The 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) approved early this month at the annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC), sets the growth rate for urbanization at a moderate 4 percent by 2015. The goal is to enable 51.5 percent of the Chinese population to make their homes in cities by that time.
Under the same plan, regions are also to be set aside for agricultural development and for conservation. Thirty-eight large and medium-sized cities are designated for further expansion and will be consolidated into 21 urban centers.
While covering the group discussions among the NPC deputies, I detected some uneasiness among local officials. Many asked for clarification of the different development zones.
Clearly these officials are eager to have their areas jump on the urbanization bandwagon rather than being designated for conservation or agricultural development.
They see urbanization as the fast track to attract investment, accumulate wealth, generate new jobs, boost consumption, and above all drive up GDP. Their view echoes the remarks of economist Zheng Xinli, who noted two years ago that the 14 percent expansion of China's urban areas between 1997 and 2007 was largely responsible for the nation's extraordinary economic development.
Some scholars who favor faster growth point out that the rate of urbanization in some developed nations has exceeded 80 percent.
The passion for bigger cities must be restrained. China cannot afford to blindly follow the model of developed (and some emerging) economies.
We are all painfully aware of the problems caused by rapid expansion, including housing shortages, traffic jams, pollution, and poverty.
In tackling these problems, city managers already face difficult issues, such as the conflict between preserving the old and building the new. In Nanjing, for example, city officials launched ambitious projects to build subways and widen the old city streets. In the process, hundreds of trees - including many poplar trees up to 90 years old -were cut down or relocated.
It was just too much for Nanjing residents. Eventually, more than 7,000 people rallied to demand that the city reconsider its plan, and just this week the city government agreed.
According to a World Bank report released last December, cities use as much as 80 percent of the world's energy and are responsible for about 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Without a clear road map for low-carbon development, Chinese cities will become an even larger source of energy guzzlers and CO2 emitters.
Above all, we must remember that rapid urbanization without careful management will rapidly deplete natural resources - particularly land and water - of which China has far less than most countries, on a per capita basis.
For example, China's water supply per capita is only one-fourth of the world average; we have less than one-third of the world average of farmland.
We must prevent officials from pushing for another "Great Leap Forward" in their drive to urbanize.
What the country should work for, as spelled out in the 12th Five-Year Plan, is a balance between rural and urban development, between growth and energy efficiency, between modernization and conservation of natural resources.
Only balanced development will enable us to achieve our goal of improving the lives of all Chinese citizens.
The author is assistant editor-in-chief of China Daily. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org