ISSN 2330-717X

The Mystery Of China’s Shrinking Megacities – Analysis

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By Sayli Mankikar

Many of Asia’s megacities like Yokohama, Jakarta and Mumbai are facing the heat of uncontrolled rural⎯urban migration and exploding population which is putting pressure on its infrastructure and environment. Several solutions have been discussed, but the uncontrolled ever⎯increasing population only makes every move seem inadequate. China, however, has decided to tackle this differently, by taking some result⎯oriented, yet, debatable steps, in redistributing its urban population, causing Shanghai and Beijing’s population to plunge in 2017.

Over the past five⎯months, beginning mid⎯November 2017, the municipal governments of Beijing and Shanghai, the two biggest megacities in the world, are on a demolition spree. They are trying to cap and redistribute city populations by bringing down illegal houses and unregistered commercial establishments in central areas to address the problem of ‘Chéngshì Bìng’ (big city disease).

These wave of demolitions in the name of ‘crackdown on illegal housing and safety’ was kicked off following a fire at Xinjiancun in the crowded central Beijing district that killed 19 people in November 2017. In China, every person has a residency permit or a hukou attached to his birthplace. The migrants are being stripped off their habitats and livelihoods overnight for lack of a hukou which meant living without any social security and services in urban areas.

The action is swift and decisive — the migrants are put on short demolition notices or are the city without any notice. The targets of such eviction are generally the once unskilled migrants in their late fifties, who, along with their families, inhabited these cities at the hilt of globalisation and economic reforms of the early 1990s. All of them are going back to their homes in rural China.

The Beijing local government has held job fairs for those who have lost their jobs where factories and warehouses have been shut down. Since November last year, about 1,800 jobs have been offered to those displaced. It has also offered assistance for those workers returning to their hometown, through building subsidised rental housing. But ultimately, the migrants have to fend for themselves, away from the cities that sustained them and their families.

According to a Reuters report, Beijing will mow down at least 40 million square metres, or 15.44 square miles, of illegal structures, amounting roughly to an area of 28 of London’s Hyde Parks, and shut 500 manufacturing firms in 2018. This will give way to modern structured public housing and commercial projects, to be occupied by residents with legal urban permits. It will “ensure zero increase of such structures” acting mayor Chen Jining had said in the Beijing annual work report in January 2018.

It was during my Mandarin class last year that I came across the term Chéngshì Bìng. When my teacher told me that the literal translation of it was ‘big city illness’, I really wondered what it meant. For us in India, it would probably translate into a health epidemic like the swine flu virus. But as it mostly is with China and its peculiar interpretations, the definition and understanding of the term loosely translates as a disease arising when a megacity (read: Beijing and Shanghai in the current context) becomes plagued with environmental pollution, traffic congestion and a shortage of public services, including education and medical care.

Officially, the government wants Beijing to cap its population at 23 million by 2020, while Shanghai will have to cap its population at 25 million by 2035. China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) also showed that resident population of Beijing had swelled by 59 percent in the past decade and that of Shanghai had increased by 50 percent. NBS also projects that the number of rural migrant workers increased by 2.4 percent to 268.94 million in 2017 alone, and accounted for 19.76 percent of the country’s population.

The question that arises here is whether this mode adopted by the Chinese to trim their exploding cities is the right and only way ahead? Is this in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) of having inclusive, sustainable, resilient and safe cities?

There are two opposing thoughts to this argument.

The first is the government version, which bats for redistribution of population for safety and security. The Beijing government launched a 40⎯day “special operation” targeting structures with fire code and building safety violations post the fire at Xinjiancun in November 2017. A communique issued by the government in December 2017 claimed that such “redistribution” was necessary to ensure “the lives and safety of the people.” It refuted the argument that this operation was to drive out the ‘low⎯end population’ calling it as irresponsible and baseless. The communique explained that although the migrant population choose these places to work and live in, they do not understand the dangers of living in such dense urban ghettos.

Xu Lin, the director of the China Center of Urban Development, while talking to China.org.cn, justified this thought. He said that high quality growth requires high quality urbanisation and many important issues — including disorderly expansion and inefficient use of urban space — need to be resolved.

The PRC’s 13th five⎯year plan (2016⎯20) makes it clear that it is not against migrants per se. It wants to replace the old lot with the upwardly mobile, aspirational and new generation workers. The government is now redefining who the new urban residency permits should be issued to in Beijing, Shanghai and other such megacities in China. It spells out preference to “rural students moving up to the next level of education in an urban area, armed forces personnel settling in an urban area, people who have lived in an urban area for at least five years and have moved their families with them, and new generation migrant workers.” It also talks of linking professional and technical titles and skill levels with the granting of residency in large cities.

The 2018 China government work report too supports this. It explains how redistribution of urban population will step up its efforts to supply public⎯rental housing in urban areas for eligible first⎯time migrant workers. It plans to build 5.8 million units in cities across China in 2018.

However, just about four years ago, China’s National New⎯type Urbanisation Plan (2014⎯2020) had no mention of capping the country’s urban population as state policy. On the contrary, it focussed on policies that would effectively trigger off the process of reverse migration. The plan noted that the 260 million migrant workers in the cities were putting increasingly unmanageable pressures on employment opportunities and healthcare.

Xu Xinagping, the then Vice⎯Minister of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) had stated how the urbanisation in China had reached a crucial stage. “We must find a new way out,” he had said. The new way adopted by China according to the plan was to document and check official household registrations (hukou’s) of permanent urban residents and those staying in cities with rural hukou’s. Many of those not having permanent jobs and official hukou’s slowly started moving out, but many clung on to the city life, albeit without any social security.

But since then and especially after the incident of November 2017, this approach has changed — if you cannot manage the population, then you “redistribute” (read: evict) it. Official figures given out by NBS shows that the approach is working. The population of Beijing dropped by 22,000 to 21.7 million from 2016 to 2017, a decline of 0.1 per cent. This came after a 59 per cent surge in Beijing’s population between 2000 and 2016. Meanwhile, Shanghai’s population dropped by 13,700 to 24.18 million.

The other argument is against pushing those migrants out of cities, who were harbingers of China’s rapid progress through the 1990s. There is resentment against the way they are being abruptly stripped off their habitats and livelihoods for the lack of a hukou.

Li Jianmin, professor of demographics at Nankai University in Tianjin, while talking to Financial Times argues that Beijing, like every city, needs people of all kinds. All humans are equal and should be respected. Driving people out of the city is not going to be effective in the long⎯run and may cause social unrest.

While both Beijing and Shanghai are aiming at getting a young and upwardly⎯mobile population, these dystopian urbanscapes have some problems. There will be an ageing population that needs help, but unfortunately, the cleaners, nannies, maids, drivers and people in smaller jobs are being ousted, making life difficult and unaffordable, for those who remain such jobs will come at a premium. The younger generation will pay several times to stay in new age condos which will have replaced the traditional terraced homes in the traditional Hutongs (courtyard residences). And finally, shrunken cities will have economic implications — residents will pay more for every service.

Could China have looked at this ‘big city disease’ differently or dealt with it in an equitable way? Contrasting to China, Indian cities like Mumbai which have a huge poor migrant population living in slums, has adopted a policy of integration. This is a more humane approach and it support the ecosystem of the city where the social fabric of the city in kept intact. But ultimately, there needs to be a realistic assessment, like China, on how far a city can grow, how big it can get, and what is economically sustainable.

There are no tools to plan specifically for migration in urban planning. But, as a short⎯term measure, there could be redistribution of resources and a cap on use of water and other important essentials. An affordable housing plan can be worked out, which can be used for rehousing migrants, like it has been accounted for in the Mumbai development plan (DP). Creation of new cities and census towns too can give way to new urban areas to settle such populations in.

In the long⎯term, new cities can adopt a ‘decentralised urbanisation’ approach, where stronger linkages between urban and rural areas should be drawn up. The two areas can co⎯evolve leading to a loss of traditional distinctions between them. Strong linkages which push equitable flow of resources can ensure maximum economic and social benefits to people in the rural areas, thus keeping them away from cities.

China is a country in a hurry, and it has made its choice. It chose a different path, which is unconventional, to deal with its ‘big city disease’. But the perils of an unequal society can create a bigger monster which it should not ignore.


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Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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