The Economist: “FOR many migrants who do not live in factory dormitories, life in the big city looks like the neighbourhood of Shangsha East Village: a maze of alleys framed by illegally constructed apartment buildings in the boomtown of Shenzhen, near Hong Kong. There are at least 200 buildings, many of them ten storeys tall (see picture). They are separated by only a metre or so, hence the name “handshake buildings”—residents of neighbouring blocks can reach out from their windows and high-five.
The buildings are China’s favelas: built illegally on collectively owned rural land. Rents are cheap. An eight-square-metre (86-square-foot) flat costs less than $100 a month. They symbolise both the success of the government’s urbanisation policy and also its chronic failures. China has managed a more orderly system of urbanisation than many developing nations. But it has done so on the cheap. Hundreds of millions of migrants flock to build China’s cities and manufacture the country’s exports. But the cities have done little to reward or welcome them, investing instead in public services and infrastructure for their native residents only. Rural migrants living in the handshake buildings are still second-class citizens, most of whom have no access to urban health care or to the city’s high schools. Their homes could be demolished at any time.
China’s new leaders now say this must change. But it is unclear whether they have the resolve to force through reforms, most of which are costly or opposed by powerful interests, or both. Li Keqiang, the new prime minister, is to host a national conference this year on urbanisation. The agenda may reveal how reformist he really is.
He will have no shortage of suggestions. An unusually public debate has unfolded in think-tanks, on microblogs and in state media about how China should improve the way it handles urbanisation. Some propose that migrants in cities should, as quickly as possible, be given the same rights to services as urban dwellers. Others insist that would-be migrants should first be given the right to sell their rural plot of land to give them a deposit for their new urban life. Still others say the government must allow more private and foreign competition in state-controlled sectors of the economy such as health care, which would expand urban services for all, including migrants. Most agree the central government must bear much more of the cost of public services and give more power to local governments to levy taxes.
Any combination of these options would be likely to raise the income of migrants, help them to integrate into city life and narrow the gap between the wealthy and the poor, which in China is among the widest in the world. Such reforms would also spur on a slowing economy by boosting domestic consumption.
Officials know, too, that the longer reforms are delayed the greater the chances of social unrest. “It is already a little too late,” Chen Xiwen, a senior rural policy official, said last year of providing urban services to migrants. “If we don’t deal with it now, the conflict will grow so great that we won’t be able to proceed.”
Yet Mr Li, the prime minister, would do well to dampen expectations. The problems of migrants and of income inequality are deeply entrenched in two pillars of discriminatory social policy that have stood since the 1950s and must be dealt with before real change can come: the household registration system, or hukou, and the collective ownership of rural land.”
- Urbanisation: Some are more equal than others (economist.com)
- * Right thing to do comes with a price tag (chindia-alert.org)
- The Wrong Way Of Urbanization (imabhinavthakur.wordpress.com)
- EXCLUSIVE-China urbanisation plan hits roadblock over spending fears-sources (uk.reuters.com)
- The Hukou system: The real face of China’s Urbanisation? (uosm2018.wordpress.com)