China’s Urban Billion: New Book Reveals Worrying Future

China’s Urban Billion: New Book Reveals Worrying Future
Feb 27, 2013 Translated by

Editor’s note: this article was translated and edited from and looks at the social effects caused by China’s rapid urbanization in the last few decades. The article was written in light of a book by journalist Tom Miller entitled China’s Urban Billion, which looks at the challenges China faces with regard to social disparities and environmental issues caused by urbanization. 

China’s Urban Billion: New Book Reveals Worrying Future
Photo: Flickr

In the last 30 years, 500 million Chinese people have migrated to urban areas. By the year 2030, it is estimated that another 300 million Chinese will leave rural areas to live in the city, meaning that China’s urban residents will account for one eighth of the world’s total population.  

Many rural folk are still very unfamiliar with the concrete jungle environments seen in many of China’s modern cities, and are often disappointed when they arrive and encounter faceless tower blocks, torrid air pollution, hastily constructed residential buildings, huge government buildings and a general lack of green space.

In his new book entitled China’s Urban Billion, long-term Beijing resident and journalist Tom Miller takes an in-depth look at China’s recent urbanization and the problems it has caused and how they can solved. With regard to incoming Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s recent pledge to offer affordable housing for migrant workers, the book’s release makes a timely contribution to the hotly discussed topic. 

Explosion in urbanization

A large amount of capital derived from China’s recent economic success is used to promote growth in urban areas. However, Miller contends that when this surge of urbanization and construction slows down in the next 20 years, there will be huge disparities and social issues to overcome. “Developed middle class areas will experience wealth and decent education, though other urban areas will be full of slums and signs of social decay.”  

China has one advantage in the sense that it can learn from the dangers and mistakes made by other already urbanized areas across the globe, with the biggest precedent being the traffic-filled sprawling streets of Los Angeles.

China has demonstrated however that it is showing little concern for the economic and social cost of the environment by devouring more and more rural areas. As cities become a patchwork of wide, criss-crossed roads with residential and work areas separated from each other, it seems as if China’s city planners are all taking part in a giant game of SimCity.

Financial policies to blame

From 1980 until the present day, the total urban space in China has increased by 300%, though urban population has only increased by 120%, which as Miller mentions, illustrates that land urbanization is developing at a much faster rate than population urbanization.

Miller blames the waste of development on a series of financial policies. The biggest problem being the financial system reform of 1994, which allowed the central government to obtain most of the country’s tax revenue, meanwhile forcing local governments to take responsibility for their own medical and education costs. Cities that felt the pressure of the reforms came up with two ideas to increase local revenue.

Firstly, they expropriated rural land at cheap prices and then offered it to developers for a quick buck, which began causing the disorderly expansion of urban areas seen in countless cities across China. Secondly, many industrial cities created thousands of “economic development zones” to attract enterprises in a bid to increase their income, though many of these zones later became derelict, and only served as a means of needlessly increasing the size of urban areas. China’s Hukou system is also seen as a deteriorating factor. The limited access to social welfare hinders workers from rural areas who are working in the city, and causes them to dwell in rundown housing out of sight from the general public.

Window of opportunity closing

Pessimists are wary that with China’s continued construction and urbanization, the economy will one day collapse leaving in its wake hundreds of ghost towns. Miller believes that the actual situation is more complicated, and states that even infamous ghost towns such as Ordos in Inner Mongolia, which is surrounded by desert, are slowly attracting migrants, which will only lead to the eventual social issues mentioned above.

The real concern is that despite these countless disordered, sprawling cities attracting migrant workers, living quality is still very low and the promise of economic success will be quashed by growing disparities in divided societies. China does still have time to change its construction strategies and build more efficient, economically beneficial cities, though this withering window of opportunity is beginning to close.   


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Keywords: China’s Urban Billion


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Greedy capatilists are not the only problem. You dont know much about Chinese thinking or culture. What is wrong with people wanting to invest and make a profit? Housing prices are high because there is enough people here willing to pay the higher prices. That is not the developers, or sellers thought. The peoples thinking about what a house really is and what value it has is the root of the problem. Change the peoples thinking and the housing prices will fall. There are also greedy communists, and socialists too.

Mar 03, 2013 08:53 Report Abuse



I'm of the opinion that China won't change the way in which these multi-storied apartment blocks are being hastily built with no thought of planning and little concern for what the future impact will be on the occupants. Money speaks volumes and while the developers believe they can make money from constructing these buildings then the urbanization will continue. The amount of apartment buildings going up here is beyond belief and because I don't see hundreds of people sleeping in the streets I wonder just who is going to occupy the places! Already we have 30 storey buildings with very few tenants and the building continues so the prophecy that we will have ghost buildings and towns may prove to be true. With so much vacant land why isn't anybody building houses? That might be another solution to slowing down the upwards movement of hundreds of apartments?

Feb 27, 2013 08:12 Report Abuse



Building for the future. Instead of having a lack of housing, which is very common in developed countries. billion people with a trend of moving to a new area; you have got to think ahead, instead of just letting folks sleep in the streets. Plus of course, greed and rampant corruption.

Feb 27, 2013 10:12 Report Abuse