Forced urbanization in China moves from practice to policy

by Rhodri C. Williams

No half-measures to be taken in China’s peaceful rise, it seems. An astonishing New York Times piece recently reviewed the implications of a policy still not finally approved in Beijing but apparently in full swing in the provinces – according to which (wait for it) 250 million people will be forcibly urbanized over the next 12-15 years. That is more than the population of Indonesia, the fourth largest country in the world. If the policy succeeds, the world’s most populous country will have gone from being 80% rural in the early 1980s to 70% urban two generations later.

The scope of the project is almost unfathomable (enjoy the NYT video, in which nighttime images of scores of the world’s biggest cities are overflown before a 250 million headcount is racked up). As is the potential for rights violations, accretion of social ills and mayhem that could result. One observer is quoted as stating that this is program is neither less ambitious nor less risky than the disastrous Great Leap Forward in the 1960s. So why bother?

The official answer seems to be the need to complete the transition from a low wage-low skills export-driven economy to a high wage-high skills society driven by domestic consumption. All very well of course, if the said consumer base develops organically, but can it really be created from projecting yesterday’s farmers like so many cannonballs up into high-rise apartments? More worrisome, the unofficial answer may be that an existing problematic trend of official peri-urban land-grabbing can no longer be denied or stopped and so must now be officially claimed and sanctioned in order to ensure the appearance that the state controls market forces rather than vice versa.

In covering a land dispute in China in December 2011, the Wall Street Journal cited Yu Jianrong, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences on the scale of the problem and its implications for agricultural production:

Mr. Yu estimates that local officials have seized about 16.6 million acres of rural land (more than the entire state of West Virginia) since 1990, depriving farmers of about two trillion yuan ($314 billion) due to the discrepancy between the compensation they receive and the land’s real market value.

China’s Land Ministry has also warned that misappropriation of farmland has brought the country dangerously close to the so-called red line of 296 million acres of arable land that the government believes it needs to feed China’s 1.34 billion people.

As pointed out by the WSJ, as well as a more recent piece on Asian land grabbing by Joel Brinkley in Politico, the reason that this dynamic cannot be stopped is that land has become the stakes for a national pyramid scheme in which each municipal administration digs its successors into a deeper spiral of confiscation and debt:

In China, … local government officials have accrued almost $2 trillion in debt that isn’t on the national government’s books. So year after year, Xia Yeliang, an economics professor at Peking University, said in an interview, local mayors grab residents’ property, sell it to developers, use the money to make the minimum debt payments and then pocket the rest — leaving the standing debt for the next mayor, who is likely to behave the same way.

China’s illegal land seizures — usually with no compensation — are reported to have netted $482 billion in 2011 alone, the most recent year for which figures are available.

The idea that China’s leadership has been railroaded into endorsing what may be a fundamentally unsustainable socio-economic trend is bad enough. However, implications of the broader trend toward mass resettlement and social engineering in China are even more sinister in parts of China inhabited by significant minority populations, such as the Xinjiang and Tibetan autonomous regions.

In a report released yesterday, for instance, Human Rights Watch accused the Chinese authorities of relocating over two million Tibetans, as well as subjecting further thousands of nomadic herders to villageization programs, ostensibly in order to provide them with greater socio-economic security:

While the main justification for the rehousing and relocation policies in Tibetan areas have been economic, the Chinese government has also made clear that these policies are an integral part of larger political objectives such as combating ethno-national or “separatist” sentiment among Tibetans, and are designed to strengthen political control over the Tibetan rural population.

Despite their involuntary character and unequal outcomes, the central government is using rehousing and relocation policies in Tibetan areas as a template for relocating ethnic minority communities in other parts of the country. In June 2011, the central government instructed all provincial units, including Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu, and autonomous regions, including Inner-Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet, to complete all ongoing relocation programs for hundreds of thousands of nomadic herders by the end of 2014.

China is an extraordinary country with extraordinary ambitions, but one in which the top-down approach that has helped to foster so much change has also spurred protests, resistance and in some cases violence. The question now is whether the country’s leadership has bitten off more than it can chew in seeking to urbanize so many so quickly and with so little in the way of democratic consultation or accountability.

2 responses to “Forced urbanization in China moves from practice to policy

  1. Fred Richardson

    Hi Rhodri C. Williams, You write of “forced urbanization”, something I’m unaware of in China, although I spend a lot of time traveling there (half of each of the past twelve years wandering around). I followed your link to the NYTimes story, “China’s Great Uprooting”, by Ian Johnson (a careful reporter, but not one of my favorites). Was a very long article, but no mention of “forced urbanizations”, not sure how you got that from it.

    The resettlement programs in China are a complex issue. I’ve been around the edges of some the past five years, curious. Saw a big one last year in Inner Mongolia, and in 2009, spent a week and a half in a small town (14,400′ elevation!) in Qinghai on the Tibetan plateau.

    The environmental degradation I see in some nomad areas can be astounding, and that’s in areas with no mining or modern agriculture. Complex, but rapidly increasing populations seems a big part. In Tibetan areas, life expectancy has increased from the mid-thirties to the mid-sixties since 1950, and infant mortality has been reduced by a factor of ten or twenty, perhaps more. China’s “barefoot doctor” programs, beginning in the fifties and somehow continuing through the disasters of the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution, are largely responsible, as well as communication and and other infrastructure expansions… And of course, not so many of the male kids are given to the monasteries….

    By the early 2000s, most nomads in China, while still poor, had vastly more cash than they had ever had before… and with increasing population, more manpower, so they rapidly increased herd size. The overgrazing I’ve seen in some areas is almost beyond belief.

    So, with domestic and international pressure to protect endangered species and the general environment, well….

    In these relocated populations, young people I’ve talked with are mostly in favor, as they want to be in town with modern things. Older members of the families are not so certain, or may outright hate it. Money flows freely and is spent on smartphones and motorcycles. Is that wise? Of course not, but… so a lot of the cash from the settlements provided by government vanishes quickly….

    Anyway, a complex issue! And the HRW reports I’ve seen rarely deal with all of this. They seem to get most of their information from the exile communities, who, in the Tibetan case, represent approximately 2% of the Tibetan population. HRW also gets a lot of funding from the NED.

    I’d suggest you learn more about China….


    Fred Richardson
    Author of “Getting Around in China”

  2. Thanks Fred,

    Very interesting comment. To respond first to your final point, I have found that the last decade or so has been a continuous process of learning more about China. It has been quite rewarding so far and your suggestion that I continue, while not strictly necessary, is certainly not disputed. I suspect we are all strung out along a spectrum of kidding ourselves in a more or less informed fashion that we have a glimmer of an understanding of the society that will increasingly shape our lives.

    On ‘forced urbanization’, I flattered myself that I had coined the term but a quick google search disabused me of that pretty fast. Some of the more interesting links I turned up (virtually all of which related to current policies in China) are copied in below. My own use of the term was something of a pun on ‘forced evictions’, which obviously has a straightforward meaning (e.g., they are involuntary) but has also come to be a legal term of art for evictions that are undertaken in ways that violate international human rights law. The fact that many of the evictions underlying China’s rapid urbanization are ‘forced’ in this sense (as they are in many other development projects worldwide), led me to scale up the terminology to encompass the broader process of urbanization.

    Links to articles/analysis of forced urbanization in China:

    One of the interesting angles that turned up was the fact that the attempts to date by the Chinese authorities to control urban migration through the hukou system mean that much of the urbanization foreseen in the NYT piece may actually have already happened without having been officially counted:

    Another interesting piece challenged the conventional views by querying whether the new policy could actually be recast as an attempt to manage unstoppable urban migration humanely rather than an attempt to drive it from the central level:

    These viewpoints definitely challenge the ‘forced’ nature of the process. However, my sense is that we are talking about two overlapping phenomena. On one hand, there is surely massive voluntary rural-urban migration by people in search of better lives (which the hukou system has unsuccessfully attempted to discourage). On the other hand, there is undoubtedly also a pattern of turfing peri-urban farmers off their plots as part of the urban growth dynamic described in my post, which falls far more clearly into the ‘forced’ category. Granted, it has not necessarily been a matter of central policy, but many reports indicate that it has been central to local politics over the last decades.

    On the rest of your points, I certainly agree that the Chinese authorities have gotten some things right, not least the lifting of millions of people out of poverty. However, pre-supposing that the Tibetans never would have managed to make social and economic improvements themselves if they had been permitted to surely risks coming across as a bit patronizing? Similarly, is it possible to say with certainty that more responsive agrarian policies might not have helped to preempt the unsustainable situations for some pastoralists that you describe? Less drastic policy options for addressing overgrazing certainly exist than imposing sedentary lifestyles on herders. And finally, compensation offers frequently split communities. While they are a necessary complement to genuine consultative processes, they are a very poor substitute for the latter.

    As to HRW and the NED, my impression is that HRW tends to be quite conscientious in its reporting as a matter of prudence. They are telling a lot of people things they don’t want to hear and need to be as credible as possible. If the NED has managed to bend HRW to a nefarious agenda, that would be big news but pretty important to substantiate.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s