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The Physical and Social Environments of the Chinese Urban Poor

In the Context of a Floating Population

Daniel ROBERTS, PhD Candidate, London School of Economics

Wendy WALKER, Senior Social Development Specialist, Asian Development Bank

Madhumita GUPTA, Senior Social Development Specialist (Resettlement) Asian Development Bank

The views expressed in this paper/presentation are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily
reflect the views or policies of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), or its Board of Directors, or the
governments they represent. ADB does not guarantee the source, originality, accuracy, completeness
or reliability of any statement, information, data, finding, interpretation, advice, opinion, or view
presented, nor does it make any representation concerning the same.

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Over the past thirty years of economic reform and development, China has witnessed the explosive
growth of its town and cities, largely driven by millions of citizens moving from rural to urban areas
and the rapid expansion of urban land.

By 2008, the urban population of China had risen to 607 million, representing 45.7% of the total
population1. This urban population resides in the nation’s 19,429 towns and 655 cities, 237 of which
have populations exceeding 500,000. Two-thirds of this urban population growth is attributable to
rural-to-urban migration, which – despite taking various patterns across China – has been
predominantly from inland rural to coastal urban areas.

By 2015, the urban population of China is projected to rise to 700 million and exceed the rural
population for the first time in history. The rapid growth of urban populations had been accompanied
by the equally rapid expansion of urban land: between 1990 and 2005, China’s urban land area grew
by 24,727 square kilometres each year to a total area of 2,600,000 square kilometres2.

This paper examines urbanisation in the People’s Republic of China and explores the impacts of these
spatial and social changes on the environments of the poor. While considerable progress has been
made in improving the physical environments for disadvantaged and marginal groups, social and
institutional challenges continue to impede their full absorption into China’s urban populations.
Addressing the physical needs and social challenges will be crucial for creating sustainable urban
environments in the coming years.

Urbanisation in the People’s Republic of China

By 2030, analysts forecast that one billion people will live in China’s cities3. Rapid urbanisation has
contributed significantly to China’s economic growth and improved living conditions for many
millions of citizens throughout the country. Chinese authorities have succeeded in lifting 400m
citizens out of poverty and providing assistance to those 200m who continue to live below one dollar
per day4.

These successes have brought new challenges for local authorities in urban areas to provide housing
and access to services, and address growing inequalities. UN Habitat has recognised that, “China has
recorded the most spectacular progress in the world, with improvements to the day-to-day conditions
of 65.3 million urban residents who were living with one or more factors of shelter deprivation” 5.
However, concern has been growing among observers and Chinese officials since the 1990s regarding
the development of so-called ‘new urban poverty’ as the introduction of a market economy leading to
redundancies in former state-owned enterprises has combined with mass rural-urban migration to
create distinct groups of urban poor within Chinese cities today.

National Bureau of Statistics of China, “China Statistical Yearbook 2009.”
McKinsey Global Institute, Preparing for China's Urban Billion, 61.
Ibid., 6.
World Bank, Cost of Pollution in China: Economic Estimates of Physical Damage, xi.
UN Habitat, “State of the World's Cities 2010/2011 - Cities for All: Bridging the Urban Divide,” 39.

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At the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, China was a predominantly rural society with
only 11% of the population living in the 69 settlements with city status6. In the following years,
China’s urbanisation passed through three distinct phases. For the first decade after 1949, gradual
urbanisation continued without restrictions as people moved freely from the countryside to the cities.
During this time, urbanisation increased at an average annual rate of 0.6% from 10.6% in 1949 to
15.39% in 1957.

For the twenty years from 1957 to 1978, urbanisation in China was restricted by the measures to
support a centrally-planned economy geared towards industrial production. The establishment and
gradual implementation of the hukou registration system (HRS) during the 1950s divided the
population into rural farmers and urban workers. Urban household registration brought the guarantee
of daily necessities – such as staple grains and cooking oils, clothing and other rationed goods – as
well as access to urban services such as state education, medical services, jobs and housing. None of
these benefits were enjoyed by those with rural household registrations. A child could only inherit
registration status from their mother7 and would limit movement outside their native village. Initially,
the political demand to increase industrial output during the ‘Great Leap Forward’ ensured that many
continued to migrate from the countryside to the cities. During the early 1960s, around 26 million of
these farmers returned to the countryside8, followed by millions of urbanites and intellectuals ‘sent
down’ during the rustication movements of the Cultural Revolution. Throughout this period,
Wang, Urban Poverty, Housing, and Social Change in China, 25.
Chan, “Post-Mao China.”
Zhou, Urbanization in the People Republic of China [sic], 1.

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urbanisation stagnated with little or negative growth. The central government was solely responsible
for urban development, leading to inadequate investment in infrastructure and limits on the growth of
small cities and townships. As such, urbanisation remained at a standstill between 1962 (17.33%) and
1978 (17.92%).

Following the adoption of economic reforms in 1978, urbanisation gradually increased to 27.63% by
1992, while strict controls on rural-urban migration were maintained. In 1984, the government
allowed rural citizens to live and work in townships as long as they could feed themselves; in 1985,
they were permitted to register in urban areas on a temporary basis. As food rationing became less
important in the cities, increasing numbers of rural migrants arrived to open businesses and work as
domestic servants. By the 1990s, millions flocked to China’s cities to work in the construction and
service industries. In 1992, a number of local authorities (including Shenzhen, Shanghai and
Guangzhou) allowed migrant workers to apply for a ‘blue’ hukou registration, provided that they
could afford to buy a house and pay a one-off charge for the use of urban infrastructure. For a tiny
number of well-off migrants, it became possible – at tremendous personal expense – to join China’s
burgeoning urban society.

Today, urbanisation in China continues to grow at around 1% per annum, resulting in significant
impacts on land, environments and populations. Fuelled by the growth of vast megacities such as
Shanghai and urban agglomerations in the Pearl and Yangtze river deltas, urbanisation is expected to
pass 50% by 20159. Between 1978 and 2008, the number of cities grew from 193 to 655, and forecasts
suggest that China will have 221 cities with a population exceeding one million by the year 2025 10.
The Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development notes that, “the built up area for urban
localities expanded from 7,438 square kilometres (km2) in 1981 to 36,295 km2 in 2008, representing a
4.88 times increase within 27 years”11.

Based on available statistics, roughly one in four urban people is a migrant12 and most of these are
living as the “floating population” and without hukou registration for the urban areas. Urbanization
rates in coastal areas have largely been the result of increased migration; but in the inland areas, rising
urbanization rates are primarily due to the exodus of migrants from rural areas and a resulting
decrease in the rural population13. At the social level, the prioritisation of economic growth above
social equity has led to growing difficulties associated with the rise of ‘new urban poverty’ in many
Chinese cities.

Structurally, China’s urbanisation has been concentrated within a few regions and provinces: a small
number of megacities attract enormous populations, while many prefecture-level cities are about half
of their ideal efficient size, can neither benefit from clustering economic activites nor develop a
sufficient concentration of specialised industries and have limited capital for new investments. These
difficulties are exacerbated by the privileged access to markets and resources enjoyed by China’s
largest cities at the top of the administrative hierarchy.

Xinhua, “China's Population to Near 1.4 Billion by 2015.”
McKinsey Global Institute, Preparing for China's Urban Billion.
Li, “Urban Development Strategy in the People's Republic of China.”
Jun, Han (2010). Study on Social Service Delivery in Rapid Urbanization of the People’s Republic of China.

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Old and New Urban Poverty in China

Prior to market reforms in 1978, the urban poor in China were identified as those suffering the ‘three
no’s: they had no relatives or dependents that could support them, they were unable to work and had
no other source of income. Indeed, urban poverty in China is a relatively new concept: it is only in
recent years that phrases such as ‘low-income group’, ‘weak social and economic groups’ (ruoshi
qunti) and ‘urban poor residents’ (chengshi pingkun jumin) have gained acceptance in government

In the early years after 1949, the pragmatic and relatively flexible approach of China’s new
government to private enterprise ensured that the four million unemployed urban residents soon found
work in factories and services, which also attracted many rural labourers14. During the economic
difficulties of the early 1960s, urban employment fell dramatically and many workers left the cities.
While expansion of the collective sector helped to soak up some of the excess labour supply in cities,
very few of those unemployed suffered serious hardship. Although housing conditions were less than
ideal, food and clothing were never in short supply.

During the 1960s and 1970s, new categories of urban poor received state assistance, in addition to
those who suffered the ‘three no’s: those who lost jobs after the Great Leap Forward; unemployed
youths returning from the countryside; and those who had suffered during the Cultural Revolution. By
1985, 3.8m urban citizens received support from the government relief fund, together with another
534,000 who could not work due to illness or disability.

The 1990s ushered in new forms of urban poverty, which persist in urban China today. Firstly,
although the unemployment rate remained steady at around 3%, the actual number of people listed as
unemployed doubled to 6m. Secondly, it became possible to lose your job. Previously, employment in
the public sector guaranteed an ‘iron rice bowl’ and a job for life. Restructuring across the state and
collective sectors was designed to improve efficiency through a reduction in the workforce, although
those who lost their jobs were considered ‘laid-off’ rather than unemployed. From 1997 to 2000, 6m
workers were ‘laid off’ each year and this became the main cause of poverty in urban China.

The classification and composition of the urban poor in China has therefore changed drastically in the
last twenty years. Perhaps most significant has been the explosive growth in the number of registered
urban poor in China today, up from 0.85m in 1996 to 22.32m in 2005 15, which represents 4.1% of the
total urban population. As the number of registered urban poor has grown, so has their composition
changed: in 1995, the elderly, children and the disabled represented 82.27% of the urban poor and
unemployment was non-existent; by 2005, the unemployed and laid-off workers constituted 39.56%
of the registered urban poor16.

Broadly speaking, the urban poor in China today may be classified into five distinct categories: (1)
laid-off workers and the unemployed, around 30m people in 2001; (2) pensioners and retirees, whose
numbers had increased thirteen-fold from 1978 to 42m in 2002; (3) landless farmers; (4) smaller
groups with particular difficulties, such as ethnic minorities and impoverished students; (5) rural
migrant labourers. In the context of Chinese urbanisation, both landless farmers and rural migrants
require special attention.
Wang, Urban Poverty, Housing, and Social Change in China, 56.
Shunfeng Song, Erqian Zhu, and Mukhopadhyay, “Urban Poor in China.”

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Landless Farmers
As cities grow and take control of more land, villages are getting absorbed into the urban fringes with
the expansion of city boundaries. This process is gradually transforming the rural farmers into urban
dwellers. New economic development zones and industrial parks create more job opportunities but
have lead to expropriation of large amounts of farmland. Construction of dams and hydropower to
supply water and electricity to these newly developed urban areas has also displaced a large
population. Over the last few decades, China has tackled this massive boom in infrastructure and
subsequent large scale displacement by formulating pro-active regulations to safeguard the rights of
the people. The regulations embody the principle of sufficient compensation for lost assets, provisions
of housing and income earning opportunities to restore or improve the livelihoods of the displaced

Land in the rural area is state-owned, allocated to rural farmers and managed by the village collective.
This system allows the local government to acquire land from farmers easily and at lower prices. The
local governments have to generate their own revenues and benefit from levying taxes 17 on land
acquisition and sell it at higher prices to property developers. The profits are then re-invested in
infrastructure to push urbanization and the economy forward. This process has resulted in increased
social conflicts with protests from farmers demanding privatization of rural land. In theory with the
current system of land ownership there should not be any landless farmer in China. However, the
official estimate for landless farmers in 2006 was 70 million18 with incremental growth of 3 million
per year. China has refused to privatize rural farmlands but there is discussion of permitting farmers
to sell their land use rights to other farmers.

China has good land acquisition regulations, procedures and institutional mechanisms in place. On
one hand, there are many successful examples where the local governments have formulated
preferential policies for displaced people, consulted and negotiated with them, paid higher
compensations rates and provided sufficient support for income restoration. On the other hand, there
are situations where people receive inadequate cash compensation, suffer severe livelihood impacts
and are forced to leave their hometowns to find migrant work. Thus a large number of them are left
out from reaping the benefits of the urbanization process as they move to cities as migrants. As a rural
migrant to a city, the hukou registration system prevents them from accessing various social benefits
offered to other residents in the city, increasing both economic and social vulnerability.

Global Times, “China Plans to Make Law on Collective Land Acquisition.”
Bajoria, China’s Land Reform Challenge.

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Rural Migrant Labourers

The category of rural migrant labourers is excluded from official urban poverty statistics, but may
represent as many as 200m of China’s citizens 19. The hukou household registration system was
designed, in part, to prevent the mass rural-urban migration which has led to slum formation in many
developing countries, but resulted in a double disadvantage for rural citizens whose mobility and
access to opportunities were restricted while urban residents enjoyed extensive privileges and
occupational security. Migrants today may be able to secure urban employment and travel more
freely, but they continue to face discriminatory practices in housing, employment and access to basic
social services resulting in considerable insecurity as second-class citizens. As members of a
‘temporary’ or ‘floating’ population whose only value to the city is expressed in terms of their
membership of a cheap and disposable labour force20, many rural migrants are ineligible for training
and social insurance programmes (such as access to public and low cost housing, health insurance,
education, social assistance or unemployment protection) and work in lower-paid jobs for longer
hours with little hope of promotion.

Each of the social groups that comprise the contemporary urban poor in China reveal the degree to
which ‘new urban poverty’ results from a combination of spatial, institutional, and market-based
social exclusion. One of the most tangible manifestations of this social exclusion is found in the lived
environments of the Chinese urban poor

Calculation of the total numbers in the migrant “floating population” is one of the objectives of the 2010
census in PRC which will, for the first time, collect information on place of residence rather that place of
registration and should provide a clearer picture of the migrant population.
Fan, “The Elite, the Natives, and the Outsiders.”

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Where do the Chinese urban poor live?

In pre-reform China, the majority of urban workers were connected to work units (danwei), which –
beyond providing employment – offered housing, medical care, pensions and care and education for
children. Within work units could be found services such as banks, post offices, shops and other
public services. In additional to their role in organising and managing the urban population, “Chinese
work units were also social organisations and the basic cells of the socialist urban structure” 21.
Hierarchy was embedded in the benefits derived by individuals from their work unit: benefits such as
housing were closely related to one’s rank within the work unit. As such, social relations were
inextricably connected with the political and economic structures of the socialist state. Cities were
planned in accordance with socialist principles which created urban districts designed to be largely
self-sufficient. Since private transportation was extremely rare, goods and services were provided
within the newly-established work units.

During the first stages of the reform era in the 1980s and early 1990s, work units remained an
important part of urban development as private and foreign businesses began to compete with state-
owned enterprises. Life for workers in China’s cities began a radical transformation away from the
‘iron rice bowl’ stability to short-term contracts, competition between state and private enterprises and
an erosion of the comprehensive benefits enjoyed within work unit communities.

In place of the self-sufficient districts created by socialist planning, cities in the reform era have
developed specialised districts (such as CBDs, residential zones, high-tech parks, etc) as the socio-
economic organization and individual mobility of the population and transportation requirements have
increased. As a result, clusters of housing based on market value and communities of shared income
and status have emerged leading to new forms of spatial organisation and land use in contemporary
urban China. City centres have been transformed from narrow alleys of traditional housing and small
shops into high-rise residential and commercial office buildings. Isolated housing estates on the urban
peripheries with few services have emerged. The former work units towards the urban periphery were
redeveloped or sold to developers, and farmland at the historical limits of Chinese cities is often
consumed by urban and suburban expansion leading to the phenomenon of ‘urban villages’

The result of these spatial transformations may be seen in Error: Reference source not found (page
Error: Reference source not found). The traditional urban core of Chinese cities typically housed both
government officials and professional workers alongside the urban working class. As these areas have
been redeveloped to provide exclusive residential compounds and offices, residents re-located during
the 1980s and 1990s to modern apartment complexes and government-supported affordable workers’
housing. Since the 1990s, ‘urban villages’ and migrant enclaves have appeared as cities expand into
their surrounding countryside and attract rural workers to their industrial zones and expanding service
industries. These peri-urban outskirts are often home to economic development zones, universities
campuses and factories relocated from central urban locations.

The diverse groups who comprise the urban poor in China today are concentrated into distinct types
of urban neighbourhoods: traditional housing, poor-quality public housing, ‘urban villages’ and
migrant housing.

Wang, Urban Poverty, Housing, and Social Change in China, 32.

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Traditional Housing
Of these, the oldest are the remaining clusters of low-quality traditional housing which have not (yet)
been demolished by local authorities to make way for new residential and commercial projects.
Generally populated by a mixture of low-income urban families and rural migrants, these areas were
not substantially redeveloped during the early socialist period and often suffer from poor drainage and
few modern conveniences such as indoor kitchens and toilets.

Poor-Quality Public Housing

During the earlier years of socialist urban planning and throughout the movement to improve urban
workers’ housing in the 1980s, the state and its enterprises constructed housing in the inner suburbs to
accommodate employees. To minimise cost and maximise access to the workplace, this high-density
housing often used poor designs and low-quality materials. The legacy of this public housing was a
concentration of poverty within neighbourhoods during the economic reforms, as inhabitants were
often those worst-affected during the redundancies and closures of SOEs in the 1990s. Due to poor

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quality and lack of maintenance, “these workers’ communities are now deteriorating into degraded
residential areas”22.

‘Urban Villages’
As a consequence of urban sprawl in cities across China, urban areas have expanded to incorporate
surrounding farmland. While state-led development may provide compensation and resettlement to
those deprived of their land and its produce as a source of income, many rural villages remain in the
hands of local villagers to minimise relocation costs for urban authorities. The co-existence of two
systems of land use – the urban leasing system and rural collective ownership – has resulted in the
phenomenon of ‘urban villages’ (chengzhongcun) across China today.

In these villages, former villagers maintain ownership of their houses and may seek to build
extensions and lease rooms to migrant workers seeking proximity to urban jobs. While liberalisation
of the urban housing market allows migrants to buy their own housing, this is often outside the reach
of those working in low-paid sectors. Since migrants are excluded from the urban housing allocation
system, ‘urban villages’ provide both relatively affordable housing to rural labourers and an income to
those farmers who have lost their land due to urban expansion. In Guangzhou City, researchers found
that the average monthly rental price was 7 yuan for 1 square meter, which was one-fifth to one tenth
the price for regular commercial housing. Such arrangements may be seen in cities across China –
within the 190km2 of Xi’an, there are 187 such villages23, and in Guangzhou these villages house
most of the city’s 3m migrant workers24. ‘Zhejiang Village’ (Zhejiangcun) in Beijing was one of the
best-known urban villages, housing over 100,000 migrants from the coastal province in the nation’s
capital in 1995. Quality of housing is generally poor, rents low, and rooms often shared between
families or young couples with strangers. Privacy is limited and basic amenities such as heating and
running water may be limited or non-existent. The potential for organised crime and social unrest
among these concentrations of ‘outsiders’ is viewed with considerable caution by municipal

Migrant Housing
In addition to the ‘urban villages’ which provide accommodation for migrant workers, many rural
migrants also find shelter on the construction sites at which they work. Predominantly younger men –
often with families living in their rural hometowns – some 45 million rural labourers work on China’s
urban construction projects and usually live in temporary onsite dormitories.

Without urban hukou registrations, migrants do not have access to subsidies and assistance to
purchase housing. The Fifth Population Survey on the housing status of migrants in Pudong New
District found that whereas 69% of the registered local population bought their own homes, 69% of
migrants rented. Since rents in urban centres are too expensive for migrant labourers, they tend to live
on the suburban fringes of cities: “in 2003, among migrants who came to Beijing from other
provinces, 55.9% lived in the nearby suburbs and 35% in more distant districts and counties”25.

Liu and Wu, “Urban poverty neighbourhoods,” 614.
Wang, Urban Poverty, Housing, and Social Change in China, 69.
Liu et al., “Urban villages under China's rapid urbanization,” 137.
ADB TA 4694 Urban Poverty Strategy II, 2008, TA final Report (p 100).

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The quality of housing and internal space are also key issues. Rooms tend to be small (45% are under
8-12m2) and shared between many migrants. A recent ADB study of four cities 26 found that 90% of
migrants did not have private rooms: 30.4% shared with 2-4 people; 31% shared with 5-8 people and
20% shared a single room with 9 or more people. Access to toilets is generally shared and even basic
services such as heating can be scarce: 60% of migrants surveyed in Lanzhou had no heating.

Efforts are being made to address these housing issues for low-income and migrant populations. In
Chongqing – which aims to increase urbanisation to 70% by 2020 – administrators are actively
working to prevent slum development by creating a special programme of low-income housing
developments with government investment and community management. These units are
accompanied by the construction of public space, libraries, social networks in sports and arts and a
cultural website. Average living space is 8m2 per person, and rents are affordable at 46 yuan (~$7) per
month27. Similarly, the city of Haerbin has also started experimental migrant housing schemes
including the construction of apartments, the establishment of building standards for migrant and
temporary housing, and the creation of a housing provident fund for migrant workers. These
initiatives are welcome, but are often stymied by lack of sufficient funds beyond local resources.

While the spatial distribution and composition of poverty neighbourhoods in urban China may have
changed in response to the rapid urbanisation, market liberalisation and large-scale rural-urban
migration over the past thirty years, the Chinese urban poor continue to face challenges in both their
physical and social environments which are inextricably linked. The challenge for local communities
and municipal authorities remains to remove the institutional, physical and financial barriers to social

What challenges are faced in the lived environments of the Chinese urban poor?

The scale and pace of urbanisation in China is unprecedented. The implementation of the hukou
registration system has facilitated the physical and social management of this process, allowing cities
to develop without the development of slum areas as found in many other parts of the world. This is a
great achievement, but – as seen above – not without social costs. The creation of new urban spaces
has been accompanied by environmental degradation and new forms of social exclusion. The
challenges faced by the Chinese urban poor extend beyond their physical environment to include
access to services, the provision of welfare support and the creation of sustainable urban communities
in rapidly-developing cities with constantly circulating populations of migrant workers.

Physical Challenges
China is now home to sixteen of the world’s twenty most-polluted cities28. Reliance on dirty coal-
powered energy supply has led to rising rates of cancer and respiratory diseases 29, and acid rain falls
on one-third of China’s agricultural land. Only 1% of China’s urban population breathes air
considered safe in the European Union, and it is thought that 750,000 Chinese citizens die

Beijing, Nanjing, Guangzhou and Lanzhou.
ADB TA 4694 Urban Poverty Strategy II, 2008, TA final Report (p 105).
Blacksmith Institute, The World's Worst Polluted Places.
Banister, “Population, Public Health and the Environment in China.”

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prematurely each year due to diseases caused by air pollution30. At the same time, 14,000 new cars are
joining China’s roads every day31.

These problems of air pollution are compounded by pro-growth municipal planning. Urban sprawl on
the outskirts of Beijing has led to dispersed and low-density housing, which encourages car use and
further contributes to air pollution32. Buildings are responsible for one-third of global CO2
emissions33, so failure to adopt energy-efficient and low-carbon technologies today will lock China’s
cities into undesirable patterns of energy consumption and carbon emission for many years to come.
Urban expansion into former farmland reduces green cover and leads to the development of urban
heat islands, causing higher ambient temperatures within cities and rising energy demand as both
commercial and residential sectors increase use of air-conditioning. This in turn accelerates the
burning of fossil fuels, escalating both energy prices and pollution levels.

China is reaching the limits of urban land expansion. As urban sprawl leads to increasing commuting
times and the need to extend transportation networks, new regulations have been introduced to protect
agricultural land. There is a clear call for future densification of urban space and better integration of
services, housing and facilities as China recognises the need to incorporate both environmental and
social dynamics (as well as economic considerations) into further urbanisation during the twenty-first

In addition to air pollution, untreated waste and water shortages – which affect two-thirds of China’s
cities, and one-sixth critically – urban China faces the many threats posed by global climate change.
Three major factors are: (1) rising temperatures across China; (2) changing patterns of precipitation,
with a drier north and wetter south; and, (3) rising sea levels and temperatures. 60% of China’s cities
are located along the densely-populated eastern and southern coastal provinces, where both
agricultural and industrial production is concentrated in areas less than 2m above sea levels which are
rising by 2-3mm each year. Along these coasts, the increasing incidence of tropical storms and
flooding has led to salinisation of water supplies, reduced industrial output and damage to
infrastructure such as harbours and airports. Without immediate action, predicted temperature
increases of 4oC and rising precipitation pose significant risks to China’s urban centres and their
populations in the coming years.

While these environmental factors affect all of the population in urban areas, important research still
needs to be undertaken to identify the specific differential impacts and risks of environmental
degradation on the urban poor. It is clear though, that given the often low quality and crowded
housing conditions, insufficient access to water and sanitation, distant locations of housing to work
necessitating long commutes, and proximity to industrial areas, many of the urban housing areas
described above are in sub-optimal areas that will be particularly affected by climate change.

In August 2010, China’s National Development and Reform Commission launched a low-carbon
development strategy, initially to be piloted in five provinces and eight cities 34. This experimental
project aims to accelerate industrial restructuring toward low-carbon emissions through economic

The Daily Telegraph, “Pollution Kills 750,000 in China Every Year.”
Economy, “The Great Leap Backward? The Costs of China's Environmental Crisis.”
Zhao, “Sustainable urban expansion and transportation in a growing megacity.”
Li, “Climate Resilient Urban Infrastructure in China: Insights into the Buildings Sector.”
The five provinces are Guangdong, Liaoning, Hubei, Shaanxi and Yunnan; the eight cities are Tianjin,
Chongqing, Shenzhen, Xiamen, Hangzhou, Nanchang, Guiyang and Baoding.

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incentives and effective guidance, while promoting low-carbon lifestyles and consumption patterns as
part of China’s efforts to tackle the causes and impacts of climate change35. While understanding of
climate change and perception of its risks among the Chinese population remains low36, there is
increasing consensus that future urbanisation must incorporate both environmental and social
concerns to provide a sustainable foundation for the government’s ambition of both economic growth
and the cultivation of a ‘harmonious society’.

Social Challenges
The implementation of the hukou household registration system effectively limited rural-urban
migration and slum formation by restricting individuals to their places of birth, but this has also led to
the creation of new and distinct groups of the vulnerable poor and distinct areas inhabited by the poor
in urban China today. Paradoxically, the very populations who have initiated and sustained industrial
growth and urban expansion are those most vulnerable to the environmental and social risks of such

While the physical environments of the urban poor have been improving in recent years, the political
architecture necessary to ensure social inclusion, creation of social networks and the provision of
social protection has not kept pace with demographic changes. Maintaining the distinction between
rural and urban citizens through the hukou household registration system – and denying migrants
access to urban benefits and services – creates the potential for the very sorts of slum developments
which the policies were initially designed to prevent.

There are now many initiatives underway to modify the hukou system and expand both the coverage
and portability of different forms of social assistance (including various insurances, pensions and
housing subsidies). As the earlier examples of Chongqing and Haerbin show, many cities are
developing inclusive housing policies, providing education for the children of migrant workers and
widening access to social welfare. Central authorities are actively seeking new models for the
targeting and provision of social protection, but implementation will require sufficient support and
resourcing from national government, intersectoral collaboration and enforcement at the local level.

From Housing to Liveable Cities

At the Third Session of the Sixteenth National Congress in 2002, the Chinese government embraced
the concept of ‘people-oriented, comprehensive, co-ordinated and sustainable development’, stating
the intention to steer growth towards a human-centred and ecologically-sensitive trajectory. While
continued economic development is essential to confronting future challenges, this must incorporate
growing concerns for social justice and environmental responsibility to ensure the long-term
sustainability of China’s prosperity.

There is increasing appreciation within Chinese literature of the need to foster a more balanced
approach to urbanisation. Development policies centred on economic growth have led to the external
costs of environmental pollution, over-exploitation of resources and polarisation in the distribution of
wealth which threaten the sustainability of China’s progress during the coming century37. While
People's Daily, “China Launches Low-Carbon Pilot in Select Cities, Provinces.”
Pugliese and Ray, “Top-Emitting Countries Differ on Climate Change Threat.”
郑大伟 and 阮平南, “基于网络分析法的广义宜居城市概念.”

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New Delhi, India – November 24-26, 2010.

economic growth remains central to poverty alleviation and national development, Chinese and other
scholars stress the importance of achieving a balance between the natural environment, social
inclusion, the economic roles of cities and their local communities and cultural heritage. By doing so,
urban environments may become more desirable places to live as well as productive places in which
to work.

This shift in thinking is partly a response to the changing profile and values of China’s urban
populations. Economic prosperity in Chinese cities has been sustained by large influxes of labour and
has led to changing attitudes in the expectations of citizens in living standards and social inclusion.
Meeting these shifting expectations has become a central challenge for authorities planning future
urban development.

Qinhuangdao in north-eastern Hebei province is one such city in which local authorities are re-
assessing their programmes for urbanisation with the intention of balancing the physical and social
concerns to achieve a truly liveable city for all residents38. In the pursuit of a ‘people-oriented urban
form’, an efficient economy must be balanced with social factors which contribute to the well-being
of citizens. While investment is essential to provide adequate (and affordable) housing and
infrastructure – such as energy supply, waste treatment, transport networks and water supply – there is
now a drive to promote community-building, law enforcement and improved public services
(especially healthcare and education) and social security.

The example of Qinhuangdao demonstrates that Chinese authorities recognise the importance of both
physical and social urban environments, and hope to balance investment to establish an attractive and
liveable city for residents. However, the key issue of ensuring social inclusion of all urban residents
remains a central problem that is yet to be comprehensively addressed.

A major aspect of developing ‘liveable’ cities is confronting the challenges posed by environmental
degradation and social exclusion. There is tremendous potential for China to balance economic
growth with responsible environmental stewardship and inclusive social policies to ensure that
continued urbanisation does not threaten the long-term sustainability.

During the first sixty years of the People’s Republic of China, environmental regulation was not
always prioritised as China sought to build a modern industrialised economy. While many of these
environmental initiatives remain at the experimental stage, there now exist considerable opportunities
to unite responses to environmental degradation, climate change and poverty in urban China.

The recent Shanghai Expo 2010 showcased China’s programme for the development of low-carbon,
sustainable cities through action at every level ranging from personal lifestyles to national
development policies. China has already set ambitious targets for the creation of such eco-cities as
Dongtan near Shanghai and – in collaboration with the government of Singapore – another near the
north-eastern coastal city of Tianjin. In addition to conforming to strict environmental regulations and
resource conservation, China’s eco-cities are designed to address social dimensions of urban growth
by providing improved welfare support, housing, job security and public services to residents.

Today, cities such as Chongqing – one of the largest and fastest-growing in the nation – recognise the
many benefits of adopting environmental measures: incorporating green space into urban planning
helps mitigate the development of urban heat islands while protecting urban biodiversity and
王颖, “建设宜居城市有关问题的探讨 - 以秦皇岛市为例.”

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New Delhi, India – November 24-26, 2010.

absorbing carbon emissions, but also reduces noise and creates a more attractive urban environment.
As China confronts an aging population and challenges such as obesity, cardiovascular disease,
diabetes and psychological illnesses, a green urban environment can help to improve the health of
residents and encourage active lifestyles39.

China has achieved many successes during the first sixty years of the People’s Republic, and recent
initiatives offer the hope of continued growth and prosperity in the years ahead. Together with the
promotion of low-carbon lifestyles and appropriate investments in urban infrastructure, the historical
choice between economic growth or environmental responsibility can be overcome, and China’s
urban environments can confront the risks of further environmental degradation and climate change
while becoming more attractive places in which to live and work. As this paper has shown, equal
attention must be focused on the institutional and social barriers to inclusion which limit the living
standards and access to opportunities of many millions of residents in China’s urban centres. By
reconciling these growing contradictions, China can continue its path of economic progress towards a
sustainable and truly harmonious society.

王成, 赵万民, and 谭少华, “基于城市绿色空间功能的“宜居重庆”规划理念.”

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