YOU’RE WELCOME TO LEAVE BEIJING
Beijing plans to further tighten its ineffective population control measures, but more drastic policy changes may be needed
At a municipal plenary session late 2013, Beijing Mayor Wang Anshun placed population control at the top of his agenda for the year 2014, claiming that the city’s exponential population growth had contributed to problems like pollution, traffic congestion and the deteriorating appearance of the city.
How bad could Beijing’s problems be? In a list compiled by IBM that compared levels of difficulty endured by commuters in major world cities, Beijing was second only to Mexico City. On Beijing’s roads, automobiles move at an average of 12 kilometers per hour, in contrast to 20 kilometers per hour in Hong Kong, 21.4 in Tokyo, 25 in New York and 29 in London, according to a report by international bank UBS.
Some have pointed to poor city management and urban planning as the root of Beijing’s problems, citing Hong Kong and Tokyo as counter-examples. Though population density in Tokyo and Hong Kong is much higher than in Beijing, both suffer less congestion and are in far better order.
However, such theories are unpopular among Beijing officials, who prefer to blame their city’s problems on overpopulation.
Mayor Wang stated that a major goal of his population control plan was to chase low-end industries from Beijing – a policy in line with the government’s efforts over the past few years to edge out low-end manufacturing, garment wholesale markets, small commodities markets and construction material markets – all of which draw in large population numbers yet generate little GDP – from the city proper.
Housing regulations are another of Wang’s population control measures – landlords, especially those in the downtown area, will be banned from dividing their houses into tiny cells to be leased at prices affordable to migrant workers. Some basements have been sealed off to prevent them from being rented out as accommodation.
Residence permits for migrants to Beijing will also be introduced, available only to those deemed to have the “top technical talent” the city needs, granting them access to public services such as schooling and affordable housing.
More than 40 percent of Beijing residents have no Beijing hukou, or residence permit (effectively an internal visa), leaving them without access to social benefits and local public schools, though some manage to send their children to privately funded schools for migrant workers’ children. Over the past few years, the Beijing government has bulldozed many of these schools for not having the requisite government licenses, and no new licenses have been issued for the past three years.
Regardless of these measures, Beijing’s population control efforts are widely considered to have been a total failure – the city previously aimed to keep its population below 18 million by 2020, a limit that was broken long ago. In spite of stringent population control measures and record-breaking levels of air pollution in 2013, Beijing’s population saw a net annual increase of 460,000, or 2.2 percent, to 21.1 million.
“These policies to control population have served only to make trouble for those without a hukou,” said Mao Shoulong, a professor specializing in public policy at Renmin University of China in Beijing.
However, population growth rate has been slowing for the past four years, from 5.5 percent in 2010 to 2.2 percent last year, along with the city’s slowing GDP growth, according to the Beijing statistics bureau.
Beijing’s population policies aim to attract upscale industries like finance, IT, upscale manufacturing and other high-end services, and only the sections of the population it sees as most desirable. According to Mao Shoulong, this is unlikely to work out as planned.
“The elite need secretaries and drivers. When a member of the elite moves into Beijing, five to 10 new service sector employees will be needed to meet his or her needs,” Mao said. “How can we believe that Bill Gates could do anything on his own? He needs someone to drive him around, do his laundry and take care of his security.”
“If Beijing wants to bring top law firms and software companies to the city, these people will need people to cook for them, at least.”
Moreover, Beijing has now amassed such a high concentration of resources – including many of the country’s most desirable hospitals, universities and job opportunities – that it is unavoidably attractive to non-Beijingers. Beijing has also enjoyed privileged allocation of fiscal, energy and water resources in recent years, and its government has placed heavy subsidies on services like public transportation and State-managed central heating.
Even during nationwide gas or electricity shortages, Beijing’s resource security is marked as a political priority, and a blackout in Beijing is virtually unimaginable. To better cater to the capital’s increasing demand for water, a large-scale project is currently underway to channel water from the Yangtze River to the capital.
In 1949, when the Communist Party of China founded the People’s Republic and settled on Beijing as its capital, the city’s population was only 1 million, about one fifth that of Shanghai, China’s biggest city at the time. Over the past six decades, Beijing’s population has grown twentyfold, bringing it level with Shanghai’s in 2013.
As the economic, cultural, political and educational center of the country, Beijing has a concentration of resources rare in other countries – a major reason behind the city’s problems, according to Mao Yushi, one of China’s most prominent economists.
Another reason for the population influx could be the comparatively low cost of public services in the city, with immense government investment and subsidies warping prices and continuing to attract more people to the city, according to Yi Peng, an urbanization researcher with Beijing-based think tank Pangoal.
So far the city has relied on top-down policy mandate, rather than market-oriented measures, to solve its problems. For instance, while Shanghai and Guangzhou use license plate auctions to control vehicle numbers, Beijing has adopted a lottery system to issue new license plates. Residents without a Beijing hukou are excluded from the lottery unless they have a record of paying taxes in Beijing for at least five consecutive years.
While most of the world’s largest cities use congestion charge to control traffic density, Beijing bans one fifth of its automobiles from its roads on weekdays, and even intends to increase this to 50 percent if its traffic problem does not improve.
“A solution for Beijing could be to have the market set the cost of living in the city. Living costs would rise, and many people would consider moving somewhere else,” said Yi Peng.
In the long term, public resources will have to be distributed more equally among China’s cities. This could enhance the attractiveness of other cities, and even out population distribution, he added.
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Sep 2011 | Submitted by Brian Snelson
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