China's urbanization was put under the spotlight after Chinese officials shared their views on the country's progress at a press conference on promoting the healthy development of urbanization held in the State Council Information Office on March 29. High-level government officials briefed the media about China's urbanization efforts while elaborating on problems within the current urban-rural two-tier system.
Li Shouxin, Director General of the Department of Development Planning of the National Development and Reform Commission, said since the government proposed to push forward urbanization, which is closely linked to modernization, industrialization and social progress, in its "Eighth Five-Year Plan" in 1991, China has made remarkable progress.
More people have moved to cities and towns, resulting in an increasing urbanization ratio. By the end of 2009, the urban population reached 622 million—46.6 percent of the Chinese people have been urbanized. The ratio is nearing the average level of a middle-income country. At present, China is still classified as a lower middle-income country by the World Bank.
Zhang Qin, Deputy Director General of the Urban-Rural Planning Department of the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, said the proportion of the urbanized population in China is expected to reach 50 percent during the "12th Five-Year Plan" (2011-2015).
Cities and towns have developed on multi-faceted levels, Li said. By the end of 2008, there were 655 cities in China. Among them, the number of super-big cities whose population exceeded 1 million totaled 122; big cities whose population was between 500,000 and 1 million were 118. The less developed western regions have also seen cities sprout up as more people relocate from villages and land jobs in city centers.
The economic strength of the cities has been on the rise. Li said in 2008, cities produced a total of 18.6 trillion yuan ($2.72 trillion) worth of GDP, accounting for 62 percent of the nation's total.
An important feature of China's urbanization effort has been the gradual elimination of managerial barriers restricting farmers, Li added. County-level cities have called off all restrictive regulations, allowing farmers to settle in the cities freely. In some big cities, the discriminative employment and education policies on migrant workers have been phased out, creating a more agreeable working and living environment. Public services dedicated to migrant workers have also been improved. Schools in cities are beginning to admit children of migrant workers and those who have landed a secured job in the city are now covered by the same basic medical care system as urban employees.
Despite these achievements, Li admitted some problems still exist in the urbanization process. He pledged more government efforts to make the city a true home for migrant workers.
The education level of China's urbanized population is relatively low. Among the 622 million, about 167 million are actually migrant workers, most of whom have not received a senior high school level education, let alone a college education. They work and live in the cities, but send money home to support their families. For them, the city is a place to make money, while the villages where they come from are their spiritual homes.
To improve the education level of migrant workers, Yin Chengji, a spokesman for the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, said the Central Government has appropriated special funds in recent years to train migrant workers.
Also, the urbanization level across the country is imbalanced, said Li. The central and western parts of China are less developed, which has widened the gap with the developed east coastal area.
And while the central and western regions are rich in natural resources, they are inefficient in terms of economic development. Eastern cities are population hubs, but suffer energy and other vital resource shortages. The ever-increasing population in east China has posed a daunting challenge to the local environment and occupies large amounts of land that would otherwise be used for farming. Farmers in the western and central regions, which are frequently visited by sandstorms and extreme natural disasters, are inclined to move to the east where the weather conditions are nicer, adding to the east's booming population.
As farmers migrate east, leaving precious farmlands idle, some villages become completely abandoned, said Leng Hongzhi, Deputy Director of Land Usage Department of the Ministry of Land and Resources. Leng said 5-15 percent of villages in central and west China are completely empty, a problem that has attracted the State Council's attention.
Leng said the government is revitalizing the old and empty villages by guaranteeing farmers' interests.