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Books: urbanisation with Chinese characteristics

Sun Jiuwen

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Urban Development in China: 30 Years explores the country’s rapid development and explores a new way of growing cities. The current path, says Sun Jiuwen, cannot resolve the loss of rural-urban balance.

Urban Development in China: 30 Years (1978-2008)
Niu Fengrui, Pan Jiahua and Liu Zhiyan (editors)
Social Sciences Academic Press, 2009

China is the midst of fierce social and economic transformation, which is characterised by urbanisation. The last three decades of reform and opening up have seen our cities emerge from long-standing stagnation and begin quick development. In particular, the last few years have seen urbanisation proceed at speeds rarely seen anywhere.

And so we are delighted to see the publication of Urban Development in China: 30 Years -- edited by professors Niu Fengrui, Pan Jiahua and Liu Zhiyan -- which takes a scientific look at these three decades of urbanisation.

The book aims to explain the nature of “urbanisation with Chinese characteristics”. Niu and the other contributors divide the past thirty years of urbanisation into four stages and summarise the features of each of those periods.

Following that division, I believe that the increase in urbanisation in the early years of reform and opening up was part of a recovery after the Cultural Revolution. Late 1980s and early 1990s urbanisation was in step with normal industrial growth. In 1997, the Asian economic crisis made it apparent that low levels of urbanisation were holding back domestic demand -- a sticking point for economic growth and operation -- and urbanisation arrived on government agendas. In 2000, the Communist Party set the aim of active but careful urbanisation. Financial policy and the issue of government bonds were used to fund massive infrastructure construction to drive domestic demand and promote urbanisation.

How should we evaluate those thirty years? The questions the book raises – are we lagging behind, at the cutting edge, or advancing too quickly? – are worthy of consideration. The conclusion that China will not fall into the “Latin American trap” is fact-based and realistic.

A considerable section of the book is devoted to an insightful discussion of the current state of urbanisation in China and the issues it presents. At this point, I’d like to talk about my own views. I believe that urbanisation has solved three problems:

First, it has brought urbanisation up to speed with industrialisation. This view may differ from that of some academics. During the early years of reform, it was accepted that urbanisation lagged behind. Industrialisation is a prerequisite for urbanisation, while urbanisation itself arises from industrialisation. The two promote each other, jointly determining the pace of social and economic development. And after thirty years of reform, new industries are again promoting urbanisation, which is continually increasing. I believe that urbanisation and industrialisation are now in step.

Secondly, it has provided space for economic growth. Cities are home to the bulk of the economy, where factors of production gather. Economic infrastructure – transportation, communications, finance, technology, information and services – all are centred on cities.

Third, urbanisation has greatly increased quality of living. Increased urbanisation promotes economic growth. It improves market systems and allocation of resources. Effects of agglomeration and scale provide an environment ideal for technological advances and propagation. Industrial structures are upgraded, and investment and consumption increases internal demand, thus promoting sustained economic growth, employment and an improved quality of life.

But there are problems arising from urbanisation that cannot be ignored.

The gap between urban and rural incomes has long been widening. The ratio between per-capita disposable income for urban residents and per-capita net income for rural residents was 2.47:1 in 1997. By 2007, it was 3.33:1. Land has been urbanised more quickly that the population, worsening the urban-rural division and creating large numbers of landless rural residents; they are a vulnerable group lacking the urban household registration documents that would entitle them to services such as social welfare, education and health care. Meanwhile, water supplies, energy sources and the environment are becoming more severe limiting factors, with some cities already at their carrying capacity.

So I do not believe that our current mode of urbanisation can resolve the loss of rural-urban balance. The task now is to find a new, Chinese, mode of urbanisation.

The book experiments with doing just that: proposing a new way of growing our cities. The features of Niu’s proposal provide a starting point for further research into urban issues. He holds that urbanisation should be concentrated and varied, combining both government leadership and a market foundation, planning for both urban and rural development. Meanwhile, Pan stresses concern for the environment – an “environmental mode” of urban growth. Liu analyses the spatial layout of cities -- a “spatial mode”.

The other articles have their own highlights. Li Xuefeng investigates relationships within clusters of cities, using quantitative analysis to examine some long-standing controversies. Research by Fu Xiaodong on urban economic reform, Gu Chaolin on urban development zones, Wang Kai on reform in urban planning and Li Siping on reform in urban land systems provide their own viewpoints, or sound strident calls for change. All provide the reader with information on urban development and policy research. Finally, much is added by an incisive conclusion by Professor Mao Qizhi of Tsinghua University. 


Sun Jiuwen is a professor at Remin University’s Institute of Regional and Urban Economic Research.

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小的还是美好的

1974年的时候英国籍的德国人舒马赫出版了一本小书《小的是美好的》,过了30多年我们中国引进来了。说到我们中国的城市化,我觉得这本书作了绝佳的预言,看了后你简直就浑身起鸡皮疙瘩。关于土地的使用,书中说(不是原文)“我们从一个国家对土地的使用情况,可以比较有把握的了解它的未来”。土地是我们人类生存的基础,我们最应该保护它。
现在城市里道路的面积超不多占了整个面积的一半,也没有看到交通改善的迹象。再宽的马路也解决不了上下班的拥堵,这实在是个严重的问题。去了香港,我才知道不是说马路一定要多宽才可以解决交通问题的,也不是说我们马路上的自行车太多才造成交通现在的样子的。我们自己已经太习惯了我们自己造就的城市,除了得到各现代的名,并没有舒适,人性化的实。地上的高楼大厦掩盖不了地下的肮脏和混乱,现在谁还在乎说你有什么多高的楼啊?

Small is still beautiful in our time

In 1974 German economist EF. Schumacher, who had become a British citizen by then, wrote a book called “Small Is Beautiful”. 30 years later the book is finally introduced into China. Speaking of China’s urbanization, I have a feeling that it is a materialization of the author’s prophecy, with an appalling degree of accuracy and exactness. Concerning the use of crop land, the book argued that “we can predict a country’s future by the way its soil is used”. Land is the foundation of human survival. We should make its preservation our top priority. Now in most cities of China the whole area of roads amounts to nearly half the total city area, yet no sign of improvement can be seen in respect to urban transportation. Building wider roads is no solution to the problem of peak hour congestion. After a trip to Hong Kong, I realized that the width of roads isn’t the key to traffic jam, neither is the number of bicycles on road. We have become hugely accustomed to cities of our own making, but we fail to get any comfort from our efforts except for the façade of urbanization. The glitzy skyscrapers cannot cover up the filth and chaos on the ground. Who cares about those concrete monsters any more? (translated by Yang bin)


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