Urbanization is about people not building

By Wang Chunlai
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, October 6, 2013
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Thirty years after they first appeared, migrant workers are now an established part of city life. According to official data, there are more than 250 million migrants working in factories, on construction sites, or in the service sector as cleaners, babysitters, shop assistants, couriers, street vendors and so on. In 2009, in the depths of the financial crisis, Time Magazine named the Chinese Worker as runner-up to Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke in its person of the year contest. It would not have been possible for China's cities to develop so rapidly over the past few decades without the contribution of migrants from rural areas. They were willing to take on the dangerous and low-paid jobs shunned by city dwellers. They rarely complained even when treated unfairly - as they often were. And they did not make trouble for the government even when they were fired without compensation. They single-mindedly set out to better themselves through hard work.

As the process of urbanization gathered pace, those who found stable jobs in the cities began to bring their families to join them. But China's system of residential registration - the hukou system - puts barriers in the way of rural people who migrate to cities. The most serious problem is that public services are usually only available to locals. But many areas are piloting reforms to the system. People are allowed to transfer their residence from the countryside to smaller towns. Their new status as urban dwellers entitles them to local public services such as medical insurance and education. According to official statistics, the proportion of urban residents (defined as those living outside rural areas for more than six months each year) in the population as a whole, has reached 51 percent.

But this figure is contested by those who believe that many migrant workers are not genuinely settled in the cities. In many provincial capitals and top-tier cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, it is difficult enough for white collar workers and university graduates to get a local hukou, let alone migrant workers. Migrant workers in the biggest cities tend to come from poor and remote provinces. High travel costs as well as the risk of losing their jobs if they ask for leave mean they rarely go back home. They either bring their families to live with them in the cities where they become "marginal people," not entitled to the welfare available to official residents. Or they leave their families behind in remote villages, giving rise to the phenomenon of "left-behind children." The end result is that migrant workers are not receiving the decent living and working conditions they are entitled to. A man dressed in torn and shabby clothes remains the standard image of a migrant worker in the minds of many people.

Many of the problems facing migrant workers are the legacy of a failed policy of "urbanizing land rather than people." In the latest round of urbanization, local governments have concentrated their efforts on expanding urban areas through infrastructure construction and real estate development - often by creating entirely new districts far from the old city centers. This means that GDP grows fast, driven by government-led investment, but it is not a natural process based on real economic development. It has even given rise to the phenomenon of "ghost cities" - so called because they have almost no residents. After reviewing these problems, China's new leadership has devised regulations and policies to restrict excessive investment and land use, to encourage genuine economic development and job creation, to provide efficient and effective public services, and boost the supply of low-cost housing. Although many of the details of these policies still need to be worked out, the new emphasis on people not buildings as the driving force of urbanization will benefit migrant workers in the long run.

The author is PhD student at the Rural Development Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

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