Thirty-five years ago, when paramount leader Deng Xiaoping launched gaige kaifang, or “reform and opening,” China was a much more agricultural country, with less than a fifth of its people living in cities. Since then hundreds of millions of rural residents have left the countryside, many seeking jobs in the export-oriented factories and construction sites that Deng’s policy promoted.
In 1978 there were no Chinese cities with more than 10 million people and only two with 5 million to 10 million; by 2010, six cities had more than 10 million and 10 had from 5 million to 10 million. By the following year, a majority of Chinese were living in urban areas for the first time in the country’s history.
Now urbanization has been designated a national priority and is expected to occur even more rapidly. On March 16, Premier Li Keqiang’s State Council and the central committee of the Communist Party released the “National New-type Urbanization Plan (2014-2020),” which sets clear targets: By 2020 the country will have 60 percent of its people living in cities, up from 53.7 percent now.
What’s the ultimate aim of creating a much more urban country? Simply put, all those new, more free-spending urbanites are expected to help drive a more vibrant economy, helping wean China off its present reliance on unsustainable investment-heavy growth. “Domestic demand is the fundamental impetus for China’s development, and the greatest potential for expanding domestic demand lies in urbanization,” the plan says.
To get there, China’s policymakers know they have to loosen the restrictive hukou, the household registration policy that today keeps many Chinese migrants second-class urban residents. China will ensure that the proportion of those who live in the cities with full urban hukou, which provides better access to education, health care, and pensions, will rise from last year’s level of 35.7 percent of city dwellers to 45 percent by 2020. That means 100 million rural migrant workers, out of a total 270 million today, will have to be given urban household registration.
To prepare for the new masses, China knows it must vastly expand urban infrastructure. The plan calls for ensuring that expressways and railways link all cities with more than 200,000 people by 2020; high-speed rail is expected to link cities with more than a half million by then. Civil aviation will expand to be available to 90 percent of the population.
Access to affordable housing projects funded by the government is also expected to rise substantially. The target is to provide social housing (roughly analogous to public housing in the U.S.) to 23 percent of the urban populace by 2020; that’s up from an estimated 14.3 percent last year, according to Tao Wang, China economist at UBS Securities in Hong Kong. That means providing social housing for an additional 90 million people, amounting to about 30 million units, over the next seven years, Wang writes in a March 18 report.
The urbanization plan appears to face several big challenges. First, the government wants to maintain restrictions on migration to China’s biggest cities, which also happen to be its most popular. Instead, the plan calls for liberalizing migration to small and midsize cities, or those with less than 5 million. Whether migrants will willingly flock to designated smaller cities, rather than the megacities including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, is an unanswered question.
“International experience suggests that in developed countries more than 40 percent of the country’s population resides in the top three megaregions,” writes Shen Minggao, China economist at Citigroup in Hong Kong, in a March 18 report. “In our view, the population flows will follow the jobs and quality of services that a region can offer,” says Shen, noting that only 18.2 percent of China’s population was in China’s top three megaregions as of 2012.
Another obstacle to faster urbanization is that the plan doesn’t propose how to reform China’s decades-old land tenure system. Changing the system could allow farmers more freedom to mortgage, rent, or sell their land.
Finally, one of the most daunting problems is figuring out how to pay for implementing the ambitious urbanization targets. The cost of rolling out a much more extensive social welfare network will be substantial (today, most Chinese in the countryside have far lower levels of medical and pension coverage, as well as far inferior schools); building the new urban infrastructure will also be expensive.
The plan “fails to tackle perhaps the thorniest issue of them all: fiscal reform,” writes Tom Miller, a researcher at Beijing-based China economic consultancy GavekalDragonomics, in a March 18 report. “Unless China can find a sustainable way of financing the costly expansion of social benefits to rural migrants, the push to make urbanization ‘people-centered’ rather than an excuse for local government prestige projects may still come to naught.”