Urban diseases

Source: Sup China (3/26/18)
Shanghai and Beijing: China’s incredible shrinking megacities
What ailes China’s big cities, and what can be done to cure them?
By Lucas Niewenhuis

It’s a question that’s on a lot of policy makers’ minds in China, and one with incredible consequences depending on how it’s answered. The ailments of the cities — what are known as “urban diseases” (城市病 chéngshì bìng; also known as “big city disease”) in China — are familiar to major metropolises around the world, but there is substantial disagreement about how to treat them:

  • Traffic jams
  • Environmental degradation
  • Water scarcity
  • Housing scarcity
  • Employment scarcity
  • Social services scarcity

In the past year, China’s city planners have settled on a primary solution to urban diseases: capping the population of the biggest cities, even if it meant brutally evicting migrants and sending them back to their home provinces, and building new cities out of nothing that are better designed to handle high concentrations of people. Authorities essentially determined that all of the various urban diseases could be, or needed to be, treated with a single solution of redistributing the population. And so, the megacities of Shanghai and Beijing — the world’s two largest by city proper and among the top 10 by metro area — both decreased slightly in population in 2017, the Financial Times reports(paywall). The numbers, according to the Guardian:

  • Shanghai shrunk by 10,000 to 24.18 million (its cap is 25 million).
  • Beijing shaved off 20,000 residents and is now home to 21.7 million (its cap is 23 million).

Many economists disagree that this is the best approach to curing China’s urban ills. It is not uncommon to hear an economist argue in general that “population growth is needed to create wealth, and that urbanization significantly reduces humanity’s environmental impact,” according to the Guardian.

  • This is the case with Yukon Huang, the former World Bank Director for China (interviewed recently on a Sinica Podcast), who has argued for years that even China’s megacities should continue to expand, as the “largest cities are more likely to generate the kind of high-value activities that spur innovation and attract more skilled workers.”
  • Research from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in 2016 also showed that urbanization remained a primary growth engine for China, but the hukou (户口 hùkǒu; household registration) system that artificially discourages rural migrants from settling in the cities was preventing the Chinese economy from reaping the full benefits of urbanization.
  • “China’s urbanization ratio is at least 10% lower at this point than other countries at a comparable level,” Lu Ming, a professor of economics at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, who co-authored the ADB report, said, according to the China Economic Review.
  • The population cap in Beijing “will have a negative effect on the city’s development in the long run. It worsens the aging population, leads to a low supply of workers in certain sectors and raises living costs,” Hu Xingdou, an economics professor in Beijing, told the FT (paywall).
  • “Population is not the root of this ‘urban disease’; it’s due to poor management of the cities, and poor urban structures that causes a lot of unnecessary, chaotic commuting, traffic congestion and overcrowding,” Dr. Yan Song, director of the University of North Carolina’s program on Chinese cities, told the Guardian.

At the same time, other observers “fear cities are becoming ungovernable — too unwieldy to adapt to rising temperatures and sea levels, and prone to pollution, water shortages and ill health,” the Guardian says.

  • Indeed, environmental issues are cited prominently by authorities when talking about “urban diseases.”
  • Water scarcity is native to Beijing and much of northern China, a problem that theSouth–North Water Transfer Project has sought to address. But the likelihood of a Chinese city facing a Cape Town–style water crisis in the coming decades continues to increase, particularly as water pollution worsens.
  • The fight against smog has really just begun (and continues to hit setbacks), and limiting the number of people in a city is a straightforward way to address pollution-causing traffic jams.
  • A striking graphic on sea level rise, in the New York Times, shows (paywall) how “76 percent of the Shanghai region’s current population lives in areas that would eventually be underwater if the Earth warms by 4°C by 2100.”

The obvious, immediate effect of current policies, however, is that they are exacerbating inequality. As the Financial Times noted, the migrants being kicked out from Beijing provided vital services to the middle class as taxi drivers, delivery people, cleaners, and nannies — and their absence will mean that those services are substantially less affordable over time.

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