Rapid Urbanization Catching Experts' Attention

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Shenyang, a northeastern Chinese city that has experienced rapid urbanization in recent years, will eliminate the formal distinction between urban and rural residents, granting 800,000 rural dwellers urban rights over the next five years, Xinhua Net reported in early November. As China's urbanization steps into full-force, 11 pilot provinces, including Liaoning, Shandong, Fujian, and Guangdong, have initiated reforms to remove the urban-rural divide and grant rural residents equal rights to education, employment, and medical care.

China's urban population has grown rapidly since the late 1970s, surging by 21 percent between 1978 and 2002. By the end of 2002, the country boasted 660 cities and 20,600 administrative towns, with a total population of 502 million. The Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) predicts an urbanization rate of 75 percent by mid-century, and views the movement to cities as the only way to address many of China's rural problems, including the loss of croplands and rising unemployment. CAS projects that China's urban population will more than double by 2050, to 1.1 billion.

Some experts, however, have called for a precautionary approach to urban reforms, raising concerns that unplanned urbanization could lead to chaos. Most of China's large cities are ill-prepared for a rapid influx of residents, said Bian Huihong, an official with the Beijing Public Security Bureau. A major issue is whether municipal governments have the resources to invest in the education, health care, social security, and law enforcement needed to accommodate significant urban growth.

Concerns about the environmental impact of China's rapid urbanization have caught the attention of scientists as well. Researchers at the U.S.-based Georgia Institute of Technology reported in 2004 that the rapid rise in urban dwellers in southeast China has resulted in dramatic changes in land use, causing the so-called “urban heat island” effect. The direct consequence of this is an increase in local surface temperatures, which can have consequences for nearby agricultural production and other non-urban activities.

Recognizing this and other problems, China hopes to learn from the urbanization experiences of industrialized countries. At an upcoming forum on December 6, Chinese and foreign experts will exchange views on such issues as the proper pace of urbanization, the consequences for farmers who lose their land through urbanization, and scientific and practical planning in urban and rural areas.