Over the weekend, the Tianjin municipal government announced that its investment on the development of small towns will total 44.2 billion yuan this year, an increase of 35 percent over last year. This is part of China's effort to push forward its strategy of integrating urban and rural areas and expedite measures to build small cities and towns.
Urban-rural integration becomes inevitable after a country's economic development and urbanization reach a certain level, and China committed itself to it a long time ago. The basic aim of such integration is to narrow the urban-rural gap, promote harmonious economic and social development between cities and rural areas and make city and village folks share the fruits of development.
Small cities and towns have flourished across the country since the implementation of the reform and opening-up policy in 1978, and a large number of them have developed into local economic, political and cultural centers. They have not only made huge contributions to rural economic development and social progress, but also helped transform lifestyles in villages and modes of production in rural areas. They have changed rural people's outlook too.
Twenty years ago, Fei Xiaotong, a famous sociologist and anthropologist of Peking University, spearheaded a study on the development of small cities and towns. Many experts have been associated with similar studies after the late scholar's pioneering work. And the results of many of these studies have helped the authorities make building small cities and towns an important development strategy.
But critics raised doubts over the decision, saying construction of more small cities and towns would result in a huge waste of national resources and aggravate pollution. They warned that going on a blind and unrestrained town construction spree would be against the country's avowed policy of sustainable development. The unfavorable factors, however, vanished with the passage of time.
The continuous growth in farmers' income and the huge government expenditure in the countryside have laid a solid financial foundation for the development of relatively less-populated small cities and towns. In recent years, the government has launched a coordinated development program for urban and rural areas, and adopted a policy of using the country's well-developed industry and cities to help less-developed rural areas. It has also taken steps to subsidize agriculture, and thus help the countryside and farmers.
These measures have greatly improved rural life. The government expenditure in rural areas has improved the infrastructure network substantially and raised rural residents' living conditions. And the spread of urban lifestyle to the countryside has made many farmers shed their old beliefs and concepts, bringing them closer to their city counterparts. All these factors will prompt rural residents to move to nearby small cities and towns in search of a better life.
The full-fledged development of modern transport and communications technologies has created favorable conditions for the development of small cities and towns. The vastly improved transport network in most towns and villages has brought more rural people and their products closer to urban settlements. The extensive use of telephones, cell phones and TV sets, as well as computers has made farmers well informed, and more easily carry out commercial activities. Plus, rural residents would no longer feel the need to move to bigger cities to pursue a better life because of convenient transport and reduced costs of goods and logistics.
An increasing number of rural residents have also given up farming and their traditional way of life to take up non-agricultural business because of the fast pace of mechanization in the agriculture sector and expansion of urban communities.
The ever-improving mechanization and electrification in the agriculture sector, and the extensive application of advanced agricultural technologies, have increased productivity in rural areas and thus reduced the need for manual work. The result: More and more farmers are leaving their life of toil and embracing other economic activities to live a better life in cities.
On the other hand, the high-degree development in cities is prompting an increasing number of urban middle-class residents to move out of crowded downtown areas and settle in suburbs and the countryside because they want a more suitable and livable environment. And such a tendency is expected to spread across the country.
It is this contradictory demand of rural and urban residents that makes it necessary to build and develop small cities and towns because they can serve the needs of city and village folks both. And it is the small cities and towns that will now play a pivotal role in urban-rural integration and help tap the huge consumption potential in rural areas.
The author is a senior economist with the State Information Center
(China Daily 04/13/2009 page4)