China’s new urban dwellers really still live in the countryside, study says

Sidney Leng

About a third of China’s urban residents actually live rural lives, according to a recent study, suggesting Beijing’s claims about the success of its urbanisation programme have been significantly overstated.

The study, carried out by economists from Southwestern University of Finance and Economics in Chengdu and Nankai University in Tianjin, is based on demographic changes to 700,000 communities across the country between 2009 and 2017.

What it found was that over the period, 33 per cent of people were redefined by the authorities as being part of the urban population, though their actual lives did not change in any discernible way.

“These communities, though statistically reclassified as urban, retain their basic rural characteristics,” said Gan Li, who led the study. “Residents in these communities continue to share similar living conditions with rural villagers, even years after being reclassified.”

These communities, though statistically reclassified as urban, retain their basic rural characteristics

Gan Li

The period covered by the research coincided with Beijing’s efforts to speed up the movement of people from rural to urban areas in a bid to shore up slowing economic growth and redress the problems of a rapidly ageing population.

In 2014, Beijing set a goal to “urbanise” 100 million people by 2020, however, the central government is moving towards that goal by simply reclassifying rural areas, meaning that millions of rural dwellers have become urban folk without ever leaving their homes, the researchers found.

The study adds fuel to the debate over the actual rate of urbanisation in China, which the government put at 60 per cent at the end of 2018, with a target of 75 per cent by 2035.

China changed the rules on how to differentiate between urban and rural areas in 2008, with the main factors being how much land had been redeveloped and residents’ proximity to the seats of local government.

Adding further confusion to the calculation process is a rule stating that industrial estates, economic development zones and colleges are also classed as urban areas – regardless of how far away from the local government they are – as long as they are home to more than 3,000 people.

On that basis alone, between 2009 and 2017 about 8.5 per cent of rural communities – or 40,000 – were statistically reclassified as urban, according to the study, which cited figures from the National Bureau of statistics.

The researchers also found that of the more than 101 million people newly classified as being urban dwellers between 2010 and 2015, only about half had relocated from rural areas – a group often described by the umbrella term “migrant workers”.

The remainder were “redefined migrants” who lived rural lives but on land classified as urban, the study said.

Furthermore, many of the people living in the reclassified communities were oblivious to their new urban status, the study found, with three out of four community leaders saying they believed they were still rural folk.

Most of the land within the communities was used for agricultural purposes and more than 90 per cent of the local people still had an agricultural hukou – the household registration document that defines what social welfare credits and services Chinese people are entitled to.

Gan said that the 33 per cent of “redefined migrants” might also explain the huge numbers of empty residential properties in China’s cities. The study said China had 65 million empty properties in 2018.

He said that although the construction of apartment buildings had increased exponentially in recent years, most new “urbanites” did not need a new home as they already had one.

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