For the last several decades, the most remarkable facet of China’s urbanisation has been its unmatched speed. The country’s demographic transition from an overwhelmingly rural population to a predominantly urban citizenry got pushed with unparalleled rapidity. This was all the more surprising, since in its policies, China, till the 1970s, shared the traditional anti-urban mindset of many developing countries and had an unambiguous prejudice against urbanisation, best reflected through its hukou household registry system. However, a fundamental rethink on urbanisation seems to have been undertaken in the 1980s at the topmost level of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The strong Chinese perception about the linkages between urbanisation and economic growth led to a gradual departure from past thinking in favour of a strategy of high-speed urbanisation, aided by poor rural populations uncontrollably rushing towards cities for employment and for an escape from poverty.
With a view to achieve the country’s overall priority of pushing economic growth at every level of government, the entire edifice of urban governance was aligned to achieve that single goal. It was organised in the shape of a pyramid where power was concentrated at the top with the principal functionaries of the CCP. However, sufficient leeway was allowed at the local level so that good initiatives were not discouraged on account of rigidity. Government functionaries were assessed primarily on the benchmark of economic performance of the territory they administered. Those officials who excelled in the economic progress of their cities made rapid strides in the hierarchy of the party.
Government functionaries were assessed primarily on the benchmark of economic performance of the territory they administered. Those officials who excelled in the economic progress of their cities made rapid strides in the hierarchy of the party
The above discussed phenomenon can be better understood through a comparison between the United States, China, and India. The US took about two centuries (1800 to 2000) to reverse its population ratio from 80 percent rural and 20 percent urban to 20 percent rural and 80 percent urban. However, in China, as late as 1950, only 13 percent of the population lived in cities. India’s own urbanisation stood at 17.3 percent in 1951. Today, the World Bank estimates that China has exceeded 60 percent urbanisation while India’s urbanisation stands at around 35 percent. The stark dissimilarity in the speed of urbanisation becomes even more evident if we consider the fact that while the US took two centuries to reach 80 percent urbanisation from a base of 20 percent, India will most likely take two-and-a-half centuries and China a single century.
Rapid economic growth coupled with urbanisation at speed was also backed by an aggressive urban planning strategy. A national plan, tightly regulated by the Ministry of Land Resources, province by province, fixes an overall land use plan—the maximum quantum of land that would be put under urbanisation. This further gets broken up municipality by municipality. These stipulations set the pace of urbanisation that the country shall follow. One can notice that the early urban planning model of the Chinese was deeply inspired by the Soviet top-down urban structure that gave primacy to physicality and technical rationality and a tiered urban planning system. These features are prominently visible in the Chinese urban system.
Once the geographic and demographic dimensions of urbanisaton are determined, urban planning policies kick in. The Chinese urban planning works on a three-layered process: The regional plan designed to craft urbanisation at the provincial level; the overall plan, which is a 20-year plan for a planned area; and the detailed plan—a definite, operational plan for a city. These plans do not get drawn up in isolation. They are interlinked in a hierarchy where the lower level of planning must be in sync with the higher levels. This process is quite similar to the Indian urban planning process—RP (regional plan) for a large urbanisable area, DP (development plan) for a city and TPS (town planning schemes) for parts of a city. However, the Indian Constitution puts local government in the State list and the 12th Schedule lists urban planning as a local subject. There is, therefore, in contrast to the centralised, tightly controlled Chinese method of urban planning, no uniform, centralised urban planning envisaged in India.
The Chinese urban planning works on a three-layered process: The regional plan designed to craft urbanisation at the provincial level; the overall plan, which is a 20-year plan for a planned area; and the detailed plan—a definite, operational plan for a city
In keeping with the overall Chinese system, China has put in place certain standards for planning and construction for residences, roads, water and waste systems, electricity, gas, and other infrastructures. Local contextualisation is permitted, but these adjustments need to follow overall guidelines. China also has a set standard for urban land use per inhabitant that is determined by the national document “Standards for urban use and construction”. This is approximately 100 square metre (m2 ) per person. In actual practice, this is seen to vary from 60 to 120 m2 per person, driven by the city’s size and particularities. China also has standards for functional distribution of land, such as industrial, residential, environmental, commercial, educational, administrative, and other infrastructural functions. These then get divided into zones. Generally, residential, shopping, cultural, and educational zones are closely knit and industrial zones are peripheral. Here again, the zoning concepts used are similar to India, except that there is no central directive that is cast in stone.
In the process of urbanisation, Chinese cities have managed to avoid unemployment and poverty by creating conditions for growth in income and employment. However, urbanisation has not been without problems in China and these have led to course corrections. For instance, the hurricane growth of mega cities such as Shanghai and Beijing have raised issues of sustainability and management amongst the Chinese decision-makers. There is definitely some thinking of late that China needs to strategise afresh. One of the strategies favoured is to knit together smaller cities and towns into new city constructs, with the expectation that it will draw rural migrants away from cities already struggling with large populations. The Chinese government recently tweaked rules allowing cities with populations of less than 300,000 to confer migrant applicants with a local hukou. This incentive to migrate to smaller cities was coupled with a local hukou for mega cities such as Beijing, designed to restrict entry into the cities to only the educated, entrepreneurs, and investors. At the same time, there is evidence that China has decided to cap the populations of Beijing and Shanghai and has undertaken demolitions to address the problem of ‘Chéngshì Bìng’ (big city disease).
On the other hand, megacities that have already developed and others that are likely to fructify are being positioned to play a key role in regional trade and investment partnerships with ASEAN, the Belt & Road region, as well as other developing economies. The 14th Five-Year Plan sets out new targets for China’s urban growth. These include plans to facilitate about half of the rural migrants to settle in five super-city clusters, including the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region (Jing-Jin-Ji), the Yangtze River Delta, the mid-Yangtze River area, the Greater Bay Area, and the more recently announced Chongqing-Chengdu city cluster. Each will be designed to enable both “domestic circulation” and serve as hubs in facilitating “external circulation” between China and the global economy.
While the need for some amount of guidance and strategic planning at the central level ought to be conceded, the heavily centralised urban architecture in China has not found favour with urban thinkers. The very rigid land-use theories and large-scale zoning have also not been popular
While the need for some amount of guidance and strategic planning at the central level ought to be conceded, the heavily centralised urban architecture in China has not found favour with urban thinkers. The very rigid land-use theories and large-scale zoning have also not been popular. Critics are in favour of an increasingly mixed land-use zoning and some amount of zoning flexibility that would allow response to local developments on the ground. Urban thinkers and observers also find the Chinese model of urban planning overwhelmingly in the realm of the hard sciences that have marginalised social and environmental concerns.
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Dr. Ramanath Jha is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. He works on urbanisation — urban sustainability, urban governance and urban planning. Dr. Jha belongs ...Read More +