Building the dream
By 2030 Chinese cities will be home to about 1 billion people. Getting urban China to work properly is vital to the country’s economic and political future, says James Miles
Apr 19th 2014 | From the print edition
SOME HISTORIANS BELIEVE that Marco Polo never went to China. But even if the 13th-century Venetian merchant did not lay eyes on the coastal city of Hangzhou himself, he certainly reflected the awe it inspired in other foreign traders when he described it as “beyond dispute the finest and the noblest in the world”. And, “incredible as it may seem”, he wrote, Hangzhou (which he called Kinsay) was but one of more than 1,200 “great and
wealthy cities” in southern China. “Everything appertaining to this city is on so vast a scale
that it is not easy even to put it in writing.”
In Marco Polo’s day it was the ornate palaces, paved roads and meticulously planned layouts of Chinese cities that impressed visitors; in today’s megacities it is some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers and largest shopping malls, interlinked by the world’s longest bullet-train network. And if all goes according to the Communist Party’s plan, the coming two decades will evoke a few more gasps.
By 2020 the high-speed rail network will expand by nearly two-thirds, with the addition of another 7,000km (4,300 miles). By then almost every city with a population of half a million or more will be connected to it. Tens of millions more migrants will have poured in from the countryside. Between now and 2030, says the World Bank, the average rise in the number of city-dwellers each year is likely to be around 13m, roughly the population of Tokyo. In 2030 China’s cities will be home to close to 1 billion people, or about 70% of the population, compared with 54% today. By some estimates the urban population will peak around 2040, still just shy of the 1 billion mark but close enough. As James McGregor, an American businessman, put it in his book, “One Billion Customers”, published in 2005, the notion of a billion Chinese spenders has come to symbolise “the dream of staggering profits for those who get here first, the hype and hope that has mesmerised foreign merchants and traders for centuries”.
After taking over as party chief in 2012, Xi Jinping (now also president) launched his expected decade in power with a catchphrase: “The Chinese dream”. It was a striking
break from the party’s tradition of ideology-laden slogans. Now endlessly invoked in
official speeches and the subject of numerous books and songs, the phrase is clearly intended to appeal to upwardly mobile urban residents striving for the comforts of their rich-world counterparts.
Only 15 years ago such a middle class barely existed in China. In 2011, when the country reached 50% urbanisation, it had become obvious that the party’s fate rested with the stability of cities and the contentedness of their middle-class residents. The largely rural country that Deng Xiaoping (himself of peasant stock) set out to “reform and open up” in the late 1970s had become overwhelmingly urban in its economic and political focus. Thanks mainly to a tide of migration, China’s urban population had grown by more than 500m since Deng launched his reforms: the equivalent of all the people in the United States plus three Britains.
Li Keqiang, who took over as prime minister in 2013, sees further urbanisation as critical to China’s economic success. He has called it a “gigantic engine” for growth. Mr Li and
other officials are fond of quoting Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel prize-winning American economist, who said that technological innovation in America and urbanisation in China would be “two keys” to mankind’s development in the 21st century.
A new grand plan for China’s cities, overseen by the prime minister and published last month, admits to a number of problems, such as worsening pollution, urban sprawl and congestion as well as growing social tensions. It also points out that China’s urbanisation
lags behind that of other countries at similar levels of development (typically around 60%), and that there remains “quite a lot of room” for further urban growth.