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Supersizing Small Cities in China
Summary: In the late eighties the county-level city of Leiyang had an urban population of 80,000, that's now blown out to almost half a million people. Policy makers are split over the pace at which smaller cities should expand.

By Xie Liangbing (谢良兵) and Tian Yan (田园)
Issue 618, May 6, 2013
Nation, page 9
Translated by Zhu Na and Pang Lei
Original article: [Chinese]

This is the first in an ongoing series from the EO looking at the issue of urbanization in China. When we talk about urbanization in China, many often think of the rapid expansion of megacities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, but it's also about the changes sweeping through smaller cities and counties across the country. This week, we look at the debates surrounding plans to encourage the further expansion of the urban population in what was once a small county-level city in the central province of Hunan.
After working for many years in Foshan, a city in China's manufacturing heartland of Guangdong, Zi Xiaohu (资小虎) and his wife recently decided to move back to his hometown in the central province of Hunan.

The couple's child, who remained behind in the village while the parents worked, is about to start preschool. The couple were unable to find a good school close to their village, so they're thinking of buying an apartment in the downtown Leiyang (耒阳), in the hope that this will make it easier for their child to get into a decent school.

After spending three days searching for an apartment, they discovered that this small county-level city was becoming more and more like a real city. Buildings over 20-stories tall are spread throughout the city's crowded streets. Unfamiliar phrases like "CBD" and "central park" (城市中央公园), that were once only to be heard in large urban centers, now appear in real estate ads.

The County-level City Explosion

Leiyang is gradually transitioning from what urban planners define as a medium-sized city to a large city.

Twenty-five years ago, the urban area of Leiyang was only 7 square kilometers and had a population of less than 80,000. Now the urban area has expanded to 46 square kilometers and is home to 460,000 people, making it one of the largest county-level cities in Hunan province.

Although it's urban area has already developed into a medium-sized city, most of Leiyang's total population of 1.4 million still, on paper at least, live in rural areas.

At the end of the nineties, Zi Xiaohu was still in high school. At that time, his school was considered to be on the outskirts of Leiyang's urban district, but now it's surrounded by tall buildings and commercial housing developments. The small city of the past, which you could walk around in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette, is already long gone. It has been replaced by a strange new city that hopes one day to develop into a big city.

How the City Grew

Most of Leiyang's total population of 1.4 million, in theory, still live in rural areas. The city's urbanization rate - the proportion of residents living in urban areas - is still below the national average. In 2012, China's urbanization rate was 52.6 percent, but Leiyang's was 47.31 percent.

That said, of the one million people in Leiyang that are formally registered as rural residents, less than 400,000 of them actually live in rural areas. Close to 400,000 of the city's registered inhabitants have gone to work in the Pearl River Delta and another 200,000 or more are working and living in Leiyang's urban areas.

In the past few years, as the pace of economic expansion in the Pearl River Delta eased, many migrants returned to Leiyang but settled in the urban areas of the county. Because of this new influx of returning migrant workers, further expansion of the city has been put on the agenda of the local government.

Debate Over Pace of Expansion

Earlier this year, Hunan Province designated Leiyang as one of seven county-level cities which are to be developed into "large cities" (大城市) over the next five years. Chinese urban planners define a large city as one with a population of between 500,000 and a million people.

In addition, Hunan officials also announced that 22 county-level cities have been earmarked for development into medium-sized cities, that is with a population of between 200,000 and 500,000 people.

This push to expand the size of smaller cities is taking place in many other parts of China. Aside from Hunan, Anhui and other many provinces have also announced similar plans to develop medium-sized and large cities as part of their recently released urbanization plans.

City planners want to develop Leiyang into a large regional center of southern Hunan. They aim to expand the size of the urban area of Leiyang to 60 square kilometers and lift the population to 600,000 by the end of 2017.

But Xu Huanjie (许焕杰), the former vice chairman of the city's political consultation body, isn't a supporter of what he describes as "great leap forward" expansion.

Xu told the EO that given the current situation in the city, blind expansion of the city should not be allowed to take place for at least the next ten years. Xu argued that it's better to limit the size of Leiyang's urban area to 40 square kilometers, noting that "industrial clusters (产业集群) haven't formed yet, which means it is hard to provide additional employment opportunities or increase the happiness index for people currently living in urban areas."

Zhang Keyun (张可云), a professor at the Regional and Urban Economic Research Institute of Renmin University, told the EO that government should respect the rules of urbanization, and shouldn't blindly expand the size of cities. Zhang noted that blind expansion will only bring problems.

Xiao Jincheng (肖金城), deputy director of the National Land Development and Regional Economy Research Institute of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), told the EO that urbanization needs to take place in step with industrialization. The level of urbanization or the city's population doesn't depend on the size of the city, the key is whether you have industry and whether you have jobs.

Xu Huanjie seems to share this view. "If there is no industry, why do we need so many people and what will we do with them?"

Problems Emerge

Zi Xiaohua is still unsure whether he wants to buy a house in downtown Leiyang or not. Zi says he is "being urbanized" (被城市化) and that if there was a decent school in his village, he wouldn't need to buy a house in the city. But the hollowing out of education resources in Leiyang's rural areas has already taken place.

The number of primary and secondary schools in rural areas has been declining and individual primary school classes in rural area now have as few as 30 to 40 pupils. The urban areas of Leiyang however are now having to deal with a huge increase in student numbers. The average size of a class in many schools is now in excess of 90 students.

A lack of teachers in urban areas led the city's education bureau to make the controversial decision in 2010 to transfer 167 teachers from rural to urban schools. This erupted into a widely-reported scandal after the deputy director of the city's education bureau was arrested for receiving bribes from teachers. Commentators also raised questions about what the decision meant for the quality of education in rural areas.

It's not only education resources that are being stretched by the city's expansion, residents also complain about power and water outages.

A former classmate of Zi Xiaohua who bought an apartment in the city a few years ago told him that for the past four or five years, the power in the neighborhood has out every Spring Festival Eve. This former classmate complained "I haven't been able to watch CCTV's Spring Festival Gala TV show in years."

Water shortages are also a problem for Leiyang residents. In July of 2007 the water supply to a large part of the city was cut off.

A worker at the Leiyang Water Company told the EO that the city had been running short of water from 2006. Until a second water treatment plant was opened in January 2012, the city relied on only one plant for its tap water. In 2009, that plant was capable of supplying about 30,000 tons of water a day, or enough to meet the demands of about 50,000 people. At that time the city had over 300,000 people. Most people had to rely on digging wells to get water.

Leiyang is also starting to experience its first traffic jams. There are a lack of parking places in the city center for the more than 100,000 vehicles on the city's roads and traffic jams are now common as cars have no choice but to park on the road. The city's public transport system is also very limited, with a total of 272 buses operating along 12 routes.


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