If China is to realise its urban dream, it should drop the Los Angeles model | Isabel Hilton
China's urbanisation is the biggest and fastest social movement in human history – but it involves unsustainably sprawling cities
Chairman Mao would have hated it: he believed in keeping peasants in the countryside, toiling to produce food and to finance industrial development. Now, after nearly two decades of rapid urbanisation, China's official and unofficial city dwellers outnumber its farmers and more will have to move. By 2025 the government wants 70% of its people to live in towns. To achieve this, 250 million people will have to move in the next 12 years.
Overall, China's urbanisation counts as the biggest and fastest social movement in human history, but many questions hang over a plan that is turning Chinese society on its head. Some of them revolve around money. One legacy of Mao Zedong's version of social engineering is the hukou, a permit held by every Chinese citizen that determines where he or she is domiciled. In Mao's day, the hukou tied peasants to the land. Today, it locks migrant workers into a disadvantaged underclass, allowed to work in cities but not to enjoy the right of residence that would give them access to health or education.
This system gives the cities the benefit of cheap migrant labour without any of the associated costs, but it is widely recognised as unfair and in urgent need of reform. It makes for a precarious life for migrant workers, who often leave parents and children behind on the land – their only security – while they work in town for the cash wages that farming denies them. If China's new city dwellers are to become the consuming middle classes that China needs for its next stage of development, they will need the same privileges as existing urbanites, but who will pay for the new schools and hospitals?
Most of China's local towns and cities have little in the way of tax revenue: they have financed themselves in recent decades by seizing land from the farmers – one of the main causes of social unrest in the countryside – and developing it for commercial use, financing the development with debt secured against inflated property values. The true scale of these debts is worryingly unclear, but there is little argument that further urbanisation will depend on the reform of local government finance. That will most likely result in an urban property tax, a development that the new property-owning middle classes are not likely to welcome.
This model of financing has created other problems: it has swallowed up precious farmland and created sprawling cities whose inhabitants depend on cars and buses to get around. This means long commutes for workers and rapidly climbing carbon emissions, as well as the choking pollution and congestion that bedevils most Chinese cities. Planners have neglected essential urban infrastructure and many of China's major cities lack such basics as adequate sewerage systems. The design of China's cities has become an important obstacle to the effort to contain China's soaring contribution to climate change. If China is to become the kind of sustainable society envisaged in the 12th Five Year Plan, it would be wise to stop building Chinese versions of Los Angeles and copy Copenhagen instead.
If China does reach its urbanisation target, it will be a very different society in just 12 years. Few societies have undergone such rapid upheaval without consequences and the impacts in China will extend beyond the short-term social and economic shifts. In the past five years, China's urban middle classes have been willing to take to the streets in large numbers when they feel their interests are threatened, be it by unwelcome industrial development too close to their newly acquired property, or to challenge corrupt or inept local planning.
The security forces generally deal harshly with protests in the countryside, but the government treats city dwellers with more circumspection. Their demands for clean air and safe water, and for protection against noxious chemical plants, have spilled over into complaints about lack of accountability and transparency in government and insistence on more share in decision making. At every level, the government has been forced into concessions. In some residential developments, citizens have formed democratically elected committees that begin by regulating life within the development, but often go on to make demands of their political leaders.
China's rulers can see the economic benefits of becoming an urban society. The political results may be less welcome.