Tan-da-bing or ‘spreading pancake’ is a popular Chinese expression for expansion, and given the explosive urbanization that is currently taking place in the country, tan-da-bing is indeed the current nature of China’s urban landscape. The dawn of 2012 not marked the year of the dragon, but also the year that officially saw a majority shift in population from the countryside to China’s sprawling cities, as the rate of urbanisation rate officially passed 50%, the fastest internal migration rate any nation has so far witnessed.
In this race towards a more urban future, it is not only the more prominent cities expanding quickly, but rather the smaller (for China anyway, if not anywhere else) and less well-known ones, often located in the central and Western areas of the country. For example, Chang-Zhu-Tan’s (heard of it?) 3.7 million residents will be getting many more neighbours in the coming few years, as the local population is forecast to swell to 11.2 million by 2020, according to a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit. And Chan-Zhu-Tan is one of 13 regions within China that will soon earn the title of megacity – one that boasts of a population of over 10 million people. Just 12 years ago, a single cycle of its zodiac calendar, China had only three such cities.
On the surface, it may look like the work of diligent citizens and eager foreign investors, but it is important to note that, no matter how diligent and eager the respective parties are, the entire geographical shift in power is being carefully orchestrated by the Chinese government. Infrastructural investments are being pumped in, policies revised, specific economic opportunities created for each region – all tailor-made to achieve targeted business and living conditions, as part of the country’s command-and-control structure. And it looks like it is working: in 2007, cities in the West of the country grew faster than those in the older, more established business hubs of the East. A prime example of how China grooms its cities to woo investors and migrants alike is perhaps Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan. Government-led efforts such as improvement of transport systems and infrastructure have attracted a lot of foreign direct investment, and as a result, more migrant workers.
But, like all things young and ambitious, these emerging megacities will come with their own set of problems and pressures. For starters, the influx of population concentrated in 13 regions of the most populated country in the world is bound to take its toll on natural resources, such as land, water and the environment, along with searing energy demands. Already in 2009, the McKinsey Global Institute forecast that demand for energy in China’s urban areas is likely to more than double by 2025; and demand for water will increase by 70 to 100 percent.
The damaging effects are already evident in Beijing (or ‘Greyjing’, as some local wags have dubbed it), which was recently voted as one of the worst cities to live in due to its poisonous pollution levels, thereby putting its 20 million residents at increased risk of lung cancer, among other deadly illnesses that are on the rise there. Across China, the addition of 350 million new urban residents — roughly the size of America’s population today — over the next 20 years will add to the strain, with demand for housing, transportation and local services rising sharply. Some local leaders have taken matters into their own hands. Chengdu’s mayor, for instance, encourages families to stay in the outskirts of cities to avoid overcrowding, directly modifying a household registration system already in use, to benefit those that do so. But the pressures will continue to rise, not least as China’s swelling middle class starts to demand a better quality of life to what they’ve been willing to endure thus far.
So the challenge for China’s urban leaders is stark. The country’s growth story is simply unprecedented in human history. As such, there are no previous examples that local leadership can turn to for lessons on how to deal with economic development of this magnitude. There are clear benefits to a top-down system of governance, as many Westen mayors would quickly attest; but whereas Western cities can express their frustration with the status quo by voting out the incumbent, China’s leaders have a trickier path to tread in the coming zodiac cycle.