China encourages mass urban migrationChina is to encourage the migration of between 300m to 500m people from rural areas to towns and cities by 2020, a transformation that Beijing hopes will help drive growth but which will also fundamentally alter the economy and society of the world's most populous nation.
The biggest potential migration in human history is now part of China's master plan. Wang Mengkui, head of the cabinet's think-tank, told the Financial Times that the country's urban population would rise to around 800m by 2020, up from an official 502m at the end of last year.
This estimate, Mr Wang said, was likely to be conservative. Another official, Wang Dayong, a director at the China Development Bank, which is charged with financing many of the country's state infrastructure projects, said some 500m people could become urban residents by 2020.
"A country where most of the population is in poor or remote villages will not be a modern and developed nation," said Mr Wang Mengkui, minister at the State Council's Development Research Centre. "Our urbanisation rate [of 39 per cent now is equivalent only to that of the UK in the 1850s, that of the US in 1911 and that of Japan in 1950."
"I think our urbanisation rate should reach 55-60 per cent of the population by 2020."
The forces driving the rural exodus are easy to find. Farmers in a dusty roadside hamlet outside the western city of Chengdu laugh when asked if they can get by on the income from the loquat trees they grow.
"We are pleased if we just get enough food to eat," said Wang Xiandi, 34, blaming unseasonable weather and the recent outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) for a fall in loquat sales that has left farmers struggling.
As in countless rural communities around China, farmers scrabble to supplement their incomes with part-time labour or small trading but see the wealth gap with the nearby towns grow wider.
The migration to urban areas is set to provide decades of access to cheap labour for the factories that are turning China into the "workshop of the world" and for the under-developed service industries that will be vital to long-term economic growth.
"During the last 20 years China's gross domestic product growth rate averaged around 9 per cent, to which [the growth derived] from labour transference was an average 1.5 percentage points annually," Mr Wang said.
"A lot of manpower keeps coming from the countryside," said a foreign manager at Chengdu's Hi-Tech Industrial Development Zone. "Workers are very cheap."
If those who move to the cities can find jobs they will also help to support the impoverished villages they left behind by sending back funds while also forming a potentially powerful new source of consumer demand.
But the arrivals from the villages also pose real policy challenges. Only in recent years has the government begun to dismantle a Mao-era system that kept rural residents strictly segregated from their more privileged urban cousins.
Senior construction ministry official Qiu Baoxing told state media recently that urbanisation could become a "calamity" if water and land resources were not protected properly and city planning not improved.
Mr Wang stressed the importance of ensuring a decent education in the city for the children of rural migrants, a challenge keenly felt at one unofficial school set up in a disused paint factory in western Beijing.
"More and more rural people are coming to the cities and needing education for their children," said headmaster Yi Benyao, who has already enrolled 2,000 pupils kept out of municipal schools by high fees, red-tape or fear of discrimination. "But our [school's] environment is bad and the conditions are poor - I feel it is unfair to the children."
Other observers worry that migrants will become a source of social instability in cities where the extremes of poverty and wealth have eliminated all traces of egalitarianism.
In a speech earlier this year, outspoken rural entrepreneur Sun Dawu dismissed government efforts to shift farmers into newly built cities and warned that only a small proportion would be able to find jobs in urban areas.
"Farmers in the city will have to sell their labour as coolies and this brings great danger," Mr Sun said. "There will not be violent revolution among farmers in the villages, but if rural problems suddenly become urban problems it will mean chaos for the country."
Back in the Chengdu countryside, farmer Zhang Chuanliang, 80, has no wish to leave his fields of sweet potato and millet but admits that one of his four sons has already gone to the city to work. The others may soon have to follow.
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