Communiqué no. 9: We were told to expect lots of cranes in China. And where there are cranes, people will come.
Wuhan, perhaps the biggest city in Asia most Americans have never heard of, is 11 million people and growing along the Yangtze River plain in central China. The outskirts of the city are ringed with the shells of partially-built high-rises that soon will house or office the 600,000 people a year the surrounding province hopes to “urbanize.”
That’s not-so-subtle code for telling peasant farmers that the modern world and economic progress are coming their way and they’re going to have to find different lines of work. There’s no choice about it.
To put it in Minnesota terms, that means Wuhan expects to grow by the size of a city larger than Minneapolis every year.
But perhaps forced urbanization is not all bad, according to Wu Shiying, an official of the Administrative Committee of the Wuhan East Lake High-Technology Development Zone, a sprawling urban tech quarter that was all farm fields 20 years ago. About 100,000 peasants were displaced for the project, she said. But now some of them own and run the five-star Optics Valley Ramada-branded hotel. Optics stands for fiber-optics, one of the big industries in town. Some of the ex-farmers make up part of the growing tech workforce as well.
Those "ghost towns" of Chinese skyscrapers you hear about? They'll soon be filled, the authorities assure us.
China’s Communist Party, which appears to have put collectivist ideology in the rear-view mirror, now depends on growing GDP for its continued legitimacy. That entails an aggressive global trading strategy, rapid technological development, and a massive urbanization program to productively employ the world’s biggest population.
In exchange for their land, the farmers get some money and a change of legal residence – something that’s always required government approval. Legal status in China translates into social benefits, like getting to go to schools. To move around without registration means to become something akin to an illegal immigrant in your own country, a growing problem in China.
Foreign investors, who back about 10 percent of the companies that make up Wuhan’s high tech zone, might just have to look past the social dislocation inherent in all the cranes and high-rises are going up around China. It represents progress of a sort. And what’s the alternative?
Chinese pollster Victor Yuan says urbanization has almost universal support with the public, even from the “village side” of things. “They feel that if their kids go to the city, they have a better chance,” he said. “Going to the city is the new hope.”
The selling point for Minnesota and other points West? “We can provide them with talent,” Wu said, “and a market.”
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