The urbanisation process underway in China is of course one of the largest shifts in human organisation in history. The enormity is staggering: the millions of houses to be built, the thousands of miles of new roads, the vast new urban territories, the diminution of the rural population and the concomitant dominance of the city-dwelling populace. This transformation is the story of China’s development in the 21st century: with urban-dwelling numbers first the first time ever forming the majority of Chinese, the basis of their lives and the means of transitioning away from a rural background is crucial to what may (or may not) be the “Chinese century”. Shepherding these migrants into the cities, finding work for them and climbing the value ladder in GDP output is the central task for policymakers in China today.

This book by Tim Miller, managing editor of the China Economic Quarterly, is therefore a timely examination of this “biggest human migration in history”. Miller divides his material into six key areas of interest and tension: an overview of the lives of migrant workers; the hukou system; land grabs; urban construction; ghost towns and urban planning; and finally an examination of transitioning the new urban classes into active economic agents. Though these are somewhat heavy topics, Miller keeps his eye on the people and the streets to which they refer. The stories of the lives of the poorest migrant workers – it would help if Miller distinguished between former agricultural laborers striving to keep afloat and white collar migrants who have a degree of comfort yet lack easy access to health, education or pensions – are eye-opening. Perhaps the most consternating chapter is that on the hukou, the household registration system. In some ways it can be shown to be a success – by preventing migrants from coming to large cities willy-nilly, it has prevented Chinese cities from degenerating into the slums and shantytowns which scar India, Brazil and South Africa (for example). On the other hand, the human cost is high. Locking people who work and labor in the cities out of the benefits of living there condemns many to a half-life, trapped between their place of origin and place of work, unable to settle and shorn of their rights. Their living conditions are inevitably dreadful. As with each chapter Miller suggests means for ameliorating the system, one requiring sustained effort and investment from provincial and central government. Given the glacial rate of reform in the Hu-Wen years, one can only hope for a quickening.

Another interesting chapter, and the one perhaps most counter-intuitive to the received wisdom, is that on urban development. Miller shows that the enormous expansion in capacity in infrastructure which some see as evidence of waste or a construction bubble is often in fact merely timely planning. He cites the example of Shanghai’s Pudong New Area, once condemned as an orgy of state-planned building. While, of course, there are very few Pudongs with the backing of Shanghai,  it is a reminder that infrastructure takes a considerable time to develop and also to be integrated. It is easy to dismiss road building and housing developments, but when you consider how many people China has, how poor the current housing stock is and how far the nation has to go to catch up to even moderately developed states beyond the eastern seaboard, it is clear that there remains great room for development. The economics of housing versus business land development, on the other hand, show just how distorted the market is and how complex a knot it will be to unravel.

While the book might not lay claim to any great new discoveries on China, it is a good presentation of the problems and tasks facing China in its path to urbanisation and development. In particular, Miller does a great job in translating the macro-size of the dilemmas into the micro problems facing individuals, whether county chief or dirt-poor migrant. Their stories are still unfolding.

Published in Agenda Beijing

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