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In the city, but not of the city: the myth of china'surbanization - Ipad Spare Parts Manufacturer by fdhjkl rfghjtkl

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In the city, but not of the city: the myth of china'surbanization - Ipad Spare Parts Manufacturer by
Article Posted: 03/26/2013
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In the city, but not of the city: the myth of china'surbanization - Ipad Spare Parts Manufacturer

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In the popular media and the business world, urbanization is oftenthe most cited fundamental driver of global economic growth,especially for the next few decades. The assumption is that such arural-urban shift will transform poor farmers into industrial andoffice workers, raise their incomes and create a mass consumerclass. Imagine farmers who once led simple, subsistence livesbecoming workers in the city, now residing in apartments furnishedwith appliances. Picture them as occasionally eating out, andperhaps even sending their kids to college. Not surprisingly, China has been considered the poster child forthis linear model of rural-urban shift and accompanying inexorableconsumption growth.

To the China "boomsayer," even moreimpressive consumption is yet to come: another 300-400 millionrural dwellers will be converted into city folks in the next 15years. "Prepar[e] for China"s Urban Billion,"McKinsey & Co. beckons. Think about how many millions of newapartments and how many cities like Shanghai will be needed for allthese new arrivals; how many more Ikea-like home furnishing stores?The list goes on. Indeed, China is undergoing rapid urbanization on paper, if onesimply looks at the number of people relocated.

But while its epicrural-urban shift has many trappings of what amounts tocontemporary urbanization elsewhere in the world, urbanization inChina is a more complicated phenomenon that requires anunderstanding that goes beyond the superficial one-dimensionalnarrative. Present China"s urbanism on the surface can be quitedeceiving, for statistics are often misleading (a topic on which Ihave written voluminously), and city bureaucrats excel atchoreographing window-dressing "image projects" andsequestering poverty. Most important of all, behind China"ssparkly modern urban facade, there is one crucial foundation of itsprosperity that is unique in modern times, but that continues to belargely ignored in the business literature: China remains aninstitutionalized two-tier, rural-urban divided society. This is aconsequence of the Mao era social engineering that continues tothis day.

This division not only manifests itself in economic andsocial terms, as in many Third World countries in the throes ofurban transition, but is also tightly enforced in clear de jureterms, mainly through a system of hereditary residency rights,called the hukou. The hukou system has created, on one hand, an urban class, whosemembers have basic social welfare and full citizenship; on theother is the underclass of peasants who has none of those. InMao"s era, peasants, forbidden to go into the cities, wereconfined to tilling the soil to grow food for urban workers. WithChina"s opening and participation in the global economy,peasants have been allowed to come to the city, where they arecompelled to take up low-paid factory and service jobs, many ofwhich are dirty and dangerous, while at the same time denied accessto urban welfare programs and opportunities because the greatmajority of them are not allowed to change their hukou from ruralto urban.

"Rural migrants" work and live in the city but they arenot part of the urban class – not now, and not in the future,no matter how many years and how hard they have worked in the city.This group now numbers about 160 million and continues to rise. Thefact that they are purposely held down as a massive permanentunderclass is precisely what supplies China with a huge, almostinexhaustible, pool of super-exploitable labor. Little wonder thatChina is the world"s largest – and the most"competitive" – manufacturing powerhouse! China"s rapid urban population growth trend, as representedby the blue line in the graph below, is all too familiar. However,that single-line description has left out an important point: themajority of the migrants to the city do not have urban rights.Alarmingly, the gap between the total population living in citiesand the number of those who possess urban rights has widened as thecountry moves forward. That expanding gap represents starkly the greater number of peoplewho are in the city but not of the city; they get no part in thebenefits package assumed to be associated with urbanization: betterhousing, better educational opportunities and health care.

Withmeager wages and no chance of legally settling in the urban areas,they also lack an incentive to invest in the future in the city.They will not spend on major appliances in a place that does notwant them. In fact, most migrant workers have little purchasingpower that would position them even to dream of any decent housingin the city. Lots of them remain crammed into dormitories orconsigned to the Chinese equivalent of slums, the "villagesin the city," where they must eke out their living on theurban fringes. Far from becoming the new consumer class, they form a mammothunderclass, whose size will easily swell to 300-400 millions in adecade.

That in itself is frightening and has serious implications,but, for the moment, this class has nothing to do withChina"s recent housing boom, other than by providing musclepower at building sites. When examining the notion of urbanization as the path to rapidconsumption expansion, it is clear that its relevance to China,under its current configuration of economic and legal inequities,has to be hugely discounted. There are many myths behind theperception and sustainability of China"s recent economicrise. Urbanization remains one of the biggest. Kam Wing Chan is Professor in Geography at the University ofWashington.

His research focuses on China"s migration laborand urbanization.

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