Thursday, Sep 3, 2015, 10:27 AM CST – China

Commentary

Urbanization should mean more than relocation

China’s urbanization drive should not only aim to move people into cities, but to germinate a genuinely modern society

Amid all the discussion about China’s reform and urbanization, there are few devoted to the reform of the “connections culture” widespread in both rural and urban society. Without tackling this issue, China cannot build a modern society, and the cities it creates through its push toward urbanization will merely be mega-villages.

In China’s traditional society, one’s survival and prosperity depended entirely upon cultivating relationships with others within a social hierarchy in which patriarchal, religious and economic relations were closely intertwined. In a feudal village, the village chief or chiefs often monopolized political and economic power, distributing social resources through the hierarchy. Those at the bottom received next to nothing.

While actual feudalism may be long gone, its social and cultural legacy still lingers in Chinese society, especially in rural villages and small cities. Nepotism dominates the distribution of social resources, as social mobility is determined, not by merit or hard work, but by simple connections.

This nepotist society has been the cause of various social problems. Corruption is the most egregious - public resources are monopolized by local elites, and are distributed through patriarchal relationships rather than through an open and fair system. The result has been increasing number of petitions to provincial and central authorities, filed by people who have reached the end of their rope in dealings with their local officials.

To address this problem, the authorities should endeavor to establish a merit-based system to allow the market to play a major role in allocating social resources, while minimizing the personal influence of officials in distributing welfare, especially in smaller cities. One approach is to establish a comprehensive professional certification system so that residents can depend on their skills rather than their personal connections to prosper.  

Unfortunately, this issue has been largely ignored in the policymaking process regarding urbanization, which has primarily focused on resettling rural residents in cities. However, without addressing widespread nepotism in these growing urban areas, new residents often find themselves marginalized in the cities as they were in the countryside, essentially subsisting on the whims of their social betters. In recent years, many of the riots that the government terms “mass incidents” have involved frustrated new urban residents.

Another characteristic of China’s urbanization is that the country’s megacities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou appear to attract a large number of rural migrants, increasing demographic pressure despite of rocketing housing prices and a spiraling cost living in these cities. A major reason behind this is that the problem of nepotism is much less severe in these mega cities, where the sheer diversity of the populace makes it harder for social networks to gain a decisive foothold.

In pushing forward urbanization, the leadership has repeatedly called for the development of small cities. But they must look beyond demographic stats and seriously tackle the problem of nepotism.

Without modernizing Chinese society, urbanization will only result in ever-larger villages, and ever-greater social inequality.

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