Images of packed trains and buses carrying migrant workers home for the Lunar New Year have been a media staple since millions of farmers began to head to the wealthy cities on the east coast in the 1980s.
This year the annual exodus started several weeks earlier than normal as exporters began to close factory doors and lay off workers. The economic bust in the US and Europe is already proving painful for many of the migrant workers powering China’s export economy.
But China’s process of urbanization, driven by migrant workers leaving the countryside to find better-paid work in the cities, will not be thrown off course by temporary economic woes.
More than 150 million people have moved to the large coastal cities since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms 30 years ago. In recent times that process has been complemented by growing numbers of workers heading for cities in the interior – sprawling urban centers focused on producing goods for the domestic market, such as Wuhan and Chongqing.
According to a survey on urbanization by McKinsey, a management consultancy, rural migration to cities will swell China’s urban population by 240 million come 2025. By then, 221 Chinese cities are expected to have populations in excess of 1 million, compared with just 35 in Europe today. Beijing plans to boost the level of urbanization from 50% today to 70% by 2030. This rural flight will likely see a massive expansion of mid- and small-sized cities, plus the emergence of up to a dozen mega-cities with populations in excess of 10 million.
Rural migrants – typically poorer than their urban counterparts and lacking the residence permits required to access urban social security – basically have two choices of where to live: cheap semi-rural areas on the periphery of big cities or low-cost urban accommodation in smaller ones.
In both cases, the result is an increasingly dispersed pattern of urbanization. Migration to the urban periphery pushes back the urban boundary, while the creation of new cities is paving over vast tracts of land. For a government that places so much faith in food security, the growing loss of valuable farmland to urban sprawl is a real concern. And it is impossible to know the environmental consequences of 1 billion-plus urban residents.
No one could deny the right of rural migrants to seek the kind of lifestyle they encounter in the wealthy coastal cities. But managing such an unprecedented migration from rural villages, served by basic infrastructure, to cities requiring the whole panoply of urban facilities needs more thought.
The more dispersed the pattern of urbanization, the more difficult this will be to provide.
Minimizing urban sprawl depends on dramatically increasing the intensity with which land is developed, and limiting expansion. That means tougher regulations on suburban developments and industrial relocation, designing transport arteries that do not push city boundaries further into the countryside, and preventing unnecessary ring roads that double effective urban areas at a stroke.
Aside from reducing the loss of arable land and using energy more efficiently, a more concentrated model of urbanization would also stimulate economic growth by improving urban productivity.
Beijing’s ability to ensure that 100 million migrant workers get home ever year is often held up as an advantage of its authoritarian system. Whether it can successfully manage the far larger migration of millions more rural residents to the country’s cities remains to be seen.