In addition to infrastructure development and progress, the concept of urbanization necessitates a consideration of how cities should effectively incorporate migrant workers from the rural areas into the fold, an issue that continues to vex authorities.
Wang Chunguang, a research fellow with the Institute of Sociology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), told China News Weekly of an exchange he had with a Shenzhen city official in the course of his research on China's migrant population.
Shenzhen amended its migrant policy not long ago, opening its household registration system to investors and people with advanced diplomas. In addition, the amended policy lowered requirements for those applying for permission to be reunited with their families and who are awarded honorary titles from the city for their hard work or bravery in the case of accidents and emergencies.
Wang then asked the official who drafted the amended policy: "Shenzhen now has 12 million residents, but only 1.6 million are registered as permanent residents. Who exactly does the policy benefit?"
The official replied that the policy would benefit about 300,000 people.
Wang asked: "How many years will it take for the others to obtain permanent Shenzhen residence? These people have worked and lived in Shenzhen for many years, they pay taxes here and they have become part of this city. There is no reason to exclude them from such a preferential permanent residence system."
The official responded that the preferential policy was made in light of migrant policies of the US and Canada, a point which Wang refuted on the basis that those migrant policies refer to the entry of foreigners. Wang pointed out that those policies don't apply in this case because migrant workers from the rural areas are Chinese nationals.
Sharing Wang's view is James Wen, the associate professor of economics at Hartford's Trinity College in the US.
Wen told China News Weekly: "It is hard to say whether Shanghai and Hong Kong could have achieved their current economic prosperity if in the developing years they had in place a policy that only welcomes extremely well-educated or wealthy workers."
Other scholars that China News Weekly interviewed are of the opinion that the household registration system has become a major impediment to China's urbanization process.
Wen thinks the Chinese government should abolish all those regulations in its policies, regulations and management mechanisms that impede the free movement of people and restrict their rights to employment. He said that such restrictive regulations breach the principle of a free market economy.
According to the November 21 issue of Oriental Outlook, sources from the Ministry of Public Security and experts reportedly said that a new reform plan for the household registration system has been in place for more than two years. The present version of the reform plan is based on the experience of local pilot reform programs and has been promoted nationwide. However, implementation has not been consistent due to resistance from related government departments and local governments.
Spokesman for the Ministry of Public Security, Wu Heping, said that the Ministry of Public Security is presently coordinating the promotion of the registration reform plan, but specific items and related measures cannot be disclosed yet.
Government officials often cite the enormous pressure put on cities by migrant populations as a means to justify their unwillingness to encourage reform. They say the pressure of increasing benefits and allowances to registered residents, higher traffic congestion, deteriorating social order and free compulsory education is too much for a city to manage.
Wen believes that if city authorities practiced principles of urban economics, the issues can be dealt with. He cited the example of the "agglomerative effect" where the intense concentration of people can dramatically reduce the costs of economic activity. As long as the introduction of a resident or a manufacturer brings more profit than cost to a host city, the city can still meet its targets of economic development. The government can tax newcomers to compensate existing residents and manufacturers for any losses they might incur as a result of including the newcomers to the community.
According to Wen, urbanization is the source of progress, a symbol of civilization, and a sign of modernization.
However, Wen acknowledges that there is the "megalopolis problem" to consider, where if a city grows too fast too quickly, slums develop to accommodate the extra scale.
Wen said: "It is inevitable that slums will develop and crime rates increase during the urbanization process. Compared with the advantages of urbanization, the disadvantages in the form of slums and crimes for a certain period of time come second. If you know how to administrate effectively, these problems can be controlled. If you curb the development of slums altogether, you kill the ability for migrants to move in.
"The government should not only fulfill its obligations, but also encourage various civilian organizations to help settle the migrants; provide them with job information, and provide education opportunities. If China's farmers are made formal city residents in a timely manner, China could achieve successful urbanization soon."
Qin Hui, a professor with Tsinghua University, views people from the countryside wishing to obtain residence in cities differently. In his book Rural China: Reflections of History and Realistic Choices, he made special note of the new generation migrants. He said as "marginal people," they are potentially unstable for society but only if the authorities deal badly with them.
Qin Hui doesn't agree that all "marginal people" are potentially unstable. He explained: "The migrant communities in New York, including those living in the slums are typically held responsible for higher crime rates in the city. But some American sociologists have suggested that slums represent a political buffer, gathering voters who approve of maintaining the status quo."
Based on extensive studies conducted in many parts of Latin America, this can also be called the "Latin American Phenomenon."
Qin Hui added that studies in New York have also shown that a high proportion of crimes are committed by the older generation of migrants, therefore giving weight to the argument that new migrants want to be accepted by the system.
He concluded that it is therefore necessary to give migrants equal access to law, human rights protection, education, employment and other opportunities if the mainstream society is to work with them in an effective and efficient manner.
(China News Week, translated by Wind Gu and Zhang Rui for China.org.cn December 28, 2005)