New projects are often planned without criteria or controls. They have enriched local governments but impoverished farmers, who are forced to migrate to cities. Tens of millions of families have been deprived of their land as well as social and economic stability.
Beijing (AsiaNews/SCMP) China's rapid and incoherent urban growth has sacrificed rural interests in favour of grandiose but often practically useless projects.
Lu Dadao, an expert with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said local governments were mainly responsible for this because they often promoted uncontrolled urban development.
He said: " It took China 20 years to raise the urbanisation rate from 20 to 40% [of the total given in 2003] while the same change took the UK 120 years and the US 80 years."
Despite the low income per capita, rampant urban development has been under way for at least 20 years: luxurious government offices have been built, together with important squares in poor neighbourhoods, congress centres destined to remain unused, large universities and industrial areas. Lu said some of these projects had been built in poverty-stricken areas where they proved useless and increased pollution. Local governments, he said, did not give farmers a say in decisions how to use land; rather, they made large incomes from ceding land [to constructors or industrialists]. Local authorities have expropriated entire farmlands to give the land at a low price to builders of palaces and to industrialists. Often farmers were not even compensated. A good part of more than 87,000 protests in 2005 were caused precisely by forced land seizures and clashes between farmers on the one hand and businessmen and local governments. Official data reveals that between 1996 and 2003, farmland in China dropped by 6.67 million hectares. The central government says the eleventh five-year plan indicates that urbanization should have proceeded "gradually in due order", but "some local governments simply ignored this", said Lu.
This development has occurred with the migration of tens of millions of farmers to the city. This migration is always approved by government economists as a way to fight poverty and to encourage urban growth. In reality, a new sub-proletariat of migrant workers has been created.
"Behind the 43% urbanisation rate [as of 2005], there were more than 100 million migrant workers in urban areas but their lives are very different to those of urban residents," Mr Lu said.
Migrant workers work up to 12 hours per day for seven days a week for minimal wages, they spend all the year far from their families and they live crammed together or even sleeping at their workplace. Non resident urban families have no right to free schooling and other social services.
Other experts say Chinese urbanization is inferior to that in neighbouring countries like Japan and South Korea, that all southern and eastern Asia is undergoing rapid development and that urban development in India, Thailand and Indonesia has not been less fast.
But Lu said the process has created a social system in China that seriously risks generating poverty and future instability. Taking land from farmers "doesn't matter much when the economy is soaring. But if there is a recession, there may be serious social problems." Tens of millions of families will find themselves without work and land to cultivate.
Other experts say the new social problem could be resolved only with structural reforms that will increase public services both for agricultural populations as well as non resident citizens.