Liberated from the ‘idiocy of rural life’

Over half of China’s population – 691million people – now live in cities. It’s a mind-boggling achievement for mankind.

Patrick Hayes

Topics World

Earlier this month, a major historic landmark was reached with little fanfare. For the first time ever, the majority of the Chinese population lives in cities. This fact merited a mere sentence in a Chinese government press release. Where it was reported by Western media, it was viewed at best with indifference and at worst as a grim omen of problems ahead. So it’s about time someone sounded the horns and declared ‘three cheers for the Chinese city dwellers!’

It’s hard to overstate the pace and scale of this achievement. According to the Chinese statistics bureau, 691million people now live in cities, amounting to just over 51 per cent of the population. Compare this with 1949 when the Chinese Communist Party came to power: a mere 10 per cent of Chinese people lived in cities. Not that this marked the start of the urbanisation. Far from it. Indeed, between 1960 and 1978, China’s urbanisation rate dropped by 1.8 per cent, a result of government policy to ‘ruralise’ China, sending 16million urban students back to work in the fields. By 1980, the urban population was still less than 20 per cent.

So it is even more remarkable to think that the vast majority of the urbanisation of China has taken place since the 1990s, when the Chinese government finally accepted that it was impossible to have industrialisation without urbanisation, abandoning its policy of ‘leaving the land but not the villages, entering the factories but not cities’. According to one report, this same landmark in proportion of people living in cities took about 200 years in Britain, 100 years in the US and 50 years in Japan.

And there looks to be no let up in the speed of change any time soon. Many analysts predict that the number of people living in cities could reach 70 per cent – approximately one billion people – by just 2030. Indeed, according to The Economist, in terms of income per head, China is actually less urbanised than you might expect by comparison to other countries’ development historically. This landmark achievement of 51 per cent living in cities only brings it into line with the global average. In America, for example, 82 per cent of the population lives in cities.

Not only has change happened faster in China than anywhere else, but the scale of rural-to-urban migration is unprecedented in human history. An estimated 300million people have moved into cities in just over a couple of decades. With 691million people living in cities, China has more city dwellers than any other country on the planet, more than the second (India, with 377million) and third countries (the US, with 256million) put together.

The human implications of this are very real: over a short period of time, hundreds of millions of people have been freed from millennia of toiling on the land, farming wheat, rice and millet. They have been liberated from what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels rightly described as ‘the idiocy of rural life’, and which Engels termed the state of ‘isolation and stupor in which [humankind] has vegetated almost unchanged for thousands of years’.

Although China’s development is undeniably uneven, with these developments have come very real increases in life expectancy and dramatic decreases in infant mortality and extreme poverty. And urbanisation in China does not mean slum dwellings either: as the UN has observed, the proportion of China’s urban population living in slums fell from 37.3 per cent in 2000 to 28 per cent in 2010, representing a relative decrease of 25 per cent.

It’s revealing, then, that there has been a largely muted response to this phenomenal occurrence. Where it has been reported, it is often with an anticipation of grave problems that lie ahead. Warning that China may ‘have got old before it got rich’, The Times (London) notes that, ‘turning rural families into urban dwellers is an expensive process for the state. On the farm they grow their own food, don’t expect much in the way of schooling, are not paid a pension and have little access to expensive healthcare systems.’ The Ottawa Citizen warns that ‘rising demand for transport, energy, water, infrastructure and improved living standards is piling extra pressure on society and the environment’.

There has long been media scaremongering in the Western media about the scale of the Chinese ‘mega-cities’, notably one rumoured project entitled ‘Turn the Pearl River Delta Into One’ that was to house 46million people over a land mass twice the size of Wales. While many in the West balk at the size and scale of such infrastructural projects, these are the kind that will ensure that the dynamism that has taken place in China will continue through its development. As Daniel Ben-Ami has pointed out previously on spiked, such developments are perfectly feasible: ‘The portrayal of China as a threat to the global environment, a “green peril”, is a reflection of the West’s anxieties rather than an accurate description of contemporary Chinese society.’

The slogan of the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai was ‘Better City, Better Life’. From air pollution to the implementation of massive infrastructural projects, there is certainly much more to be done to ensure that the living conditions in Chinese cities get better. But the massive migration from rural poverty into cities is a major step towards the possibility of a better life for hundreds of millions of people. What could be a better cause for celebration?

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked. He contributed a chapter to the book The Lure of the City: From Slums to Suburbs, published in the UK by Pluto Press. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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