China's Urbanization Paradox

A Monday Global Times piece debunks the urban dream for rural Chinese students, who used to view acceptance to an urban university as a “golden ticket” which allowed them to shift their rural hukou (residence permit) to an urban area and enjoy its superior welfare and services. Now, the author claims, the urban hukou has lost its luster as the government introduces rural-friendly policies to slow China’s Great Divide:

The quest of most rural people for an urban hukou, as I understand it, is a search for identity. This notion includes many aspects of human dignity, such as pride, wealth, equality and respect, which rural migrants once believed they could get from China’s urbanization.

But the tragedy of China’s urbanization is that rural migrants are in the city rather than of the city. They are the most likely workers to be laid off in the competitive labor market. They cannot catch up with soaring house prices. They have to pay much more to send their kids to school in the city. Even as they desperately pursue an urban identity, they find themselves further and further away from their original goal.

So if they can get a sense of security and welfare in their rural hometowns, why bother going to the cities? The implication of college students giving up urban hukou is simple: City identity is no longer as attractive as it once was. But potentially, this process of deurbanization can help release the pressure of big cities, and raise the quality of life in both rural and urban areas. 

In August, Kam Wing Chan of the University of Washington wrote in the East Asia Forum about the complexities of China’s urbanization process and its unrealized promises of economic growth. See also recent CDT coverage of China’s rapid urbanization and the plight of the rural poor left stranded as urbanites race ahead.