Underclass fears as workers flock to cities

The Liberation Monument at Jiefangbei Square in Chongqing. Miller says glistening skylines reflect the enormous wealth in Chongqing, but also mask the poverty of migrant workers. PHOTOGRAPH: WALTER BIBIKOW

The Liberation Monument at Jiefangbei Square in Chongqing. Miller says glistening skylines reflect the enormous wealth in Chongqing, but also mask the poverty of migrant workers. PHOTOGRAPH: WALTER BIBIKOW

Tue, Feb 5, 2013, 00:00

A lively and eminently readable new book about China’s staggering process of urbanisation provides an excellent companion volume to the greatest social transformation the Earth has witnessed – the making of China’s cities.

In the past three decades or so, China’s cities have expanded by nearly 500 million people, which is the equivalent of adding the populations of the US, Britain, France and Italy. It’s not over yet either.

By 2030, China’s urban population will have ballooned to one billion and its cities will be home to one in every eight people on the planet. Construction of these cities has been the driver behind much economic growth, and the government is keen for this to continue in the future.

Li Keqiang, who will be installed as premier at the National People’s Congress in March, has said on many occasions that urbanisation must continue. “But policymakers are playing a high-risk game: forced urbanisation could dramatically improve millions of lives – or vastly swell the ranks of the urban poor,” writes Tom Miller, a journalist and long-time Beijing resident, in China’s Urban Billion.

Social stratification

Chongqing is often called the world’s biggest city, which is misleading because the city component is relatively small; it is a province, about the size of Scotland.

Miller says the glistening skylines reflect the enormous wealth in Chongqing, but also mask the poverty of millions of rural migrant workers on building sites.

Social stratification is increasing and without reform of the hukou system of household registration, migrants are deterred from settling in cities and a two-tier society is emerging.

This high-stakes gamble is one that the rest of the world will have to watch from the sidelines. The recent bout of appalling pollution in some of China’s biggest cities showed that the environmental cost of urbanisation is considerable.

“If China gets urbanisation right, it will surpass the United States and cement its position as the world’s largest economy. But if it turns sour, the world’s most populous country could easily become home to the world’s largest urban underclass. That would be a disaster,” he writes.

China’s Urban Billion: The Story Behind the biggest Migration in Human History, by Tom Miller, Zed Books