Op-Ed Contributors

Debate: Beijing's population

(China Daily)
Updated: 2010-10-25 07:53
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Can the capital accommodate more people, or has its population reached the optimum level? Two professors from the same university have totally different views.

Tao Ran

Don't blame population growth for all ills

The growing pressure of their migrant population and increasing traffic jams have pushed some big cities to the limits. This has made many people support the view that rapid population growth in major cities is creating more serious and perhaps unsolvable problems, such as traffic jams, and disruptions in water and power supplies.

Take Beijing for example. At the end of last year, it had a population of 19.7 million, 40 percent of which was floating. The total population and percentage of floating population, are both beyond the government's target of keeping them below 18 million and 10 percent until 2020.

To deal with the situation, many experts support the practices of Beijing's Shunyi district. The district government has implemented strict rules on small service industries like catering, massage parlors and retailing. It has set strict requirements, too, for garbage collection, realty management and housekeeping to reduce these businesses' demand for migrant workers. And its policies on employment and real estate development are tilted in favor of the local people and high-income earners.

Population pressure is not a new subject. Debates have been going on for years, but are becoming more heated, as traffic jams throw city life out of gear and water supplies are badly hit. But with the debates concentrated on whether the population in big cities should be controlled, few have paid attention to other possibilities.

To doubt that population control can solve all the problems is quite natural in a society that professes equality. We should instead know that the problems could be better solved through technical and systematical innovations, and improvement in management.

Traffic jams in Beijing are becoming perhaps one of the most serious in the world, and some experts believe that controlling the population is a feasible way of easing the problem. But it is the Beijing government that should first take the blame for road congestion.

The city government should have long ago introduced measures, such as license-plate bidding, higher parking fees and congestion fees in downtown areas, long ago to control the rising number of cars on the roads. Now as the roads get more crowded, more people are buying cars because sitting in a car is better than sitting in a bus while waiting for traffic to move during a jam. This is a vicious circle and has little connection with the growing population.

If the measures mentioned above are introduced and the public transport is improved on a priority basis, Beijing's traffic system - based on the city's well-built infrastructure - can run much efficiently.

As for water scarcity, the city's large population, no doubt, is one of the reasons for its erratic supply. But again that is not the root of the problem.

In fact, Beijing's water supply can be improved significantly if people across the economic divide adopt water-saving measures. The agriculture sector is a major consumer of water, but it is yet to introduce water-saving measures like drip irrigation, because buying low-priced water is more economical.

Incentives for using less water and punishments for using more should be introduced across the country, especially cities, to raise the awareness of individuals and industries about saving water.

It's one thing to predict the growth of population in cities or how much more people will consume in 10 or 20 years and another to think about controlling population growth.

But one thing is still worthy of discussion, that is, the reconstruction and/or improvement of suburbs, and villages close to cities. These areas, where mostly low-income migrant workers live, have been playing a positive role in the country's urbanization process. Migrant workers live in such places because they offer rental accommodation and food at prices affordable to them.

Many developing countries have raised (or are raising) their investment in these "urban villages" and low-rent areas to create more service infrastructure and strengthen police presence in order to improve people's living conditions and reduce crime.

But in China, many local governments simply tear down old and even not-so-old buildings in "urban villages" and suburbs (and even in cities). The result: low-income people find it more difficult to keep working and living in cities despite making a great contribution and sacrifices to build our metropolises.

But why have local governments performed so poorly in managing such areas? It's not difficult to answer this question.

Many local governments still concentrate on economic development, for which cities need to be built as magnificent as possible.

It's time the governments shifted their focus to the well-being of the people, especially the vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, as part of their efforts to strengthen social harmony.

Tao Ran is a professor at the China Center for Public Economics and Governance, School of Economics, Renmin University of China. These are excerpts from his interview with China Daily's He Bolin.

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