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An outline that can make a big difference

Updated: 2013-12-30 07:45
By Fu Jing ( China Daily)

On Dec 14, China's leadership indicated that one of its New Year's resolutions would be to press ahead with the long-awaited urbanization strategy that among other things calls for cities and towns to be immersed in nature, "and their residents should easily see water and mountains, and remember the relics of nostalgia".

In the coming decade, the strategy, although still awaiting final touches before being made public, is expected to help realize the urban dreams of about 300 million Chinese migrants and farmers who will move to cities and townships to keep the country's economy booming.

It is another essential step following the reform agenda set by the leadership last month.

Based on my experience of spotting news clues by combing through official documents, I found this outline to be among the most touching and relevant papers issued by the leadership so far. My opinion has also been echoed by numerous micro-bloggers, who have commented on the importance placed on people's welfare in the plan.

In designing an overarching urbanization strategy, the leadership has taken a very cautious approach because the continuation of urbanization is a battle that China cannot afford to lose.

The striking point in the outline is that the leadership has realized the importance of the human side of urbanization, which for most means a better life and good career opportunities.

It also includes the sound policies of offering environmental and ecological benefits and protecting places and buildings of natural and historic importance.

The leadership is also introducing more inclusive approaches for migrant workers and farmers by relaxing the household registration system and offering them equal rights to public services such as healthcare and education.

All this is in contrast to the government's old urbanization guidelines, which relied on real estate development and the auto industry to keep the country's economy growing at double-digit speed but which resulted in environmental devastation and large groups of landless farmers.

I believe the Chinese government is on the right track in formulating new directions in urban expansion. I hope once the detailed programs are made public, they will be even more encouraging.

But no matter how rosy the overarching strategy looks, it will still be tough to implement.

A grand strategy needs innovative methods to be delivered effectively. China should spend at least six months training its officials and urban planners in how to digest these new ideas.

After living in Brussels for a few years and traveling from city to city in Europe, I would say that if China wants to make its urbanization agenda a success, it should learn from the experiences of Europe.

Europe provides many excellent examples of how to offer welfare benefits and protect surroundings and heritage in urban expansion projects. These examples offer valuable case studies in green urban construction.

China faces huge challenges in improving its ecology and reducing its carbon emissions. It has no choice but to do an even better job than Europeans have done in the past.

China should also bear in mind that living costs should be kept at a reasonable level for urban residents. For a long time, the eurozone has had a generally good record with its inflation rate, at about 2 percent, while China's usually suffers fluctuations.

China should also learn how European urban planners involve residents in decision-making. This is a two-sided story in that in some European cities some projects could not be started because public opinion was divided and there was no way to end the stalemate.

Chinese authorities can also learn from Europe how essential the public transport system is to a city. In many Chinese cities where the population will exceed 500,000 or 1 million by 2020, there are no plans to build a metro.

If they only realize their importance in five or 10 years, it will be much harder to build such rail networks in what will have become densely populated areas.

In many European cities, the unemployment rate is very high, with nearly one out of four young people unable to find a job.

This is partly because jobs have shifted to other continents as European businesses have expanded overseas. So China's urban expansion should come hand-in-hand with industrial upgrades that will create jobs for the residents. This will be a demanding but important task.

Studying the European experience makes it easy for us to see the mistakes China has made in recent decades of rapid urbanization.

The author is chief correspondent of China Daily based in Brussels.