The masses are waiting in earnest for China’s new urbanization plan. The more than 650 million people that still live in the countryside are certainly interested in the master document, which will map out for a portion of them their move off the land and into urban areas. It will have implications for the future of the 200 million migrants that have already made their way into the cities too.
Of course, local government officials need to know what’s enclosed because they will be responsible for carrying out the majority of the measures.
Why then is the central government dragging its feet on the plan’s release? The latest news reports say the “New-Style Urbanization Plan” won’t be released until 2014, more than half a year after its original launch date. The plan, Premier Li Keqiang’s brainchild and pet project, was expected to surface in the first half 2013 but has suffered numerous setbacks since then.
Li is likely squeamish about making public a plan so closely connected to the fate of the masses. But the main cause for delay is a myriad of questions and a stark lack of details.
Political scientists often sketch out China using what they call the tiao-kuai system. The tiao is a vertical axis that represents the reach of central government ministries from Beijing to small towns. The kuai is a horizontal axis representing the local governments that operate more autonomously from leaders in the capital, although they are still expected to follow central directives to perfection.
The new urbanization plan is running into problems across the grid, which is already peppered with contradictions.
On the central level, ideology is still a stumbling block. China can’t quite decide what to do with rural land.
For rural dwellers to make the move toward cities, they will need money. Yet, at present, their primary asset, the land, is still largely non-transferable. Conservatives in Beijing would like to keep it that way, fearing that granting farmers the right to sell their farms could lead to landlessness and therefore instability. Reformers want to give people in the countryside more control over the land. Experiments on transferring rural land have been in place for several years and the Third Plenum, a major policy meeting last month, indicated that this would continue.
However, before the urbanization plan can be launched, there must be more consensus on land transfers. And that’s just one of several complications clogging up central decision makers.
Another is the bureaucracy reformers must wade through to find substance. When a meeting on the plan launches later this month, 13 ministries will attend, some more powerful than the other. Each will want to have its say and to benefit the most from master plan that should carry the country through 2020.
Western observers should remember that the term “urbanization” is a poor translation of the Chinese concept. The Chinese phrase is much better represented as “city- and town-ization” because central leaders are trying to push migrants not just into big cities such as Shanghai, but also into small towns. In fact, the central government would like to direct most of this movement into towns – areas that it hopes will power growth through the end of the decade.
On the local level, the hukou system is still front and center in holding up progress. This system divides China’s population into urban and rural. Rural people, although free to move to cities, are denied the benefits urban dwellers have access to such as healthcare and education.
Li’s plan will need to determine who pays for what. When someone with a rural hukou moves to the city, urban officials will need to know what responsibilities they have for the migrant. At present, the cost of transferring from rural to urban status is still unknown.
In the process, Beijing will also need to keep an eye on local spending. City government officials could use the urbanization plan as an excuse to build huge infrastructure projects, according to a note from GK Dragonomics, a consultancy. That could saddle them with more debt.
“Li has had to fend off local governments’ attempts to use the plan as a vehicle to build yet more infrastructure projects,” the note said.
The central government is trying to slow local investment into unneeded infrastructure. But city officials for decades have relied on rolling out new roads, bridges and stadiums to spur economic growth, a significant step in earning a promotion up the party ranks. More migrants pouring into cities could loosen local cadre purse strings.
The details are sticky, complicated and costly. It will take time to put down on paper a list of measures that central government players can agree on, as well as something local governments can carry out.