China rushes to become an urban nation at breakneck speed
Every few minutes another car brakes sharply as it reaches Tangbaguan on Guiyang’s new ring road. Another driver does a double-take. The dual carriageway ends abruptly in a narrow dirt track twisting downwards through heaps of rubble.
The city is eating hungrily into the hillsides, swallowing up maize fields and rice terraces in loops of tarmac and towers of concrete and glass. But the pace of change is so rapid, the transition so sharp, that its citizens are increasingly bewildered by their surroundings. Some, like the migrant workers building the roads, are new to city life. Others no longer recognise their hometown as it sprawls across the land.
This is the year China finally became an urban nation. In April the census revealed that 49.7% of its 1.34 billion population was living in cities, compared with around a fifth as economic reforms got off the ground in 1982. By now, China’s urbanites outnumber their country cousins. “The process they have been going through over three decades took four or five decades in Japan and [South] Korea and 100 years in the west,” says Edward Leman, whose Chreod consultancy has advised numerous Chinese cities on development.
It is not only the extraordinary speed that is “unprecedented and unparalleled”, says Prof Paul James of the Global Cities Institute at RMIT University in Melbourne. “It represents the most managed process of urbanisation in human history. The state is involved in every way. It manages the building of new cities. It regulates the housing of internally displaced people. It responds actively and sometimes oppressively to new waves of squatters.”
The new five-year plan pushes urbanisation even further, as the government seeks to raise living standards and promote development in the poorer central and western regions. A hard landing for the economy could slow this process – local government debt is a particular worry – but will not stop it…
And don’t hold your breath expecting a hard landing.
Li Keqiang – the vice-premier expected to become prime minister in 2012 – has argued that urbanisation should be the “strategic focus” of expanding domestic demand. China needs to restructure its economy, moving away from exports and investment towards domestic consumption. In the short-term urbanisation creates demand for infrastructure and property; in the longer run, urbanites consume vastly more than rural dwellers…
Further out, at Xinzaipo, a water buffalo is snuffling along a path and a cockerel crows in the distance. But a new road curves through the little valley and a vast printing plant is rising above the rice fields. Two medicine factories will claim an adjacent patch. When they drive three railway lines through another, the farmers will move to new homes down the road, returning to tend what land remains.
Li Chengqiang has watched the city crawl closer and closer to his farm. Now it has begun to absorb it. “The land is the most fundamental basis of our family. Even though the country advocates industrial development, people still have to eat. [Besides], the crops planted by ourselves taste better,” he says.
“It’s noisier now. When we were little, we didn’t have to close our door at night to sleep. There are different kinds of people around all the time these days.”
Yet he welcomes the transition. “The housing has changed, the roads have changed, we can eat well,” Li says. Despite his emotional attachment to the land, his main income now comes from selling cement.
RTFA. The economics and dynamics of this change are violent, often disjointed; but, so far, the government and their allies have managed to keep up – even keep ahead. Several months ago, a reporter on one of the business shows did a special report on what he called Ghost Cities. He visited and video-recorded a couple of the cities where the roads and rail lines and industrial infrastructure hadn’t yet reached. A moonscape of empty high-rise buildings and industrial parks just getting their first tenants. Will he return in two years?
Tom Keene’s mid-day program on BloombergTV discussed the quadrennial hypocrisy as our presidential election cycle warmed up to cut-and-paste whining about our biggest competitor in the world economy being “unfair”. Just as the Brits did about the US after WW2. Just as [I imagine] the Romans did about northern Europeans. Though Keene showed parallel graphs from the past 20 years of imports from China and exports to China – and they were matching curves.
As China moves into the domestic demand cycles they aim for, the United States will be competing with Brazil, the EU, India and Russia to be the partner exporting goods and technology into that nation – and we stand a good chance of being last in line. If the Tea Party klown show gains enough political power to further the shutdown of funds for small business, education and democracy in general – it will be guaranteed as thoroughly as the growth in China I’m talking about.
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