China's urbanization process has been picking up speed over the past five years, and this is evident in the growing size of the cities, their increasing economic strengths and management levels.
Official statistics show that the country's 287 cities, from the prefecture level up, have seen more than a one-fold increase in their GDPs compared to the previous five years. And their total GDP accounts for 63.2 percent of the national total. The GDP in each of the 12 big cities, including Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, exceeded 200 billion yuan last year (US$26.3 billion).
While urbanization is proceeding at an accelerated pace, urban population growth is also picking up speed.
Take Beijing for example. Latest statistics show that the mobile population, which contributes largely to the demographic growth in urban areas, had reached 5.1 million by the end of June this year. The sum total of the mobile population and permanent residents has hit 17.147 million. This means that Beijing's population will breach the threshold of 18 million ahead of expectations and therefore will make the nation's capital a mega city in the world.
It is estimated that the mobile population, of which farmers working in cities make up the vast majority, is between 200 million and 250 million now.
Under pressure of such a large mobile population and in the face of rapid urbanization, the Chinese government is looking for new solutions.
In the first place, it is imperative to turn millions of former farmers into qualified workers in the industrial and service sectors. Or in other words, it is a matter of providing employment for them.
Currently, the nation's urban economy is undergoing profound structural changes. In 2006, for example, the growth rate of the industrial and service sectors of the country's prefecture-level cities and up increased by 1.1 percentage points and 0.3 percentage points respectively compared to 2002. At the same time, the growth rate of agriculture declined by 1.4 percentage points. This indicates that the nation's economic structure is becoming more rational. It also indicates where the labor force is moving.
Realizing this, governments at various levels in China have formulated a strategy to offer professional training to farmers-turned workers in order to help them gain employment. Heilongjiang Province in northeast China, for instance, has earmarked 200 million yuan this year to subsidize this kind of training, which covers machinery processing, garment making, digital control technology and others.
However, mere professional training is not enough to help these farmers-turned workers integrate into urban life. Wide differences between rural and urban values, habits and customs pose huge obstacles to integration.
Governments at different levels in the country are striving to solve this problem. The government of Hangzhou, capital of east China's Zhejiang Province, for example, has set up 900 mobile-worker schools for the 100,000 farmers-turned workers in the city. Wherever there are construction sites schools for them have been opened. They are primarily taught etiquette, laws, quality of engineering projects, and work safety.
It should be admitted that the governments' double-pronged approach, which focuses on professional skills on the one hand and personal quality on the other, is correct. But it is not enough in the long process to make millions of farmers assume new roles in the cities.
Large numbers of rural laborers will keep pouring into urban areas as China's industrialization and urbanization continues. This process will take some time, taking into account Europe's Industrial Revolution which took nearly 140 years. We should, therefore, formulate a long-term strategy to address the issue, besides providing professional training for migrant workers and raising their personal standards.
The mobile population in cities on the whole are still marginalized economically and socially. Their wages and the unequal wealth distribution system are sustained by a primitive and unstable social contract that is beyond the protection of the law. This denies them many rights, including social security guarantees enjoyed by the permanent residents of cities.
As "marginalized people", mental anguish can be nurtured, which, in turn, could result in destabilization of the urbanization process.
Urbanization, industrial revolution and scientific progress are the products of social transformation. At the very core of all this is the transformation of people's way of life and changes in their social status.
Doubtless, millions upon millions of farmers-turned workers will improve themselves while they are changing the cities and, in turn, the country, in the great process of urbanization.
(China Daily October 26, 2007)