China And The Ghosts Of "Great Leap Forward" Urbanization

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Over the past decade, in terms of square kilometers constructed, Chinese cities have expanded by 270%, whereas the urban population has increased by only 27.3%. What took the Western countries a century has taken only 30 years for China to achieve.

A recent United Nations report predicted that the year 2017 will be the turning point for China’s demography. After reaching its peak that year, the population will start to drop. And yet at the same time, as a recent survey of China’s State Council showed, each major Chinese city has plans to build an average of 4.6 brand new districts, and each mid-sized city will build 1.5 of them. Put these districts together and they are capable of accommodating 3.4 billion people.

That is a staggering number. It’s more than twice China’s current population. In other words, China’s natural demographic growth lags far behind its urban expansion.

Over the past decade, in terms of square kilometers constructed, Chinese cities have expanded by 270%, whereas the urban population has increased by only 27.3%. What took the Western countries a century has taken only 30 years for China to achieve.

Such a situation occurs not only in China’s much developed coastal areas, but also in its western inland areas. Not only in the mega-cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, but also in much smaller third and fourth-tier cities. Even in the northeast, where there is a depopulation of 1.8 million per year, local authorities ignore this reality and continue to be hooked by this addictive interest in building construction.

Take Shenyang, the northeast’s largest city and an old heavy industry center, as an example. In the next three to five years, it is to build in its Economic Zone as many as 33 new towns and an inter-city transport system that can pave the way for housing three million more people. Yet nobody knows where those people are going to come from.

The mapped-out exponential growth of population, even if it’s mostly empty talk from officials, provides the condition for local authorities to obtain central government permission for grabbing arable land for construction. At the same time, the transfer of land revenue to businesses and property vendors, so as to attract investment and the building of infrastructure, brings together multiple stakeholders, including corrupt officials, and leads to a further frantic pursuit of city expansion by local government.

Cranes in the fog in Fengdu, Chongqing, central China — Photo: Leo Fung

Yet this "Great Leap Forward" style of urbanization can be disastrous.

From the perspective of system theory, the faster a place urbanizes the more likely it will fall into social disorder, with a decline in living quality, the rise of criminality and a broader moral decay. One sees that the various ills and contradictions of this country’s urbanization, with public authorities' fascination with demolition as a symbol, has completely disrupted the rhythm of market development and thrown China’s city expansion into chaos.

Urbanization should be a social-economic evolution and a process propelled naturally by the market. Alas, China has been building with a wrecking ball. This is contrary to basic economic law. We need not make sweeping denigration of urbanization, but rather denounce the "Great Leap Forward" style of urbanization that has been undertaken at the cost of many social conflicts and injustices involving tears — and even blood.

Urban development has never been a matter that can be subjectively determined by the government or by an individual. It is a gradual historical process where population, industry, resources and knowledge concentrate and evolve over time. All of these elements are indispensable to make the system work.

This is why China has to fundamentally change the way urbanization is currently carried out by force and at the lowest cost possible. The social conflicts accumulated from previous urban development are going to be replaced by even higher-cost ills in the future. If instead, authorities can curtail the aggressive approach to urbanization, perhaps the worst can be avoided.

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