Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Monday, June 17, 2013

If it's worth doing, it's worth doing on a huge scale

The guiding ideology of the Communist elite in China has seemed to be control from the top down. Socialism has always come in second to the authoritarian impulse. Historically, that's the Chinese way (in theory).

Everything from civil society to the military is run the by a tiny elite.

Now may be the time to dust off memories of The Great Leap Forward, because China seems about to embark on another huge-scale social engineering project. It would put the elite back in charge of a process that's been going on for more than a decade: urbanization.

China’s Great Uprooting: Moving 250 Million Into Cities
China is pushing ahead with a sweeping plan to move 250 million rural residents into newly constructed towns and cities over the next dozen years…

This will decisively change the character of China, where the Communist Party insisted for decades that most peasants, even those working in cities, remain tied to their tiny plots of land to ensure political and economic stability. Now, the party has shifted priorities, mainly to find a new source of growth for a slowing economy that depends increasingly on a consuming class of city dwellers…

Farmer searching village rubble
Across China, bulldozers are leveling villages that date to long-ago dynasties. Towers now sprout skyward from dusty plains and verdant hillsides. New urban schools and hospitals offer modern services, but often at the expense of the torn-down temples and open-air theaters of the countryside…

The building frenzy is on display in places like Liaocheng, which grew up as an entrepôt for local wheat farmers in the North China Plain. It is now ringed by scores of 20-story towers housing now-landless farmers who have been thrust into city life. Many are giddy at their new lives — they received the apartments free, plus tens of thousands of dollars for their land — but others are uncertain about what they will do when the money runs out…

Top-down efforts to quickly transform entire societies have often come to grief, and urbanization has already proven one of the most wrenching changes in China’s 35 years of economic transition…

The broad trend began decades ago. In the early 1980s, about 80 percent of Chinese lived in the countryside versus 47 percent today, plus an additional 17 percent that works in cities but is classified as rural. The idea is to speed up this process and achieve an urbanized China much faster than would occur organically…

Most of the costs are borne by local governments. But they rely mostly on central government transfer payments or land sales, and without their own revenue streams they are unwilling to allow newly arrived rural residents to attend local schools or benefit from health care programs. This is reflected in the fact that China officially has a 53 percent rate of urbanization, but only about 35 percent of the population is in possession of an urban residency permit, or hukou. This is the document that permits a person to register in local schools or qualify for local medical programs.

The new blueprint to be unveiled this year is supposed to break this logjam by guaranteeing some central-government support for such programs, according to economists who advise the government. But the exact formulas are still unclear. Granting full urban benefits to 70 percent of the population by 2025 would mean doubling the rate of those in urban welfare programs...

Look for more articles to come in this series, "Leaving the Land."

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