What I admire about modern social sciences is that when reality and theory do not mesh, they doubt the theory first, and then revise it to bring it in line with reality. In China, however, we try to fix reality. Take the rapid expansion of China’s urban population, for example. Rather than trying to analyze the root cause of this phenomenon, we have simply rolled out dogmatic population control policies, such as plans by top Chinese cities to cap their population at a prescribed size by 2035.
Current systems of public services in most Chinese large cities — such as transport, housing, health care, and so on — were devised according to estimates made in the late 1990s. In reality, the population far surpassed earlier plans.
Large cities’ rapid population growth is only natural in an expanding economy that needs a large labor pool. The same happened in Tokyo after World War II, when the city grew from a population of 3 million to 12 million as Japan’s postwar boom took place in earnest between the mid-1940s and the 1960s. In China, Shanghai’s economy has maintained double-digit growth for most of the past three decades, with its population expanding by 300,000 to 400,000 residents annually until 2015 — when instead of growth, its census base decreased by 150,000 people as it started to limit migrants.
The broader Tokyo metropolitan area is the combined size of Shanghai and the nearby city of Suzhou, 80 kilometers away, and almost the entire area of Japan’s capital is integrated with surrounding towns and cities thanks to a swath of interconnected urban sprawl. In comparison, there is plenty of open space between People’s Square in the center of Shanghai, Suzhou to its west, and the coastline about 70 kilometers to the east.
The reason why policymakers and city planners think that our large cities are overpopulated is because the country’s academics have failed to see the big picture. Since the start of the reform and opening-up period in the late 1970s, the government has adopted policies encouraging the growth of small- and medium-sized cities, while strictly controlling the population in large cities. Almost all these efforts have fallen short, but few attempts have been made to find out why.
The decline of China’s state-owned enterprises from the mid-1990s onward led to a wave of unemployment. At the same time, large numbers of migrant laborers began moving from China’s countryside to the cities. Concerns over the impact this would have on the job market for urban residents led to caps being placed on the number of jobs for migrant workers.
On a second note, in many cases, policymakers believed that an influx of nonlocals into large urban areas would lead to overcrowding, and so it was necessary to expel migrants in order to relieve the strain on hospitals, schools, and transport networks. In reality, the problem was that public services were in short supply — an issue that was then met with attempts to limit the demand for them.
In addition, officials tend to overlook the potential positive impacts of population growth on a city’s residents. In Shanghai, housing prices are rising, and most local residents already own their own homes, which means that any further boom in the real estate market — say, one caused by an influx of outsiders looking for accommodation — will bring about a corresponding increase in property value. In addition, elderly care for urban residents is heavily dependent on support from migrants. Nonlocals currently comprise more than half of Shanghai’s labor pool, yet these benefits are almost never brought up.
Urban residents’ attitudes toward migrants also pose a moral question. China is currently the world’s second-largest economy, and it will soon surpass the United States and move into first place. In terms of per-capita GDP, Shanghai is already a developed city. Yet our collective mentality toward migrants is not as progressive as our economic growth. A civilized city is defined not only by its high quality of living, but also by how its most disadvantaged members are treated.
Recently, new developments in the field of spatial econometrics — a longstanding subfield of economics largely concerned with the spatial distribution of areas between cities — have challenged the traditional notion that there is no connection between the way cities are laid out and how robust their economies are. By examining how best to manage housing and employment, how to allocate public services, how to facilitate commutes, and how limiting buildings’ heights affects cities' development, we can enact public policies that serve to improve the overall economic conditions of urban areas.
At present, too many public policies in China’s big cities aim to keep out poor people. But the poor are much less of a drain on urban resources than the rich: The poor don’t drive or rent large homes, and their children hardly over-run the city’s schools. China’s current economic policy, which limits access to local public services to individuals who have a residency permit, discriminates against the poor. Yet these are the very people who most need equal access to public services.
Today’s urbanites are trying to keep migrants out of their cities, even though their own forebears once migrated to cities to make their fortunes. Our ancestors were no different from today’s migrants. Yet now that our incomes have risen and we’ve benefited from access to quality education, we want to pull the ladder up behind us. This is no way to ensure the continued prosperity of our cities.
These days, cities all want to attract the best and brightest. Imagine, for example, if Madonna decided to call our city home tomorrow: Regardless of whether we like her or not, we’d probably be proud to come from a place that has attracted such a cultural icon. But how many people would care if circa-1980 Madonna moved to their city — the young, unknown Madonna who sang in bars and slept in basements? How do we know that the migrant sleeping in a basement today won’t become the world’s next Madonna?
Many economists celebrate when Chinese migrant laborers return to the countryside during economic slumps, as it allows urban areas to make more lucrative use of the newly vacated land. But policies that rely on ever-ebbing waves of temporary workers are not the solution to our urban population issues. We cannot continue to be prejudiced toward migrants. We have to welcome them into our cities and adjust our welfare schemes to serve their needs as well as our own. No country ever modernized by sending the migrants that built its cities back to their rural homes every time their host cities were tempted to do so.
China’s urban centers can help the country recover its status as a great nation by showing kindness toward the most disadvantaged among us in urban centers. We should be just as tolerant of incoming low-skilled migrant laborers as we are of high-skilled workers. Before we can change the policies, however, we must first change our attitudes. The government responds to the demands of its people; if we truly desire to end discrimination toward migrants, then it will become a lot easier to change our cities to accommodate them.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hongyong and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Residents walk past the hoarding of a construction site in Beijing, Dec. 15, 2014. Zhang Yu/VCG)