China tries to promote “human-centered” urbanization with a policy ode to nature

What’s missing from China’s urbanization campaign so far: a focus on people.
What’s missing from China’s urbanization campaign so far: a focus on people.
Image: Reuters/Bobby Yip
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China’s government is waxing rhapsodic about its plans for moving another 200 million people from the countryside to the city, giving observers hope that central policy planners are rethinking their approach to managing urbanization.

Breaking away from the stiff, obscure political language  of communist party documents, officials released a report (link in Chinese) this week that included a few unusually evocative turns of phrase:

“Nature should be brought into the city. The people should be able to see the mountains, be able to see the clear waters. They should have a hometown to which their nostalgia can be anchored,” read one sentence. A Sina Weibo user remarked: (registration required), “This is the first time the government has taken on such a literary tone in their government documents. Wonderful! I like it!”

The romantic flourish could be a sign leaders are reevaluating China’s approach to urbanization—one that has accomplished the biggest mass migration in human history, but which has often run roughshod over the people affected, bullzdozing thousands of old neighborhoods to erect high-rise apartments, paving over vast tracts of farmland to make room for expressways, and forcibly uprooting millions of residents.

Urbanization is seen by the Chinese government as a way to boost worker productivity and household demand—both hallmarks of city dwellers versus their rural counterparts—while also increasing agricultural production by consolidating smaller farm plots. By 2030 over one billion people (link in Chinese), well over half of China’s total population, are expected to be city dwellers.

“What hides behind the literary aspect of this report are deep reflections on the lessons, errors, approaches and paths of China’s previous urbanizations efforts,” concluded an editorial (link in Chinese) in the newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily. The state-controlled People’s Daily (link in Chinese) gushed: “If we want high rises, we even more need the fresh mountain waters. Only by seeing the past can we grasp the future.”

Indeed, officials seem to be moving toward an approach that emphasizes persuasion rather than force. The report calls for a “human-centered” approach, according to state media agency Xinhua. That would only make sense, as government-led efforts to urbanize rural areas has generated increasing social tension over the past decade. Last year, land disputes accounted for half of the thousands of protests in rural China. In one recent case, a dispute over a plot of farmland in southern China’s Yunnan province triggered violent clashes between villagers and police, leaving dozens injured.

The document instructs: “In the process of urbanization, we should preserve the original landscape of rural areas. We should refrain from cutting down trees, filling up lakes and demolishing houses and try our best to improve people’s living conditions on the top of the original styles of historical villages.” It’s a beautiful sentiment—now the planners will just have to live up to their lofty goals.