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China's Megacities Problem Is Not About Overpopulation

In Guangzhou
In Guangzhou
Lu Ming*


SHANGHAI — The evolution of megacities is a common worry in various countries: Beijing and Shanghai in China, Seoul in South Korea and Mumbai in India all are concerned about how to manage skyrocketing urban populations.

But while other countries typically regard population expansion as the result of economic development, and base their future policy-making accordingly, China has its own particular approach.

Back in the 1990s, Japan launched a policy of decentralizing the capital's functions in order to push some of Tokyo's population and industries to relocate outside the city. Though a modest drop in the city's population followed, Japan quickly abandoned the idea because using administrative power to try to push people to leave an area was a bad idea for Tokyo's international competitiveness.

Population increase tends to result from economic development and labor demand. Artificial governmental control, in the long run, is very likely to be counter-productive economically.

Massive numbers of rural workers who go to work in Shanghai do not expect to obtain a Shanghai household registration. This may be different for those who have gone to receive higher education in the city, and then stay on to work there. As the 2005 census showed, non-household college graduates account for 15.1% of Shanghai's non-household residents, and 30.29% of China's working-age population with a college degree or higher. Yet China's policy is precisely limiting this population's influx to the city and hindering them from living and working in peace in the cities.

At the same time, infrastructure and public services are planned in accordance with an underestimated population growth, and so cities are prone to congestion.

The continuous increase of non-household residents will lead to the "New Binary Structure." In Shanghai, 40% of residents do not have city household registration. In Beijing and Guangzhou, this proportion is 37%. In Shenzhen, it's as high as 74%. Objectively, a large number of residents in these cities are being discriminated against by China's household registration system.

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In Shenzhen — Photo: Jonas

The squeeze

Urban ills cannot be attributed just to city expansion, and neither are they necessarily the result of increasing population density. Many other cities around the world have higher population densities than those of Beijing and Shanghai, yet their traffic jams and pollution are far less serious.

Many in China believe that migrant workers are squeezing the welfare and public services of permanent urban residents. Yet it is essentially a conflict between supply and demand. When there aren't enough public services, the supply should be increased instead of trying to limit population growth.

Moreover, it is simply impossible for a city to operate without lower-cost labor. Limiting the low-end labor supply will spur wage increases for these workers. These days the average wage of a Shanghai maid is higher than that of a Philippine maid in Hong Kong.

So megacities should actively respond to the challenges rather than passively limiting demand. Simply trying to limit population is in essence lazy governance.

Instead, a growing population should be evenly distributed rather than blocked. In big cities and megacities, urban planning and spatial distribution become particularly important. Living far from work, for example, should be discouraged as much as possible in the way cities are planned.

In the long run, urban management policy can reduce costs in three major areas. First, in transportation through the construction of better, faster and higher-capacity public transport systems. Second, environmental costs can be limited by evolving more and more of the economy from industry into service sectors. Third, security. Where a huge population is treated as second-class and crammed into highly concentrated living areas, enormous social risks emerge.

Public policy in major cities should never be about expelling a population, but rather providing better public services and fostering social integration to eliminate the social status discrepancy between different groups of citizens.

*Lu Ming is a professor at Shanghai's Jiao Tong University and Fudan University.

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Parenthood And The Pressure Of Always Having To Be Doing Better

As a father myself, I'm now better able to understand the pressures my own dad faced. It's helped me face my own internal demands to constantly be more productive and do better.

Photo of a father with a son on his shoulders

Father and son in the streets of Madrid, Spain

Ignacio Pereyra*


When I was a child — I must have been around eight or so — whenever we headed with my mom and grandma to my aunt's country house in Don Torcuato, outside of Buenos Aires, there was the joy of summer plans. Spending the day outdoors, playing soccer in the field, being in the swimming pool and eating delicious food.

But when I focus on the moment, something like a painful thorn appears in the background: from the back window of the car I see my dad standing on the sidewalk waving us goodbye. Sometimes he would stay at home. “I have to work” was the line he used.

Maybe one of my older siblings would also stay behind with him, but I'm sure there were no children left around because we were all enthusiastic about going to my aunt’s. For a long time in his life, for my old man, those summer days must have been the closest he came to being alone, in silence (which he liked so much) and in calm, considering that he was the father of seven. But I can only see this and say it out loud today.

Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

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