Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

China's urban explosion: 'Sim City' on steroids

By Kristie Lu Stout, CNN
January 21, 2014 -- Updated 0636 GMT (1436 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Half of population now lives in cities, but push to urbanize has had mixed results
  • China has empty malls, "ghost cities," traffic gridlock and dire pollution
  • However, China has avoided urban slums and migrant workers have jobs
  • China's challenge is to make cities more liveable

Editor's note: This month's episode of On China with Kristie Lu Stout focuses on the country's rush to urbanize and airs for the first time on Wednesday at 6.30pm Hong Kong/ Beijing time. For all viewing times and more information about the show please click here.

Shanghai, China (CNN) -- Imagine China's urbanization drive as SimCity on steroids.

The core objective of the video game is to build a metropolis while staying on budget and keeping residents happy.

China has done it on a massive scale over the last three decades, but with disappointing results.

For starters, inefficient spending has spawned China's empty mega malls and "ghost cities" of headline lore.

China: An architects' playground
Household registration reform in China

And in those urban areas problems abound. China's city dwellers are forced to live in a severe concrete landscape of polluted skies and chronic gridlock.

"You've got 500 million people that have moved to the cities since 1980," says James McGregor, Beijing-based author and chairman of the consultancy APCO Worldwide.

"The lives they've been able to build, it's been incredible. But the question is: 'can they make it livable?'"

China's urbanization drive started decades ago when 80% of the population lived in the countryside.

Today, China has more than 160 cities with populations of a million or more, with an urban population of around 700 million that represents more than half the total population.

And yet, despite all the thoughtless construction and chaotic urban planning, China has managed to dodge at least one bullet: There are no miles of urban slums. There are no favelas dotting China's cities.

China's newest urban residents -- its migrant workers -- have jobs to sustain themselves. But they are not entitled to the social benefits in the cities they work in.

READ: Factory life far from home leaves migrant workers vulnerable

"There are 260 million people who already have jobs (in the cities)," says Tang Min, economic adviser to China's State Council and former chief economist of the Asian Development Bank.

"But they don't have the social welfare yet."

Tang Min
Tang Min
Peggy Liu
Peggy Liu
James McGregor
James McGregor

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang says he wants China's urbanization drive to focus more on human needs and to be friendly to the environment.

His top priority? Urban social welfare reform.

"Li Keqiang's new urbanization drive is mainly addressing those already in the city who are not fully integrated to the cities -- those not fully entitled for urban social welfare," says Tang.

The government recently announced planned reforms of the household registration system, or "hukou," to gradually allow qualified migrants to receive benefits like education and healthcare in their new homes.

"Slowly, starting from small cities to medium towns then to larger cities, they're loosening up the registration requirements," says Peggy Liu, founder of JUCCCE, a Shanghai-based non-profit dedicated to sustainable development in China.

"In certain cities like Shanghai you can have a points system to actually buy into the hukou system."

READ: China's great migration from 'hukou hell'

China is taking small steps toward complete reform by 2020 because of specific concerns about the impact of a fully opened hukou system.

"This is very sensitive," Tang tells me. "For those people who already have an urban hukou, they may sell it if a market exists.

"And for those who haven't got urban citizenship yet, if they sell (their rural land) and suddenly lose their job, they have no place to go. So the government is very cautious about this."

If land reform moves too quickly, China will lose its unique buffer for unemployment -- the migrant workers' rural homes, where they can always go back to if they lose their jobs.

An unemployed migrant population lingering in the cities poses a threat to stability. That is Beijing's fear.

But on the other hand, the government acutely feels economic pressure to provide migrant workers with social benefits in their new homes.

"The current economic model of state planning, state banks, state industry and all these mega projects is running out of gas. If they have got to keep growth going, it's going to be consumers and so this is all about creating consumers," says McGregor.

"The great social justice story of China is in order to grow you have to turn these migrants into full citizens and consumers."

China's high-stakes version of SimCity has reached a new level.

Game on.

READ: China's migrant workers seek a life back home

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0153 GMT (0953 HKT)
China is building an island in the South China Sea that could accommodate an airstrip, according to IHS Jane's Defence Weekly.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1057 GMT (1857 HKT)
North Korean refugees face a daunting journey to reach asylum in South Korea, with gangs of smugglers the only option.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 2319 GMT (0719 HKT)
China and "probably one or two other" countries have the capacity to shut down the nation's power grid and other critical infrastructure.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1039 GMT (1839 HKT)
It'd be hard to find another country that has spent as much, and as furiously, as China on giving its next generation a head start.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0532 GMT (1332 HKT)
In 1985, Meng Weina set up China's first private special needs school in the southern city of Guangzhou.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 2014 GMT (0414 HKT)
Despite China's inexorable economic rise, the U.S. is still an indispensable ally, especially in Asia. No one knows this more than the Asian giant's leaders, writes Kerry Brown.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 0338 GMT (1138 HKT)
For the United States and China to announce a plan reducing carbon emissions by almost a third by the year 2030 is a watershed moment for climate politics on so many fronts.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 2026 GMT (0426 HKT)
China shows off its new stealth fighter jet, but did it steal the design from an American company? Brian Todd reports.
November 11, 2014 -- Updated 0101 GMT (0901 HKT)
Airshow China in Zhuhai provides a rare glimpse of China's military and commercial aviation hardware.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1314 GMT (2114 HKT)
A new exchange initiative aims to bridge relations between the two countries .
November 11, 2014 -- Updated 0551 GMT (1351 HKT)
Xi and Abe's brief summit featured all the enthusiasm of two unhappy schoolboys forced to make up after a schoolyard dust-up.
November 11, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
Maybe you've decided to show your partner love with a new iPhone. But how about 99 of them?
November 3, 2014 -- Updated 0219 GMT (1019 HKT)
Can China's Muslim minority fit in? One school is at the heart of an ambitious experiment to assimilate China's Uyghurs.
November 4, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is one of thousands of Americans learning Chinese.
November 4, 2014 -- Updated 0500 GMT (1300 HKT)
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou says he needs to maintain good economic ties with China while trying to keep Beijing's push for reunification at bay.
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 0528 GMT (1328 HKT)
Chinese drone-maker DJI wants to make aerial photography drones mainstream despite concerns about privacy.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 0518 GMT (1318 HKT)
A top retired general confesses to taking bribes, becoming the highest-profile figure in China's military to be caught up in war on corruption.
ADVERTISEMENT