One of the most worrisome aspects of the last couple years in China has been its overly rapid development of urban areas – the nonstop construction of skyscrapers, high-rises, highways – and the sometimes careless disregard for its environmental and social impact. At least now it seems like someone in the government is recognizing the problem, to the point of calling the current economic downturn a great opportunity to refocus on other priorities.
The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a central government think tank, released the Blue Book of Cities in China on Monday, which detailed the happenings of China’s 118 megalopolises (defined by cities housing over 1 million people).
According to Xinhua:
Compared with the 2000 figures derived from China’s fifth census, urban citizens covered by basic medical insurance had increased 93.87 million, basic pension insurance participants increased 17.53 million, unemployment insurance participants increased 7.55 million, employment injury insurance participants increased 16.37 million and maternity insurants increased 14.06 million.
Urbanization had not narrowed income gaps. According to the blue book, the urban: rural income ratio averaged about 5 in 2008 by contrast with the gap in 2000 when the ratio was 2.79, said Wei Houkai, co-editor-in-chief of the blue book.
With rapid urbanization, China was also encountering surging challenges amid the global downturn, which has had a serious impact on the economy, the book warned.
The South China Morning Post felt that under the rather gloomy statistics (GDP growth rate dropping, sharp declines in exports and industrial output, decrease in real estate development) was something more hopeful:
Shan Jingjing , a key author, said this showed that urbanization was about to enter a period of profound adjustment.
“The transformation is about replacing a quantity-first mentality with quality first,” Dr Shan said. “The transformation is about the end of the real estate development frenzy, which has been tearing down old cities and building up new ones since the late 1980s.
“The transformation is about improving a city’s functions rather than increasing its size.”
The report recommended that the government achieve sustainable development, increase investment in existing infrastructure and reducing the cost of urban living and living standards. It also asked for reform in the residential registration system, in order to grant privileges to more rural residents.
The recommendations sound very much like what the stimulus plan promised back in March, which makes us wonder if they will ever actually be more than just talk. But we’ll count it a hopeful sign that people from somewhere inside the ranks are considering an alternative to the productive but destructive path China’s gone down so far. We sometimes get the feeling that China long stopped building cities for people and our Jane Jacobs-philic hearts would love nothing more than for grandiosity to take a backseat to usefulness one day in the future.