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Don't Just Measure GDP in Urban Development
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by Qin Xiaoying

Shortly after the new year began, a government official in a big city in northern China announced that his city's per capita GDP (gross domestic product) had exceeded $6,000, crossing the threshold of medium-level development in developed countries.

As if to match this, a vice-mayor from a big city in the south of the country announced that his city's per capita GDP will hit $10,000 in three years, equal to highly developed areas of the world.

Good things came in bunches.

Economic officials from cities in Jiangsu, Guangdong, Zhejiang and Shandong provinces and from the Tianjin Municipality announced one after the other that their per capita GDP has neared or surpassed the bar of $3,500. These announcements suggest that the objective of building a moderately prosperous society has been achieved ahead of schedule.

Public opinion, however, thinks otherwise, not accepting GDP as the exclusive standard in gauging development.

If we bother to conduct an investigation among the public in these cities which boast high GDP, we will find that the fast economic development has failed to bring proportionate happiness to ordinary people.

On the contrary, many urban maladies are canceling out the sense of happiness and satisfaction which usually goes hand in hand with increased income.

GDP may be growing, but the environment, the climate for consumption and the public security situation in some places pose a headache. And people's sense of discomfort remains very strong.

Obviously, the GDP growth in some localities is not targeted at accommodating ordinary people's needs. Many problems involving healthcare, housing, education and employment are yet to be settled.

The gap between GDP growth and social problems remaining unaddressed. It deserves our attention and careful study.

Some may ask: "Does this mean that all the painstaking efforts made to promote GDP increase have come to nothing?" The answer is "No".

At the core of this author's argument is that the word "developed" involves a host of connotations.

GDP only offers the physical basis for the development of a city but is far from enough. Many other "soft" factors are required to make a city "developed".

First of all, a city should enjoy a high degree of internationalization before it can be called "developed".

"Internationalization" in this usage means that all the service facilities should measure up to international standards in terms of "hardware". In terms of "software", it refers to the city's role in helping promote economic globalization, scientific and technological progress and cultural exchanges.

The degree of internationalization is actually a test of a city's degree of openness to the outside world.

Second, a city's environment should be well protected before it can be considered "developed".

Environmental deterioration and resource crises are two of the most salient features of urban disease in China.

Making the best use of ecological resources, including taking care of the environment, is a vitally important yardstick against which a city's degree of development is measured. This is as important as economic growth and social progress.

Third, residents should enjoy a high level of education before the city can be regarded as "developed".

Education and knowledge are at the core of a good quality of life for the urban public and the city itself. The two provide the primary driving force powering a city's sustainable development.

Fourth, urban development is geared to accommodating people's needs, based on the principle of people coming first, before the city is judged "developed".

Sensing that promoting urbanization by expanding the size of cities and increasing their numbers is deeply defective, the government has put forward the notion of human-centered harmonious development, including urban development. This marks a big stride forward in the administrative ideas of the government.

This approach finds expression in the construction of human-centered urban facilities and services.

Constructing facilities not only involves speed and size but also human-centered layout and consideration embodied in the details. The best services a human-centered city can offer are wide sharing of information, a garden-like environment and good working conditions.

Using all these standards to measure the degree of a city's development is no longer a topic for academic discussion. It is time to translate these standards into bettering people's lives, at least in mega cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Shenyang.

People expect that policies involving more human-centered urban development will soon be worked out, with the exclusively GDP-orientated development ideas, which largely overlook accommodating human needs, fading from the scene.

The author is a researcher with the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies

(China Daily January 16, 2007)

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