, and wetlands. It improves environmental quality, conserves water use, decreases pollution,  reigns in untrammeled development, and lowers the intensity of natural disasters.

How should urbanization go forward in China?

Urbanization should put people first. It should enhance the characteristics of the urban population, improve quality of life for the residents. It should provide a stable employment situation and keep life for permanent residents orderly. It should insist on green development, ecological civilization, cyclical development [turning industrial waste into raw materials for new products], and reducing the carbon footprint.It should minimize negative impacts on the environment. and use land, water, and energy sources more efficiently.

(write up by Jinghua Tines reporter Sun Xuemei and Xinhua staff)

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