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Why China’s mega-cities leave their citizens struggling

Developing smaller urban areas may mean better employment and living conditions for migrant workers. AFP

SEVEN BILLION PEOPLE: The world’s seven billionth person is likely to be born today. Beatriz Carrillo Garcia, lecturer in China Studies at the University of Sydney looks at effect a growing population has on the most populus nation in the world.

The Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, has called for better treatment of rural migrant workers after a wave of unrest about their living conditions.

With a population of over 1.3 billion, China has close to 700 cities. In most developing countries, a large proportion of the population is concentrated in a few cities. In China, however, only 35 million live in cities with a population larger than 10 million.

Many urban economists promote industry clusters coming together to bring down production costs, and form larger markets to promote development. China has one of the world’s most dispersed urban systems, and many think its cities are too small to take advantage of agglomeration. Yet many cities in Europe are smaller than your average Chinese county town.

But the size of an urban centre there matters not only for its economic efficiency, but most importantly for the quality of life of its citizens, and particularly for the most vulnerable social groups.

Rural migrant workers

Big metropolises have not been kind to rural migrant workers.

Generally, the larger a city the harder it is for them to find meaningful employment and decent housing. They struggle to gain access to public services and welfare assistance.

Added to this is the contempt urban citizens hold for these migrants, whom they often perceive as the cause of all social problems in the city.

There are numerous accounts of the exploitation and social exclusion of rural migrant workers in China’s large metropolises. They point to a high degree of social tension in those cities, where in some cases up to a third of the population are non-natives.

The reality of large cities, however, represents only part of the story of internal migration in contemporary China.


In fact, during the 1980s it was the development of small towns and their enterprises that became the initial engine of economic growth.

Up until the mid-1990s most rural workers moved to their nearest county town in search for work, and not to a big city.

Since then they have been increasingly travelling longer distances in search for work, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they all head for the big cities. Sichuanese cotton pickers travelling to Xinjiang and Gansu peasants working in Shanxi’s coal mines are but two examples.

Over the last three decades of economic reform China’s small cities and towns have been important recipients of rural migrant labour, yet up to now we have known very little about the experiences and living conditions of these workers.

Moving to a small city or town has not only been a more practical and less risky endeavour - the trend has also been fostered through policy.

Registering benefits

Children of migrant workers receive a better education in urban areas. EPA/How Hwee Young

Smaller urban centres make it easier for migrant workers to change their rural registration or hukou into an urban one. It’s an important step towards gaining access to better job opportunities, social insurances, housing, and services such as education and health. But also allows them the possibility of staying permanently in the city or town.

Nevertheless, on its own, an urban hukou cannot guarantee the social inclusion of the rural migrant.

Small cities and towns have offered them both social and physical proximity to the countryside. In this environment it is harder to spot the migrant from the local, whereas in the big cities the rural migrant worker stands out.

Social contacts provide migrants with information about the urban job market, and many move to the towns to work and live with relatives.

Physical proximity allows rural workers to return to their home village on a daily basis, and only as they strengthen their economic foothold in the town do they begin to consider building or buying a house there.

This gives time for local governments to develop the housing sector, avoiding the overcrowding and poor living conditions that migrants experience in big cities. Home ownership among migrant workers in small cities and towns is much higher than amongst those living in the big metropolises, where only a tiny minority owns their dwelling.

Small social development

The characteristics of the host society and economy of the small city and town seems to provide more avenues for rural migrant workers to take part in urban socio-economic life.

More often than not the constraints faced by migrant workers in small urban centres are the same constraints faced by local urban citizens: expensive and limited healthcare and education services and low social security coverage rates, amongst other issues.

The promotion of social development in smaller urban centres is hence very likely to benefit its rural migrant population, and in turn make it more likely for them to set roots in these towns, as they are already doing in growing numbers.

Social development in the big metropolises is, and will probably remain at least in the medium term, only the right of urban citizens.

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