China's urban revolution Rapid growth of cities poses ramifications for rest of world

June 02, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

XINJI, China -- Most towns in China announce themselves with a simple sign, or with an old-style archway over the road. But visitors to Xinji, a city of 130,000 people, are greeted with something more in keeping with its booming ambitions: a small version of the Eiffel Tower.

And why not? Just 15 years ago, Xinji (pronounced SHIN-gee) was a country town of 35,000, notable only for having the region's biggest farmers' market. Now, it is an emblem of the unprecedented migration of hundreds of millions of peasants from the countryside to the city, urbanization that is changing China and will affect the rest of the world.

As China's cities grow, they are eating up farmland -- and causing China's leaders to worry that the country will be unable to feed itself.

And as farmers turn into factory workers, the world's environment is being tested as never before.

The most frightening aspect for central planners in Beijing is the loss of agricultural land. China already faces the task of feeding 22 percent of the world's population on just 7 percent of its arable land. Yet government statistics show that since the mid-1980s, when urbanization began, China has been losing 500,000 acres of farmland a year.

In response, the government announced last week that cities with more than 1 million people should stop taking land now used for agriculture. It also reminded local officials that cities of 500,000 residents -- a size Xinji will reach early next century -- must have their urban plans approved by Beijing.

Such issues have put urbanization near the top of the world's agenda. A United Nations conference opens tomorrow in Istanbul on the global trend that by the end of the century will see 3.1 billion people living in cities. With the total world population expected to reach 6.1 billion, it will mark the first time in human history that city dwellers will be a majority.

Catching the peasants

China's major cities would seem prime candidates for out-of-control urbanization: China has one-fifth the world's population. Its economy is growing rapidly. After decades of tight authoritarian control that tied peasants to the land, more than 100 million people are on the move in search of better jobs -- mostly in the cities.

Yet for all their problems, Beijing, Shanghai and other major cities have largely avoided explosive growth and slums. How?

One reason is cities such as Xinji: They are being developed to catch the peasants before they travel farther.

"We are creating lots of small cities all over the country," says Xinji's vice mayor, Liu Cunzhu. "Not everyone in America lives in New York. Not all farmers can live in one city."

Indeed, China's planners are allowing towns and villages to become cities at a dramatic rate -- from 467 in 1990 to 640 today. By 2000, the number will be 800.

Influence of a city

Becoming a city requires permission from central planners; it is not something that can happen by accident. And status as a city -- "shi" in Chinese -- gives local leaders more influence in obtaining money from provincial and central authorities.

Just as important, it gives them the right to rezone protected farmland into industrial parks and housing developments -- despite the government's pleas that the practice end.

When Xinji was a sleepy town of 35,000, it was the seat of Shulu County. In 1986, authorities realized that peasants were on the move. The planners chose Xinji as the place for them to settle because it had a promising industrial base and was already home to the regional farmers' market.

So 10 years ago, Shulu County changed its name to Xinji Municipality. The town of Xinji became the municipality's urban core. The municipality's 31 villages and towns were amalgamated into 15 satellite urban centers and surround Xinji city.

Population boom

The city center has since almost quadrupled in population. Planners forecast that during the next four years, it will attract another 70,000 residents, for a total of 200,000.

Paved roads now connect Xinji with the satellite towns, and they now have electricity and offer at least basic medical care. On the western approaches to town, Xinji's television station put up the mini-Eiffel Tower, a signal that Xinji and China are urbanizing.

Some of Xinji's streets are tree-lined, but there is still the dusty feel of a town under construction. Even the ambitiously named "Times Square" at the heart of the downtown is little more than a crossroads with a small clock on a traffic island.

At the Hebei No. 1 Market, Wang Shiming rents a stall selling household goods. He has kept his farm because overpopulation means he has only about a third of an acre -- which he and his wife can take care of after store hours.

"This is a good chance to live in the city without having to go all the way to Beijing," Wang said.

Flexible system

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