19 November 2018

Zhejiang shows the way in intelligent urbanization

Beijing issued a fresh call at the end of last year to expedite the nation’s urbanization efforts. After laying out broad policy brush strokes at the first dedicated state-level work conference in December, top policymakers are now said to be humming and hawing over the plan details. The caution stems from concerns that local officials will use the new initiatives to tread the old path of reckless new-town development.

Reports by state media offer some clues as to how Beijing is conceiving its new master plan for a paradigm shift in urbanization process.

State news agency Xinhua reported that a dedicated task force comprising officials from the National Reform and Development Commission and the State Council’s Development Research Center paid several visits to the eastern province of Zhejiang last year and that the top leadership has applauded the province’s “township to small city” development approach.

High hopes have been placed on Zhejiang, China’s fourth largest provincial economy that boasts the highest per capita income among all provinces and autonomous regions. Sine 2006, the province has been trialing regional development programs that place greater emphasis on developing its townships and counties into small and medium-sized regional urban centers, rather than construction on farmland expropriated from peasants.

In most other places in the country, bureaucrats still rely on the “farmland to city” development model, which has caused a whole lot of problems ranging from mounting government debts to low occupancy rates. Examples are not hard to find: a ghost town in Inner Mongolia’s Ordos {鄂爾多斯} has as much as 90 percent of the housing units there lying vacant. Against this backdrop, the Zhejiang model may come as an effective remedy.

Zhejiang has solid economic strength to underpin its experiment. Official data shows that 330 townships out of the country’s top one-thousand in terms of gross domestic product are in the province.

The province has chosen 27 townships and counties — all with sizable clusters of various manufacturers and distinctive tertiary industries — as places that would be vested with municipal-level economic and social management power, according to Zhejiang Daily. The selected areas are some of the nation’s largest manufacturing bases of small home appliances, leather garments, zippers, stationery, etc.

Some of them have already stood out for their vibrant regional economies. Examples include Hengdian {橫店}, which is home to a massive studio where many Hong Kong-funded dramas and movies are filmed; Xikou {溪口}, a bourgeoning tourist destination in Ningbo and late Taiwan President Chiang Kai-shek’s hometown; and Yiwu {義烏}, a magnet for emerging-market buyers who seek affordable “small commodities” like household gadgets.

It is worth noting that the trials were first initiated by Xi Jinping {習近平} during his tenure as the Communist Party chief of the province between 2002-2007. Now since the new type of urbanization — not the ghost town way — is seen by Xi as a vital pillar to sustain economic development, other regional authorities will certainly take a page out of Zhejiang’s book.

It is believed that the central government will allow more townships and counties to become small cities. That will be a significant breakthrough as a city, even if it is a nominal one, is empowered with rights that are more comprehensive than that of a county or a town in China’s administrative system.

Beijing has made it clear that most of the country’s migrant peasants will live in townships and small cities so as to avoid putting extra burden on the big metros. Restrictions on household registration in small cities would be lifted accordingly. Given the measures, it is likely that the townships and counties in Zhejiang will see rapid growth in population.

Analysts note that Zhejiang is lobbying the central government for a healthcare and education voucher scheme, which can be also applied in other provinces and regions, for easier transfer of social pension accounts to help the people migrating to the new townships.

– Contact the writer at [email protected]


EJ Insight writer

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