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Xi’s ‘Urban Dream’: A Dream for All?

Image credit: Shizhao (Creative Commons: Wikicommons)

China’s position as the world’s second-largest economy is due in no small part to the state’s ability to replace their once agrarian based system with a new ‘Urban Dream’. This dream, which aims to have 60 per cent of the population living in urban environments by 2020, is a blunt articulation of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) intention to increase the city-based population to create greater rates of consumption. But as the effects of this dream begin to take shape, it’s clear that the costs of the government’s audacious objectives are felt most by those still finding their feet in the metropolis based society.

It’s no wonder that the Chinese state is looking to harness the economic potential of its population. With over 700 million of the state’s 1.4 billion residents already residing in cities, the state’s economic success in the last few decades can be closely tied to its relatively new-found market economy, which has both encouraged and at times demanded the movement of individuals to urban areas. However, with economic growth rates slowing to 6.9 per cent in 2015, the slowest in 25 years, it appears the miracle has all but come to an end, forcing the Chinese government to look beyond its import/export-dominated economy for new avenues of economic production.

It appears it did not have to look far, as the state focused on its urban potential by announcing the National New-Type Urbanisation Plan in 2014, which outlines the objective of an additional 300 million urban residents. The movement of these once rural individuals to urban dwellings is of the utmost importance according to Premier Li Keqiang, who surmises that for every person that moves to a city, a further 10,000 RMB will be contributed to the state’s economy.

But the human impact of these shifts from rural-to-urban settings are often overshadowed by the positive implications such movements have on the economy. There are some, however, that focus their attention specifically on this human impact.

Dr Brooke Wilmsen, a member of the International Network on Displacement and Resettlement, has thoroughly researched the long-term effects of state-sponsored rural-to-urban resettlement in relation to the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. The Dam marked a key turning point for the state’s policy regarding resettlement, where previously individuals were compensated on a land-for-land basis, they were now forced to relocate into neighbouring cities. The dam now stands as the largest hydroelectric plant in the world, stretching some 600km, inundating over 1,000 villages, and displacing 1.3 million people.

Wilmsen’s research used a longitudinal livelihood survey to gather key information such as changes in income, food security and access to employment over a nine-year period. Wilmsen found that half of the rural-to-urban households surveyed reported not having enough food because of their resettlement, citing lack of compensation, and poor access to urban employment as key factors for this economic hardship.

“Even over the long term, the disadvantages of under-compensation were not fully offset by the benefits of living in an urban environment.”

Whilst Wilmsen recommends amendments to the formula which defines and distributes compensation for those forced into resettlement in modern China, there are social factors that cannot be addressed with such simple calculation. For instance, although both urban-to-urban and rural-to-urban migrants were exposed to the same job markets, Wilmsen’s survey found that far more ex-rural individuals listed ‘lack of jobs’ as the major reason for unemployment.

This statistic hints at a cultural barrier for newly urbanized citizens, whereby their lack of experience in urban industry, or even a social prejudice, is the defining factor in their potential employability.

Whilst the Chinese government goes about sculpting this gargantuan domestic policy on a national scale, it’s the crucial work of devoted professionals such as Dr Wilmsen that reminds us to question the forces of progress. For without proper consideration, the damning impacts of endeavours such as China’s ‘Urban Dream’ may go unnoticed.

Oliver Martin Lees is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs

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