Chinese Urbanization's Potentially Pacifying Power

By Feller, Gordon | The World and I, August 2005 | Go to article overview
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Chinese Urbanization's Potentially Pacifying Power

Feller, Gordon, The World and I

Like millions of their countrymen, Mr. and Mrs. Xu have come to Beijing from the countryside--but they are not on vacation or visiting family. They are economic migrants. Their journey is technically a "nonapproved activity" in a land of more than one billion people. Nonetheless, their movement faces little government interference because China's not-so-hidden secret is that in its cities, where industry is concentrated, there is a shortage of workers.

The Xus' one son, always the center of attention within the family, complains about his new school--its lack of supplies and the obligation to pay for those he uses--and worries, too, about the conditions in which his family lives. The Xus face difficulty in finding a reliable water supply and paying for electrical utilities and food. Although they had expected the crowding and poverty that greeted them when they arrived from the hinterland, they had assumed that their own dire conditions would soon improve toward a "better life." The Xus are part of China's great working class, which provides inexpensive labor that sustains the country's profound economic advances and supports the rapidly expanding middle and upper-middle classes. Though their lifestyle differs greatly from that of the Xus, these higher classes are nonetheless partners with the working class in a dramatic social and political revolution under way in the country's urban centers.

Skyscraper cities

The Chinese government knows very well that its cities are not hospitable to those in the vast majority, such as the Xus, who cannot afford to live in the sleek new skyscrapers.

While high-rise buildings continue to sprout unabated in China's major urban centers, their dramatic proliferation raises public concerns.

Many see the high-rises not only as the inevitable answer to growing urbanization and a shrinking supply of land, but as powerful symbols of growth and modernity. Critics say an unchecked building blitz destroys the landscape of historic cities; attendant problems include traffic congestion, high energy usage, and pollution, as well as vulnerability to damage from earthquakes and fires.

The building frenzy reflects real needs, as masses of people flood into the cities. Within the space of fifteen years, from 1985 to 2000, China's population increased by more than two hundred million, climbing steadily to 1.275 billion.

Of even greater significance was the dramatic population shift in that period from rural to urban areas. In just fifteen years, the number of people living in rural areas declined slightly, while the number of those living in the cities increased by 328 million. In 1985, the country's population was distributed as nearly 87 percent rural dwellers and 13 percent urban dwellers. By 2000, the comparative profile stood at 64 percent for rural and 36 percent for urban. Additionally, there is currently a "floating population" of about one hundred million (2003 estimate) who have no permanent status as urban residents but who are urban dwellers for more than half the total year.

In Beijing, a city with a history of more than three thousand years, a surprising number of skyscrapers--including the controversial 755-foot-tall China Central TV building and the third phase of the World Trade Center that is expected to reach 1,082 feet--will, in the space of just a few years, dwarf the Jingguang Center, which at 685 feet has reigned as the city's tallest building since it was built in the early 1980s. Beijing faces a dilemma common to many cities worldwide: the need to safeguard the past while continuing to build the future.

"It is not wise for Beijing to build more high-rises blindly, and the city needs to draw up regulations to limit the competitive construction of skyscrapers," noted Zhao Zhijing, a renowned urban planning expert.

While the Chinese pace of urbanization is outstanding, the fact is that the whole world wants cities.

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