Urbanization: A tale of two Chinese cities

I was struck to see on the same day two articles in two publications each covering the progress (or lack thereof) of two Chinese cities both undergoing massive urbanization projects. What was striking was the huge difference between the two cities’ approaches. One article appears in the NY Times and covers the sad fate of migrant workers being all but forced to move into the township of Huaming located on the outskirts of Tianjin. The second, in the Wall Street Journal, tells a far more optimistic and upbeat story about how urbanization seems to be working in the city of Tongling in Anhui province.

Urbanization, of course, is one of the crown jewels in China’s plan to stimulate the economy and help relieve rural poverty, moving more and more farmers off their farms into cities where they can, ideally, find better jobs and hopefully begin their entrance into China’s middle class, thus helping spur domestic consumption. Easier said than done.

The Times’ story is nothing less than tragic. While Huaming at first glance appears attractive with rows of apartment houses and tree-lined streets and public schools, the story behind the scene is dire. Shoddy construction makes living in these apartments a grueling experience, and promises to retrain the new inhabitants, fresh from their farms, so they can find work have all been broken. These farmers were offered extravagant promises by the government of a transformed life with new jobs and housing and opportunity, but the article’s author, the great China Hand Ian Johnson, writes:

Today, Huaming may be an example of another transformation: the ghettoization of China’s new towns.

Signs of social dysfunction abound. Young people, who while away their days in Internet cafes or pool halls, say that only a small fraction of them have jobs. The elderly are forced to take menial work to make ends meet. Neighborhood and family structures have been damaged.

Most worrying are the suicides, which local residents say have become an all-too-familiar sign of despair….

But the new homes have cracked walls, leaking windows and elevators with rusted out floors. For farmers who were asked to surrender their ancestral lands for an apartment, the deterioration adds to a sense of having been cheated.

“That was their land,” said Wei Ying, a 35-year-old unemployed woman whose parents live in a poorly built unit. “You have to understand how they feel in their heart.”

The sense of despair and alienation surfaces in the suicides, a late-night leap from a balcony, drinking of pesticide or lying down on railroad tracks.

The plan is for hundreds of millions of China’s rural poor across the country to be moved into cities like Huaming. But is China really prepared to take this leap, and can they possibly succeed in giving these farmers a better life? The answer seems to be a resounding no — at least in certain instances.

But then there is the WSJ’s stunningly different story about Tongling in Anhui Province. The farmers, importantly, are still allowed to keep their land, and in every way it sounds like the local government is making the shift from rural to urban as smooth as possible for the new arrivals. There is, however, one huge difference: Tongling is a copper mining town and constantly needs new workers.

So it is doing what many places in China are unwilling to do. It is inviting migrants and their families to settle, giving them the same rights to education, health care and housing as locals, and even letting émigrés from China’s villages retain their exemption from China’s notorious one-child policy, so they can have a second child.

he approach shows signs of working. Tongling’s population is growing, while overall Anhui province’s is falling, and the local economy is getting a small boost. “Farmers are leaving their land and coming to work in the city’s factories,” says Chen Lei, a manager at the Tongling subsidiary of Hailiang Group, which makes copper tubes and plans to more than double its workforce of 280 in the next three years. “We’re seeing that now.”

This enlightened approach even includes reforming the hukou system so the once-rural residents receive the benefits of an urban hukou, including free education, public housing and health insurance. Everything in this article is positive. It is proof that under certain circumstances China’s monumental effort to urbanize its rural poor can work. But the story of Tongling is the exact opposite of what is happening in Huaming, its thirst for urban factory workers making what seems to be all the difference.

Reading the story of Huaming it sounds like it is already a lost cause. Can China learn from tragedies like this, while also learning a lesson from what’s happening in Tongling? I understand there is a bit of apples and oranges to this comparison; Tongling can actually offer the new arrivals a future. Without such an offer, the mass movements into the cities are most likely doomed to fail. If urbanization is going to work there absolutely must be jobs available or these new cities will indeed become ghettos of hopelessness, broken promises and shattered dreams. You can’t just take their land away and leave them to rot in crowded apartments that are falling apart.

Read the two articles. They offer a very thought-provoking contrast.