Why China's Megacities Must Break The Second-Class Citizen Trap

Shanghai... full capacity?
Shanghai... full capacity?

Since the opening-up of China, the hukou system — a household registration system that basically divides citizens into urban and rural categories has come under increasing fire. As urban citizens enjoy a range of preferential public services such as free schooling and social security, migrant workers living in the same city but with rural hukou status remain shut out.


BEIJING — In May, facing continuing rises in population, Beijing authorities made it even more difficult for university graduates who intend to settle in the capital to obtain their local household registration. The new regulations include an age threshhold, stipulating that a university graduate cannot be older than 24, a master's graduate cannot be older than 27, and a new Ph.D, older than 35.

It has become a kernal of received wisdom that reforming China's hukou system is not easy. It is particularly difficult in the nation's largest cities. Recently Li Tie, a senior official of China's National Development and Reform Commission, even stated plainly that "Megacities such as Beijing or Shanghai are finding it impossible to proceed with hukou reform."

In 2000, China relaxed the restrictions on college graduate household registration in townships below county-level. In 2011, they liberalized rural farmers moving into small cities and, further liberalized access to larger prefecture-level cities last year. However, the process for gaining local resident status in the biggest Chinese cities remains severely controlled.

Still, difficulty in reforming does not mean we should not make reforms. Establishing a better system to obtain household registration simply cannot be avoided in the nation's ongoing process of urbanization. And big city reform is the most thorny task of all.

A false problem

What hinders the liberalization of the system is, above of all, fear. In 2008, Bai Jingfu, the then vice-minister of Public Security asked, "Beijing has nearly 20 million people now. How can it be possible to take in another 20 million?" What his words implied is that urban residency is a treasure, and were access relaxed, everybody would immediately flood the cities.

Bai's worries are not exactly unfounded. When completely liberalized, places such as Beijing and Shanghai are indeed likely to encounter serious population pressure in the short term. But over the long term, as the population increases, so will the difficulty of finding a job and coping with high living costs. People will choose to stay or leave, rationally. The so-called urban capacity is in effect a false proposition, and a residue of the thinking from Chinas' former command economy. Since ancient times, cities have always been formed spontaneously. How can a rigorous limit on residents restrict a mobile society?

Another obstacle comes from interests. As migration increases, a hukou is becoming more and more a bargaining chip for local governments. Urban development needs can be traded for hukous. Take Beijing as an example: In the 1990s when the capital was developing satellite towns, people who bought and invested in property in these pilot towns could obtain local household residency right away. Later on, when China was desperately in need of talented people, a lot of higher education graduates from foreign universities could get the urban status easily. But once foreign university graduates were no longer a rare species, the conditions were tightened up again.

A hukou permit — Photo: Micah Sittig

These policies had indeed brought practical effects for local development, but using the resident registration as a bargaining chip is unfair. Free movement within one's own country should effectively be an equal right for every citizen.

The interests of existing local residents also stand in the way of reform. Big cities such as Beijing have gathered the best resources of the entire country, particularly in education. Residents of these cities are afraid that the influx of a population will snatch their cake.

However, introduction of labor to a city is beneficial to its development. Even demand for housing is advantageous to local residents, not to mention migration workers' contribution in output, employment, consumption and fiscal revenue.

Once these obstacles are removed, financial resources are not the central problem. Chen Jinyong, professor at Washington University and an expert of urbanization and migration at the United Nations, estimated that were China to bring forward the hukou reformation over the next 15 years, the annual cost would be one-fifth that of the Beijing Olympics. The Chinese government should be able to handle this kind of financial requirement.

Like Beijing, Shanghai is also a megacity with similar population pressure. But Shanghai has advanced at a much greater pace in reforming its hukou system. Since July, Shanghai has introduced the so-called “credit settling system” which gives migrant workers who meet at least two basic conditions — a “legitimate steady residence” and a “legitimate steady job” —the right to be given credits towards their application for a Shanghai hukou.

Though still far from comprehensive, this measure is nevertheless a transparent system upon which people can base their decisions. The Shanghai Municipal Human Resources and Social Security Bureau also offers an online simulation rating system for potential applicants, which is far more advanced than Beijing’s internal examination system.

Reforming the residency system that big cities use to manage their population and public services is indeed a major challenge. But Shanghai is an example of how to start. It showed that decades of a planned economy fortunately did not kill the deep-seated instincts in the people to help return to glory and build a new future, as both a megacity and historical treasure.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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