Megacities and the Challenge of Urbanizing 250 Million Chinese

beijing_smog By Lily M. Hoffman

Lily M. Hoffman is an associate professor and director of the MA program in sociology at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and faculty member at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her research interests include urban redevelopment and comparative urban policy focusing on the U.S. and post-communist Eastern Europe. Hoffman, who chaired the urban and community section of the American Sociological Association and who is coeditor of Cities and Visitors: Regulating People, Markets and City Space, was invited to present her current work this fall at the 10th Annual Beijing Forum. The forum, entitled “The Harmony of Civilizations and Prosperity for All—Retrospect and Prospect,” brought together scholars, public officials, and experts from more than 40 countries. While in Beijing, Hoffman reflected on some of the many issues facing megacities:

During my week in Beijing, I experienced two relatively smog-less blue-sky days, when minimal numbers of residents wore protective masks and when the air was less acrid than usual. I was there for the 10th Beijing Forum, cosponsored by Peking University, the city of Beijing, and the Korea Foundation, and held at the Diaoyutai State Guest House, where Nixon “met” China during his historic 1972 visit.

One focus of the forum was China’s urbanization, both the profound challenges raised by China’s megacities such as Beijing and Shanghai, whose populations number more than 20 million residents, as well as the government’s national policy of rapid urbanization. China plans to move 250 million people from rural to urban locations by 2025; this means moving about 20 million farmers per year. Many of these locations will be newly constructed towns and cities that require the establishment of an infrastructure of schools, hospitals, roads, and public transportation, as well as jobs for incoming migrants.

Driving this dramatic change is China’s need for an economic transition from a model of growth based on a manufacturing-oriented export economy to one in which growth is based upon domestic demand for consumer products and services. For planners, the necessary intermediate step is the creation of  an urbanized society with 70 to 80 percent of the Chinese population owning apartments, buying furniture, eating in restaurants, and engaging in a more consumption-oriented lifestyle.

Many issues are raised by this transition process, among them: the sale of land by local authorities—a much contested process; the adjustment of residence permits (hukou) in the ongoing urbanization process; equity issues related to permit-holding residents and current in-migrants without permits and thus no access to city services; adjustment to city life by rural in-migrants; and jobs for rural in-migrants.

10th Annual Beijing Forum

Other problems are linked to the sheer density of megacities—both  those which exist and those yet to be. One example is transportation. Despite the enormous expansion of an excellent and heavily subsidized subway system in Beijing, and despite attempts to regulate automobiles, the number of autos has risen exponentially leading to gridlock traffic conditions.  I last visited Beijing and Shanghai ten years ago and saw about as many bicycles as cars. Recent reports note there are 40 percent fewer bikes in Beijing and six million cars. Last year alone Beijing added one million cars. Vehicles also add to the problem of pollution (although the major factor is the coal-based, municipal heating systems). During the week I was in Beijing, a front-page article in the English language paper China Daily noted that despite the demand for skilled positions, Chinese job candidates have increasingly begun to reject jobs in Beijing due to air quality and traffic congestion.

These issues provided the backdrop for the Beijing Forum’s panel session “Urbanization: Sustainable Planning and Diversity,” where I discussed  my recent work on cities and natural disasters under the rubric, “Why Locality Matters.” [Read the paper here.] Drawing upon case studies of New York City during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic and Hurricane Sandy in 2011, I argued that the threat of natural disasters requires more, rather than less autonomy in decision-making for the locality.  Moreover, rebuilding for redundancy and for sophisticated data retrieval is needed to enhance municipal competence, and strong social institutions are an essential part of the process. The multidisciplinary gathering of Chinese urbanists expressed interest in these conclusions given their concern with decentralization as well as ecological effects.