Books: urbanisation with Chinese characteristics

Urban Development in China: 30 Years explores the country’s rapid development and explores a new way of growing cities. The current path, says Sun Jiuwen, cannot resolve the loss of rural-urban balance.

Urban Development in China: 30 Years (1978-2008)
Niu Fengrui, Pan Jiahua and Liu Zhiyan (editors)
Social Sciences Academic Press, 2009

China is the midst of fierce social and economic transformation, which is characterised by urbanisation. The last three decades of reform and opening up have seen our cities emerge from long-standing stagnation and begin quick development. In particular, the last few years have seen urbanisation proceed at speeds rarely seen anywhere.

And so we are delighted to see the publication of Urban Development in China: 30 Years — edited by professors Niu Fengrui, Pan Jiahua and Liu Zhiyan — which takes a scientific look at these three decades of urbanisation.

The book aims to explain the nature of “urbanisation with Chinese characteristics”. Niu and the other contributors divide the past thirty years of urbanisation into four stages and summarise the features of each of those periods.

Following that division, I believe that the increase in urbanisation in the early years of reform and opening up was part of a recovery after the Cultural Revolution. Late 1980s and early 1990s urbanisation was in step with normal industrial growth. In 1997, the Asian economic crisis made it apparent that low levels of urbanisation were holding back domestic demand — a sticking point for economic growth and operation — and urbanisation arrived on government agendas. In 2000, the Communist Party set the aim of active but careful urbanisation. Financial policy and the issue of government bonds were used to fund massive infrastructure construction to drive domestic demand and promote urbanisation.

How should we evaluate those thirty years? The questions the book raises – are we lagging behind, at the cutting edge, or advancing too quickly? – are worthy of consideration. The conclusion that China will not fall into the “Latin American trap” is fact-based and realistic.

A considerable section of the book is devoted to an insightful discussion of the current state of urbanisation in China and the issues it presents. At this point, I’d like to talk about my own views. I believe that urbanisation has solved three problems:

First, it has brought urbanisation up to speed with industrialisation. This view may differ from that of some academics. During the early years of reform, it was accepted that urbanisation lagged behind. Industrialisation is a prerequisite for urbanisation, while urbanisation itself arises from industrialisation. The two promote each other, jointly determining the pace of social and economic development. And after thirty years of reform, new industries are again promoting urbanisation, which is continually increasing. I believe that urbanisation and industrialisation are now in step.

Secondly, it has provided space for economic growth. Cities are home to the bulk of the economy, where factors of production gather. Economic infrastructure – transportation, communications, finance, technology, information and services – all are centred on cities.

Third, urbanisation has greatly increased quality of living. Increased urbanisation promotes economic growth. It improves market systems and allocation of resources. Effects of agglomeration and scale provide an environment ideal for technological advances and propagation. Industrial structures are upgraded, and investment and consumption increases internal demand, thus promoting sustained economic growth, employment and an improved quality of life.

But there are problems arising from urbanisation that cannot be ignored.

The gap between urban and rural incomes has long been widening. The ratio between per-capita disposable income for urban residents and per-capita net income for rural residents was 2.47:1 in 1997. By 2007, it was 3.33:1. Land has been urbanised more quickly that the population, worsening the urban-rural division and creating large numbers of landless rural residents; they are a vulnerable group lacking the urban household registration documents that would entitle them to services such as social welfare, education and health care. Meanwhile, water supplies, energy sources and the environment are becoming more severe limiting factors, with some cities already at their carrying capacity.

So I do not believe that our current mode of urbanisation can resolve the loss of rural-urban balance. The task now is to find a new, Chinese, mode of urbanisation.

The book experiments with doing just that: proposing a new way of growing our cities. The features of Niu’s proposal provide a starting point for further research into urban issues. He holds that urbanisation should be concentrated and varied, combining both government leadership and a market foundation, planning for both urban and rural development. Meanwhile, Pan stresses concern for the environment – an “environmental mode” of urban growth. Liu analyses the spatial layout of cities — a “spatial mode”.

The other articles have their own highlights. Li Xuefeng investigates relationships within clusters of cities, using quantitative analysis to examine some long-standing controversies. Research by Fu Xiaodong on urban economic reform, Gu Chaolin on urban development zones, Wang Kai on reform in urban planning and Li Siping on reform in urban land systems provide their own viewpoints, or sound strident calls for change. All provide the reader with information on urban development and policy research. Finally, much is added by an incisive conclusion by Professor Mao Qizhi of Tsinghua University. 

Sun Jiuwen is a professor at Remin University’s Institute of Regional and Urban Economic Research.