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Feeling the pinch of a growing population
By Chen Hong (China Daily)
Updated: 2005-07-23 07:13

After working in the southern boomtown of Shenzhen for seven years, electronic products dealer Yi Deqing and his wife cannot make up their minds whether or not to buy an apartment.

"We hope we can settle down here, but without a hukou (registered permanent residence), we don't feel like the city is home," said Yi.

The latest official figures show that the city is housing 10.71 million people on its less than 2,000 square kilometres of land, of whom a dominant majority, or about 9 million, belongs to a mobile population without hukou.

A great many of this 9 million are farmers-turned-labourers, who gave up growing grain in their hometowns to seek riches in this bustling metropolis, where numerous manufacturing companies have flocked from neighbouring Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and other regions and countries since the early 1980s.

The statistics show that Shenzhen's population grew at an annual pace of nearly 15 per cent from 1990 to 2000, the fastest rate of growth of all Chinese cities. While the population continued to grow, the rate of growth dipped last year to 7.2 per cent, according to the local statistics bureau.

Figures from the local post office reveal that some 16.4 billion yuan (US$1.98 billion) was remitted from Shenzhen's post offices to different locations around the country in 2000, or nearly 45 million yuan (US$5.4 million) a day.

"Normally, a mobile population can't nurture a sense of belonging in a city," said Yang Lixun, a scholar from the Shenzhen Academy of Social Sciences.

"Many of them know they will leave some time in the future. Their goal is simple and clear: to make as much money as possible and return home to a better life."

A recent survey of the migrant labourers in Shenzhen commissioned by the Ministry of Construction showed that only 3.2 per cent of the respondents had bought apartments in the city and another 14.7 per cent said they had a plan to in the next five years.

This inexpensive labour force has fuelled the dramatic development of the processing industry in the city, and markedly boosted its economy as a result.

However, the rapid population expansion has strained the city's infrastructure, putting much pressure on public service departments, especially the healthcare and education systems.

Similar problems also exist in big Chinese cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong where the economy is developing faster than other parts of the country.

Although the economy of Shenzhen has cooled down compared with some cities in East China's Yangtze River Delta area and North China's Bohai Sea economic ring, experts believe migrant labourers will continue to flow into the city.

With forecasts saying the city's population will expand by a further 3 to 5 million in the next two decades, experts are urging the government to find an efficient way to better manage a mushrooming population.

In 2000, there were 3,600 people per square kilometre in Shenzhen. Now the figure is 5,500 people.

In contrast, the population density in Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou was respectively 2,902, 881 and 975 people per square kilometre at the end of 2003.

Liu Luyu, a researcher at the Shenzhen-based China Development Institute warned that the population of Shenzhen could climb as high as 23 million if the government does nothing.

"We can't expect a city with such a big population to still be developing. People may be able to make ends meet, but a majority of them will lose the opportunity for further development," he said.

The municipal government is working on a comprehensive population policy to maintain the population at a manageable size and alleviate the huge pressures on social, economic and environmental resources.

"We will achieve the goal mainly by readjusting industrial construction and optimising the population structure," said Hong Wangquan, director of the Shenzhen Population and Family Planning Bureau.

Firstly, the bureau will set up a population macro-adjustment mechanism by launching an early-warning system.

The government will collect data from a number of departments, such as the police, the civil affairs, labour and healthcare offices, to analyse the development of the quantity and quality, movement and structure and distribution of the population, Hong explained.

It will publicize the information gathered on population and family planning twice a year starting from 2006.

The government will also relax the household registration policy to allow more migrant labourers to obtain hukou.

Yu Xiping, a representative of the local Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, suggested the government increase the number of permanent residents from the current 1.65 million to 6 million in two or three years.

However, some experts believe industrial restructuring is far more important than handing out hukou.

"It's the industrial structure that has led to the fast population expansion in Shenzhen," said Li Luoli, secretary-general of the China Development Institute.

"The great number of existing processing factories doesn't require workers to have special skills. If new companies are still engaged in processing, the population will inevitably rise in the next few years."

He said the government must take steps to upgrade the city's industry to attract more talented professionals.

"It may be achieved at the cost of gross domestic product and export growth, but in the long run, it will make Shenzhen's economic development healthier," he said.

Apart from industrial restructuring, the establishment of a government department to deal with population issues has also been highlighted.

Zheng Zizhen, director of the population research institute of the Guangdong Academy of Social Sciences, advised the government to modify the household registration system.

He's called for a fair platform for both local residents and migrants.

"Shenzhen should have its own rules. If you can abide by the rules, then stay; otherwise, you leave."

(China Daily 07/23/2005 page3)

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