LEIYANG - After working for many years in Foshan, a city in China's manufacturing heartland of Guangdong, Zi Xiaohu and his wife recently decided to move back to his hometown in the central province of Hunan.
The couple's child, who remained behind in the village while the parents worked, is about to start preschool. The couple were unable to find a good school close to their village, so they're thinking of buying an apartment in downtown Leiyang, in the hopes that this will make it easier for their child to get into a decent school.
After spending three days searching for an apartment, they discovered that this small county-level city was becoming more and more like a real city. Buildings over 20-stories tall are now spread throughout the city's crowded streets. Unfamiliar phrases like "CBD" and "central park," that were once only to be heard in large urban centers, now appear in real estate ads.
Leiyang is gradually transitioning from what urban planners define as a medium-sized city to a large city.
Twenty-five years ago, the urban area of Leiyang was only seven square kilometers and had a population under 80,000. Now the urban area has expanded to 46 square kilometers and is home to 460,000 people, making it one of the largest county-level cities in Hunan province.
Although its urban area has already developed into a medium-sized city, most of Leiyang's total population of 1.4 million still, on paper at least, live in rural areas.
At the end of the 1990s, Zi Xiaohu was still in high school. At that time, his school was considered to be on the outskirts of Leiyang's urban district, but now it's surrounded by tall buildings and commercial housing developments. The small city of the past, which you could walk around in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette, is already long gone. It has been replaced by a strange new city that hopes one day to develop into a big city.
Most of Leiyang's total population of 1.4 million, in theory, still live in rural areas. The city's urbanization rate - the proportion of residents living in urban areas - is still below the national average. In 2012, China's urbanization rate was 52.6 percent, but Leiyang's was 47.31 percent.
That said, of the one million people in Leiyang who are formally registered as rural residents, fewer than 400,000 of them actually live in rural areas. Close to 400,000 of the city's registered inhabitants have gone to work in the Pearl River Delta and another 200,000 or more are working and living in Leiyang's urban areas.
In the past few years, as the pace of economic expansion in the Pearl River Delta eased, many migrants returned to Leiyang but settled in the urban areas of the county. Because of this new influx of returning migrant workers, further expansion of the city has been put on the agenda of the local government.
Just how fast?
Earlier this year, Hunan Province designated Leiyang as one of seven county-level cities which are to be developed into "large cities" over the next five years. Chinese urban planners define a large city as one with a population of between 500,000 and a million people.
In addition, Hunan officials also announced that 22 county-level cities have been earmarked for development into medium-sized cities, that is with a population of between 200,000 and 500,000 people.
This push to expand the size of smaller cities is taking place in many other parts of China. Aside from Hunan, Anhui and other many provinces have also announced similar plans to develop medium-sized and large cities as part of their recently released urbanization plans.
City planners want to develop Leiyang into a large regional center of southern Hunan. They aim to expand the size of the urban area of Leiyang to 60 square kilometers and lift the population to 600,000 by the end of 2017.
But Xu Huanjie, the former vice chairman of the city's political consultation body, isn't a supporter of what he describes as "great leap forward" expansion.
Xu told the EO that given the current situation in the city, blind expansion of the city should not be allowed to take place for at least the next ten years. Xu argued that it's better to limit the size of Leiyang's urban area to 40 square kilometers, noting that "industrial clusters haven't formed yet, which means it is hard to provide additional employment opportunities or increase the happiness index for people currently living in urban areas."
Xiao Jincheng, deputy director of the National Land Development and Regional Economy Research Institute of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), told the EO that urbanization needs to take place in step with industrialization. The level of urbanization or the city's population doesn't depend on the size of the city, the key is whether you have industry and whether you have jobs.
Xu Huanjie seems to share this view. "If there is no industry, why do we need so many people and what will we do with them?"
Zi Xiaohua is still unsure whether he wants to buy a house in downtown Leiyang or not. Zi says he is "being urbanized" and that if there was a decent school in his village, he wouldn't need to buy a house in the city. But the hollowing out of education resources in Leiyang's rural areas has already taken place.
The number of primary and secondary schools in rural areas has been declining and individual primary school classes in rural area now have as few as 30 to 40 pupils. The urban areas of Leiyang however are now having to deal with a huge increase in student numbers. The average size of a class in many schools is now in excess of 90 students.
A lack of teachers in urban areas led the city's education bureau to make the controversial decision in 2010 to transfer 167 teachers from rural to urban schools. This erupted into a widely-reported scandal after the deputy director of the city's education bureau was arrested for receiving bribes from teachers. Commentators also raised questions about what the decision meant for the quality of education in rural areas.
It's not only education resources that are being stretched by the city's expansion, residents also complain about power and water outages.
A worker at the Leiyang Water Company told the EO that the city had been running short of water from 2006. Until a second water treatment plant was opened in January 2012, the city relied on only one plant for its tap water. In 2009, that plant was capable of supplying about 30,000 tons of water a day, or enough to meet the demands of about 50,000 people. At that time the city had over 300,000 people. Most people had to rely on digging wells to get water.
Leiyang is also starting to experience its first traffic jams. There are a lack of parking places in the city center for the more than 100,000 vehicles on the city's roads and traffic jams are now common as cars have no choice but to park on the road. The city's public transport system is also very limited, with a total of 272 buses operating along 12 routes. The road to big-city status is messy indeed.