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China’s Urbanization Plan—Sustainable Development?

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China’s Urbanization Plan—Sustainable Development?

The government plans to increase the rate of urbanization. Will it be sustainable?

China’s Urbanization Plan—Sustainable Development?
Credit: Beijing road via Hung Chung Chih /

China is planning to increase its rate of urbanization, but will this process, which is expected to increase the economic status of millions of individuals and the state itself, be sustainable? In other words, will the process encourage environmentally sound practices and enhance well-being?

China has committed to urbanizing a large part of its population through the Twelfth Five Year Plan and this has been elaborated on in the National Plan on New Urbanization. The plan aims to allow 100 million rural migrants to urban areas to obtain urban hukou, or household registration permits. In addition, more than 90 million rural residents are expected to be moved to urban areas in the next seven years. Many (but not all) rural migrants to cities will be able to access public services, including education and social security. New city clusters will be developed from existing small towns and cities, with an emphasis on concurrent industrialization and technological improvements.

The plan proposes to address ecological conservation, endeavoring to bring about environmentally sustainable development. Yet, given China’s track record in this area, analysts are rightly concerned that urbanization will lead to destruction of the environment. While China is attempting to restrict growth of megacities—a positive move in terms of containing the negative impacts of urban sprawl—intense environmental pressure will be placed on the regional city clusters that are to be developed. Rapid urbanization in recent years has, after all, resulted in an increase in consumption of fossil fuels, soil pollution, water pollution, and creation of waste. The type of development that has occurred has been far from environmentally sustainable; air in some cities is outside pollution limits set by the World Health Organization, and most of the country’s rivers are contaminated with pollutants.

What is more, although raising rural migrants’ hukou status will most likely enhance the well-being of these urban residents, it is not clear that those who are moved from rural to urban areas by the plan itself will be appropriately compensated for their land holdings. The protection of farmers’ rights is framed as something that should be reinforced but that is left up to local officials to fulfill. In the past, farmers have had their land taken from them, often with insufficient monetary compensation, for the construction of factories or infrastructure. Concern remains that farmers will continue to be shafted in the urbanization process.

Still, the larger shape of the plan is conducive to sustainable development. Discouraging mega cities, promoting growth of existing small urban clusters, preserving arable land, and allowing rural migrants access to urban services and jobs will limit urban sprawl and bolster the livelihoods of millions of existing disenfranchised residents. The World Bank has advised on and promoted China’s urbanization plan, and this is evident in the focus on humans and the environment.

The plan outline looks good, but the devil, as always, is in the details. Will the environment really be protected? Will increased urbanization lead to a larger carbon footprint for the newly urbanized residents, particularly since one goal of urbanization is to increase domestic consumption? Will local governments protect farmers’ land rights when they often have not in the past? Will there be sufficient provision of services, such as a waste and water management when these services already fall short in many regions? The promises of the plan, coupled with inability to support these same policies in many regions, gives rise to doubt over whether the urbanization plan can indeed be implemented in a sustainable way.

Further, China’s urbanization process is already underway. This has taken place in several different ways, through constructing residences on the outskirts of large cities, through building up small and medium sized cities, and through construction of new cities. Some difficulties have been encountered, in terms of attracting people to new cities and resulting in existence of “ghost towns,” or in attracting sufficient industry and employment to newly populated areas, as in Shaanxi province, where rural residents resettled in urban areas have found themselves jobless. Although the Shaanxi urbanization process has resulted in part in the creation of ecological farmland towns, it is still too soon to tell whether the impacts of urbanization will be altogether environmentally sustainable.

China faces a difficult task in increasing urbanization—essentially, some analysts view China as under-urbanized, in comparison to Western nations, while others view China as over-urbanized in its struggle to care for its vast urban population. How can these two views be compromised? Given an increase in urbanization, will the country indeed be able to implement sustainable development, as it claims it will but heretofore has been unable to achieve? Based on past performance, the likelihood of China’s urbanization process falling into the sustainable category is low, but hopes are high. We hope to be pleasantly surprised.

Follow Sara Hsu on Twitter @SaraHsuChina.