A city’s problems, nationwide

The urbanization of China lends itself to jaw-dropping numbers.

In the last 30 years, 500 million people have moved to the nation’s cities — as many as the combined populations of the U.S., Britain, France and Italy. Another 300 million are projected to exchange their plows for urban life by 2030, at which point 1 in every 8 people on Earth will live in a Chinese city.

Pictures of towering skylines in cities that few outsiders have heard of — from Anshan to Zhengzhou — suggest that China’s urban future will not just be big. It will also be a model of sleek modern efficiency.

The reality is, more often than not, disappointing. Many Chinese cities are drab facsimiles of one another, beset by clogged roads, dirty air, hastily built blocks of apartments, monolithic government buildings and few green spaces.


In “China’s Urban Billion: The Story Behind the Biggest Migration in Human History,” Tom Miller, a longtime Beijing resident and journalist, takes a penetrating look at what has led China astray in its rush to urbanize and what can be done to fix the resulting problems. With Li Keqiang, the incoming premier, vowing to make this the focus of his policy agenda, it is a timely contribution to the discussion.

The stakes are huge. Much of the country’s economic growth has been driven by the building of its cities. But when the construction runs its course in about two decades’ time, there is a real risk that China will languish as a country “with pockets of extreme wealth and an educated middle class, but whose cities teem with enormous slums and suppurate with entrenched social divisions.”

Given that China was a latecomer to urban development, it had the advantage of being able to absorb lessons from all those that went before. Yet the precedent to which it conforms most closely, albeit unwittingly, is the zenith of urban sprawl and traffic jams: Los Angeles.

Instead of reaping the economic and environmental benefits of dense, mixed-use neighborhoods, China has gobbled up ever more of the countryside. Vast grids of wide boulevards cut residential districts off from places of work and bear the hallmarks of top-down planning, like some giant, manic game of SimCity.


Miller points out that the urbanization of land has far outpaced the urbanization of people. Built-up areas have more than tripled since 1980, but the urban population has grown by a much smaller 120%.

A series of policy choices underlies this wasteful pattern of development. The most problematic was a fiscal reform in 1994 that gave the central government the bulk of tax revenue while forcing local governments to cover the cost of education and healthcare.

Feeling the pinch, cities struck upon two ways of raising cash. First, they have seized rural land on the cheap and flipped it to developers for an easy profit — a model that fuels sprawl. Second, permitted to levy taxes on industrial production, they have created thousands of “economic development zones” to lure businesses and boost their revenue. But many lie underused and only exacerbate the sprawl.

The household registration system also deserves blame. By restricting the receipt of social benefits to one’s place of birth, the system deters migrants from settling permanently in cities. Often they are pushed to the margins in slums that are hidden from view, like rabbit-hutch rooms in building basements or brick shacks in nearby villages.

Miller’s cogent analysis — published by Zed Books — is buttressed by colorful reportage, a reminder of the human fabric that hangs in the balance. And — no mean feat for a book about a potentially dry topic — it is a consistently good read.

We are introduced to the foggy southwestern city of Chongqing, where “porters ferrying heavy bags up the steep stone steps wheeze past women scrubbing woks in blackened kitchens.” In Beijing we meet an elderly beggar who has been incontinent since he lost his legs and a fruit vendor with frizzy hair that marks her as a migrant: “the shaggy-dog look is not popular among locals.”

The standard view of those bearish on China’s prospects is that the country is building ghost towns and its economy will someday crash. On the ground, things are more nuanced. Miller documents how even the most extreme ghost town — the new city of Ordos, surrounded by desert sands — is slowly attracting residents.

The real concern is that when the sprawling cities fill up, they will offer a substandard quality of life that will make for a divided society and an economy that fails to deliver on its promise. China still has time to shift its policies to create happier, more productive cities. But the window is beginning to close.


The reviewer is Beijing correspondent of the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.

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