China’s urban development: Li Bijian

By Li Bijian | Business Recorder Sep 22, 2021

Since the outset of China’s “Reform and Opening up” in 1978, the world has witnessed the fastest and largest urbanization in human history: In 1978, China had an urban population of 172 million with an urbanization rate of 17.9%, while in 2021, these two figures dramatically elevated to 902 million and 63.89%. The number of Chinese cities has reached 687 and these cities are creating about 90% of China’s total GDP.
China’s urban development also immensely uplifted the living standards and well-being of Chinese urban residents: the per capita disposable income of Chinese urban residents increased from 343 RMB (US$ 53.1) in 1978 to 40,378 RMB (US$ 6258.6) in 2020. The housing, education and medical conditions of Chinese urban residents have also been greatly improved. The 2010 Shanghai World Expo’s theme fittingly illustrated China’s urban development: “Better City, Better Life”.
Nowadays, Chinese cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen have become the world’s first-tier cities and hubs for global trade, finance, transportation, culture and talent. “New first-tier” cities such as Chengdu, Chongqing, Hangzhou, and Xi’an appeal to tourists and investors from all over the world. A large number of small and medium-sized cities are no less competitive than large cities in terms of transportation accessibility, life convenience, and economic vibrancy. It’s fair to say that the blossoming of Chinese cities is a reflection of the vigorous development of China’s economy and society. To a large extent, the Chinese economic miracle is also brought about by the rapid development of Chinese cities. As a developing country that has achieved rapid urban development, China mainly has the following experience to share with the world, especially with our Pakistani friends.
First, attach great importance to urban economic development, attracting foreign investment and building a competitive business environment. At the early stage of “Reform and Opening up”, the capital and technological strength of Chinese cities was very weak. With a view to attaining rapid development, many cities spared no effort to attract foreign investment, business, and technology. In terms of specific measures, Chinese cities established a large number of Special Economic Zones (SEZs). These SEZs introduced many preferential policies in the areas of taxation, land, and services, and more importantly, these policies remained stable for a long-term. City governments vied with each other to provide enterprises with high-quality safety, administrative approval and daily-life services. As a result, Chinese cities successfully utilized their advantages of low labor costs and vast market to build export-oriented industries, which helped to harvest rapid economic development, large employment and substantial income growth for urban residents, and all the above-mentioned laid a solid economic foundation for urban development.
Second, formulate a scientific urban development plan in advance to ensure the orderly and coordinated development of the city. Most Chinese cities have formulated 5-year, 10-year or even 15-year urban development plans, drawing out “blueprints” for the development of different aspects of the city. These blueprints provide comprehensive planning for the city’s long-term vision, functions of different regions, and supporting facilities such as transportation, education, medical and commercial facilities. These blueprints carefully consider development needs, advantages and disadvantages of the whole city as well as different regions, development advantages and difficult conditions of the city as a whole and each region, in order to ensure the city can make full use of favorable conditions and evade unfavorable ones. These blueprints also ensure excellent coordination and cooperation among various regions and various facilities, thus avoiding blind development which may bring about unexpected troubles and waste of resources.
Third, vigorously build urban infrastructure in areas like transportation, communications, networks, and municipal public projects to lay a solid hardware foundation for urban development. Currently, China’s high-speed railway mileage and air passenger traffic stand at 1st and 2nd positions respectively in the world, and around 40 cities are operating subways, enabling ultra-convenient inter-city and intra-city traffic. China’s 5G network covers all prefecture-level cities, and China’s mobile and fixed internet speed ranks 4th and 17th respectively in the world according to international network speed testing agency, both leading world rankings, it is fair to say that high-quality and low-cost Internet service can be enjoyed in any Chinese city. The supply of electricity, gas, and tap water in either large, medium or small cities is very stable with rather low cost. There is almost no outage for Chinese municipal public project, regardless of power, gas or water system, industrial production, commercial operations and residents’ lives have reliable hardware guarantees.
Fourth, build and persistently improve the social security system for residents, building a “safety net” and “stabilizer” for urban residents. China has been persistently improving the social security system for urban residents. The security systems established and led by the government, including unemployment insurance, old-age insurance, medical insurance, and minimum living allowance have played an important role in “covering the bottom”. As an old Chinese saying goes, “the elderly are provided with care, the sick are properly treated, and the weak are supported”. To summarize, the lives of vulnerable social groups, such as the elderly, the disabled, and the unemployed are all guaranteed. This fundamentally enables China to avoid the problem of a large number of urban residents with no means of living, which in turn leads to high crime rates and social unrest.
Fifth, attach importance to providing better housing conditions to urban residents and achieve “Proper Housing for All Living” Data shows that the housing conditions of Chinese urban residents have been greatly lifted: In 1978, the per capita housing space of Chinese urban residents was 6.7 square meters, and in 2019, the same indicator reached 39.8 square meters. China’s achievement in this field is closely related to the adoption of various government policies to ensure “Proper Housing for All Living”, such as the comprehensive utilization of finance and land tools to control real estate prices, cracking down on real estate speculation, and ensuring the orderly operation of the housing leasing market, various affordable housing schemes including affordable housing, joint-ownership housing, talent apartments, and public rental housing. With all these policies, the urban residents can live safely and decently in peace and contentment, and this also helped China to avoid a large number of displaced urban residents and long-standing issues of slums.
Sixth, refine characteristics and protect fine traditions of cities. In the process of rapid development, Chinese cities did not simply duplicate cities in developed countries, small and medium-sized cities did not simply copy from large cities. Instead, they paid attention to refining and polishing urban characteristics and unique competitiveness in line with their own characteristics. Protecting and creatively inheriting the fine traditions of the cities is also taken seriously. For example, Beijing retains the local characteristic neighborhoods “Nanluoguxiang” and “Houhai” in the downtown area, which has become one of Beijing’s “Internet celebrity” landmarks. Chengdu highlights its livable environment, comfortable life, diverse cuisine, and profound historical heritage, all these have attracted a huge number of Chinese and foreign tourists. Small and medium-sized cities such as Sanya, Boao in Hainan Province, and Dali, Lijiang in Yunnan Province, among many others, give full play to their advantages and vigorously cultivating tourism and cultural industries, instead of blindly developing large-scale industries that can bring much short-term taxation and employment, consequently, the beautiful scenery and pleasant environment world-renowned, granting these cities the “golden name cards”.
Seventh, adhere to coordinated development of urban and rural areas, realizing a positive cycle of mutual promotion. In China, there are still more than 500 million people living in rural areas, which provide cities with a large amount of labour and agricultural products, and they are also important markets for urban products and services. In return, cities provide funds, technology, talents, and management experience for rural development. China is adopting a series of measures, such as facilitating the two-way flow of urban and rural population, promoting the integrated development of urban and rural industries, equalizing medical & education services, all with a view to promoting the coordinated development of urban and rural areas. Ecological food production and processing, rural leisure tourism, rural e-commerce and other industries have markedly benefited both urban and rural residents. China’s urban and rural areas realized sustainable mutually-promoting development, consistent with each other’s abilities, successfully avoiding the malformed situation in which a few wealthy urban “islands” float in a “sea” of poor rural areas and eventually development of both sides is restricted.
China and Pakistan are both developing countries with large populations. The backgrounds and problems faced by two countries’ cities have many similarities. We hope that the development experience of Chinese cities may serve as a reference for Pakistani friends. China also hopes that more Pakistan cities could form sister-city relations with Chinese cities, enabling cities of two countries to better work together and cooperate closely, so that local cooperation could bring more benefit to people of the two countries. The local cooperation would become a crucial component and driving force of “China-Pakistan all-weather strategic cooperative partnership”.


Li Bijian is Chinese Consul General in Karachi, Pakistan. The article was originally published on Business Recorder.

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