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Urbanization exhibits Chinese characteristics
By Han Qi (China Daily)
Updated: 2005-11-03 06:04

The progress of China's urbanization drive is inevitably interwoven with the farmer exodus. Without farmers moving to settle in the cities, the rural population will not significantly decrease and the urbanization drive will suffer setbacks.

China's urbanization process is providing a historical opportunity for the rural population to decrease. About 100 million farmers are now working in the cities.

This is in line with the law of economics that states that as a country's industrialization pushes forwards, rural labour migrates to urban areas.

An often neglected fact, however, is that farmers coming to the cities to work is starkly different in nature to the notion of the urbanization of the rural population. In China, while a large number of farmers go to the cities to work every year, many farmers-turned-workers also return to their homes.

The real meaning of urbanization is farmers settling down in cities. Their links to the land will ultimately be severed and they will become an integral part of urban communities. Only in this way can the rural population decrease, therefore increasing the urbanization rate.

Actually only a small number of farmers who move to the cities finally settle down due to various restraints.

Migrant workers await trains outside a trian station. They leave for cities in the hope to gain a better life. [newsphoto]

Some shrewd and entrepreneurial people with relatively good educational backgrounds may launch their own businesses or become high-calibre professionals and managers in various sectors. Such rural people may well settle down in the cities.

Another group of farmers in the cities have some skills or a small amount of capital that ensures they earn a relatively high income compared to ordinary industrial workers. As they can afford the basic living costs of an urban family, it is also possible they will choose to stay permanently.

They are just like first-generation migrants from developing countries moving to developed nations.

The majority of farmers working in the cities do not stay long. They generally work in the manufacturing, building, mining or catering industry. The work they engage in is often what urban residents refuse to do because it is so strenuous or badly paid.

Many farmers-turned-workers are not covered by the social security system or labour insurance. As they become older, they may lose their job and have to return to their rural home.

China's case is different to that of many other countries, where it has been easier for poor farmers to settle down in the cities although their living conditions are unbearably bad. Therefore, the majority of Chinese farmers working in urban areas are not "urbanized" although statisticians include them in the overall urban populations. They are like migratory birds flying back home during Spring Festival, a traditional time for family reunion.

We used to accuse the urban permanent residence system of blocking the free flow of farmers to the cities. Now it is clear their inability to survive and settle in the cities, where living standards are high, is the main reason for returning.

China's urbanization requires farmers to move to cities and settle down. Currently it is a mission impossible for most of them. This means China's urbanization target may not be met as planned.

The government predicted in a report it submitted to the United Nations in 1996 that by 2010 its urban population would reach 630 million and its urbanization rate would rise to 45 per cent from the current 40.5 per cent. Since there are various economic and social restraints on farmers preventing them from settling in the cities, it will be hard for China to accomplish its goal.

The cities' ability to accommodate farmers will decide how fast China's urbanization process will be. This will in turn be decided by the pace of economic growth. Once economic growth slows, the pace of urbanization will be affected.

Therefore, the rural population of China will not decrease substantially in the coming years as in other countries when they industrialized. China may take longer than expected to achieve its goal of high-level urbanization.

The short-term nature of many farmers' stays in urban areas will affect the expansion of the urban industrial product market. Farmers that leave the cities take away technology and skills.

This factor will also contribute to the widening rural-urban gap because farmers-turned-workers spend the best years of their lives contributing to the cities while they leave their unproductive years to be supported by their rural home towns.

Of course, the migration of farmers has its positive side. In other countries, urbanization has seen rural populations depleted as young labourers move out and settle in the cities. In China, this process will be very slow as farmers will continue to return to their homes after staying in the cities for a few years.

Farmers who are trained in the cities bring with them money, skills and experience gained from their periods of urban employment. They may use their assets to launch businesses or help push on their local economy. Such progress will predictably be slow, but it will happen.

Eventually, there may emerge a large number of prosperous small towns in rural areas, which will demonstrate the progress of China's urbanization process.

The author is a researcher at the School of International Trade and Economics, the University of International Business and Economics

(China Daily 11/03/2005 page4)

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