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26 Jan, 2014

Are global cities now too big for their own good?

By Zhang Zhouxiang

Beijing, 2014-01-25 (China Daily) – Air pollution, traffic congestion, high realty prices… one after another, the problems every resident in Beijing faces have come up for discussion at the ongoing annual meeting of the Beijing municipal people’s congress.

Actually, what Beijingers are enduring is typical urban angst, something that has been experienced by people in almost all metropolises as they have expanded. However, when looking at the problems accompanying the rise of China’s megacities attention has largely focused on the consumption of energy and resources and the environmental consequences of their rapid expansion. Yet underlying all these problems is the pressure of their ever-growing populations. Too many people are being drawn to the bigger cities in search of a better life. Beijing’s population has grown continuously from 2004 to the end of 2012, and it is now 21 million, despite the aim to control the population within 18 million by 2020.

Aside from the highly visible problems, the rapid expansion in the population of the big cities has also caused less visible problems. For example, Beijing consumes 3.6 billion cubic meters of water every year, but its supply is only 2.1 billion cu m; the capital’s annual per capita water resources are less than 100 cu m. According to the UN standard, an annual per capita water supply below 500 cu m annually is sufficient to define “absolute water scarcity”.

To address these problems in the long run it is undoubtedly necessary to control the population growth of cities and that means controlling the floating population.

If its population growth isn’t curbed, any measures introduced to address the problems the capital faces will only mitigate them, rather than solve them. Therefore, the city congress has undoubtedly done the right thing by raising the idea of controlling its population growth for the first time in the past 13 years.

How can the city’s population growth be controlled?

The attraction of the capital is partly the gleam of the bright lights, but mainly the job opportunities it offers. From 2004 to the end of 2012, industries in Beijing and the surrounding regions maintained annual double-digit growth.

The accumulation of people in and near a country’s capital is a common phenomenon, but it is particularly noticeable in China. This has its roots in China’s contemporary history, as the political capital was also established as the economic center of the country, which, combined with the intervention of the government in the economy, left many people with no choice but to rush here in search of gold. Many entrepreneurs also chose to open their factories in or near Beijing attracted by potential access to those in power.

Without moving enterprises away from the capital it will be impossible to reduce the city’s population -after all, where there are jobs there will be workers.

The concluding document of the fourth plenary session of the Communist Party of China Beijing Committee, held on Jan 12 and 13, required a list of labor-intensive, resource-consuming industries and polluting enterprises to be drawn up, and these are expected to be moved out of Beijing.

However, the government has more than once promised to move polluting companies away from Beijing, but seldom with any success. This is because industry means GDP, which in turn promises promotion for decision-making officials.

Thus the proposal to free the evaluation of officials from the GDP growth rate is promising, but it will only be effective if it is properly implemented.

The Beijing authorities are also planning to implement a residence certificate system targeted at strengthening registration of the floating population and the overall service management system for its actual population. A number of other measures, such as a crackdown on illegal shared housing and a rise in subway fares, are also on the cards to make the capital less attractive to migrant workers.

However, the fundamental solution is more even development nationwide. This means a fairer distribution of resources, as too many public resources are concentrated in Beijing. A fairer distribution of public resources throughout the country would mean the first-tier cities do not remain the magnets for those seeking jobs, or better healthcare and education.

The author is a writer with China Daily.