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'Supercities' to Tackle Urbanization Challenge

Faced with the rapid growth of cities and a surge in urban population driven mainly by the influx of migrants from rural areas, experts have called for the country to adopt a more focused pattern of urbanization.

"An urgent shift in focus from solely driving GDP growth to an agenda of boosting urban productivity is not only an opportunity but a necessity," a report released by the McKinsey Global Institute, consultancy McKinsey and Co's economics think tank, stated on Monday.

With the population of urban areas expected to surpass 1 billion in 2030, a "supercity" pattern of urban growth would produce 20 percent more per capita GDP than the current pattern, obtain higher energy efficiency, and curb the loss of arable land, McKinsey said.

The move would produce 15 "supercities" with an average population of 25 million, Xinhua News Agency reported of McKinsey's study.

Such a pattern would also help cluster the most skilled workers in urban centers, which would be major engines of economic growth, the report stated.

The "supercities" would reportedly be better equipped to deal with the challenges of development than a rash of smaller cities: energy productivity would be nearly 20 percent higher; public transport would be more efficient; air and water pollution would be easier to manage and cropland losses could be kept to under 8 percent.

The country's urban population was forecast to expand from the 572 million seen in 2005, to 926 million in 2025 and 1 billion in 2030.

Of the 350 million people added to the country's urban population by 2025, more than 240 million would be migrants from the rural regions.

And by 2025, there would be 221 cities with populations of 1 million each. Meanwhile, urban areas would reportedly generate 95 percent of the country's GDP, up from the current 75 percent.

"Continued growth of China's cities will ensure that China meets its target of quadrupling per capita GDP from 2000 levels by 2020," the report stated.

But it also warned that urban population growth would put pressure on many cities, including the challenge of managing more people, securing sufficient funds for social services and dealing with demand and supply of land, energy, water and the environment.

Urban consumption, for one, would hit 21.7 trillion yuan (US$3 trillion) in 2025, taking 33 percent of GDP, compared with 25 percent in 2005, the report stated.

Chinese population experts have also said that the country would reap greater economic benefits and improve energy efficiency by improving its urbanization pattern.

"Urbanization is a significant sign of modernization in China," Mu Guangzong, a professor of the population research institute under Peking University, told China Daily in a phone interview on Tuesday.

One problem currently facing the country's pattern of urbanization is the imbalance in the distribution of the population, Mu said.

"People prefer to move to economically developed cities in the east or central regions, and that would slow down the development in the west of the country," Mu said.

Mu also warned that the labor shortage in rural areas, a side effect of urbanization, is creating a widening gap in the economic development of cities and the countryside.

"Too many people are striving for better lives in cities, but an overwhelming density of population actually worsens their living standard," Mu said.

Faced with the increasing competition for skilled labor, migrants without adequate education and skills are unable to find jobs to sustain a higher cost of living in the cities they go to, Mu said.

These migrants end up seeking temporary shelter at the fringes of cities, where there is a real danger of higher poverty and crime rates, Mu said.

"In contrast, you see many villages empty of young people, with land uncultivated," Mu said.

Yin Deting, a researcher with the Beijing Population Research Institute, said urban areas attract migrants in many ways.

"The income gap between urban and rural areas used to be the main reason for migrants going to cities, while the favorable policies in cities on education and medical care for migrants and their children have become new pull factors," Yin told China Daily on Tuesday.

Many cities, for instance, have set up special schools for the children of migrant workers in line with preferential policies, Yin said.

"More rural residents prefer to stay in Beijing and seek opportunities for their children to study in the capital, where the quality of education is definitely better than what is available in their hometowns," he said.

A better social welfare system for rural areas would help address the threat of social instability amid overheating urbanization, Yin said.

"Urbanization is a complex process which needs to be compatible with the conditions of employment, security, education, public transportation, medical insurance, environmental protection and infrastructure," he said.

Yin cited the example of satellite cities as one way to relieve the pressure.

"Many large cities have developed small-scale, satellites cities to relieve the pressure of population," he said.

Much effort has been spent on developing 14 satellite cities around Beijing, which have helped absorb low-skilled labor from the capital, Yin said.

The country's urbanization is closely linked to the reform of the industrial structure, said Lai Desheng, director of the labor market research center under Beijing Normal University.

The shift of focus from the agricultural industry to the service sector in the process of urbanization would also present new challenges, Lai said.

While students in rural areas can access government subsidies to finish a nine-year compulsory education, once they leave their hometowns and come to urban areas, the subsidies are no longer applicable, Lai said.

As a result, these students face financial difficulties when they try to enter schools in cities.

A proper mechanism should be set up to finance this group, Lai said.

(China Daily/Xinhua News Agency March 26, 2008)

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