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How to keep rural China occupied

world Updated: Feb 26, 2010 01:10 IST
Reshma Patil
Reshma Patil
Hindustan Times

If you happen to visit the hilltop villages near Beijing, you may find only elderly residents in pyjamas watching talk shows on new television sets, while kettles sputter on coal stoves.

The emptying of China’s countryside — roughly 900 million rural people compared to over 700 million in India — may continue faster than the official targets. China’s rural population will shrink by half a billion to 400 million people in the next three decades, said Han Jun, an official economist heading rural economic research, this week.

Han told the media that the number of urban Chinese residents has increased by 400 million to 600 million over the last 30 years. Urban income in China is now 3.33 times higher than the income of farmers.

China’s current urbanisation challenge is similar to what Indian planners also hope to achieve — to bring opportunities to the small towns, control migration to Mumbai and the metros, and ultimately narrow urban-rural income gaps. “The government feels that, on the whole, urbanisation is absolutely essential for China’s modernisation,’’ Louis Kuijs, an economist with World Bank in Beijing, told HT.

“But the government doesn’t like uncontrolled urbanisation.’’ During this decade, China will pour funds into second and third tier cities while controlling the growth of cities like Beijing and Shanghai. “They’re looking at ambitious targets for orderly urbanisation, without denying rural people the chance to move to cities,’’ said Kuijs.

Over the last 30 years of farm-to-factory transformation, China’s urbanisation boomed to hit a 45 per cent rate by 2008. Officials estimate the rate will cross 50 per cent by 2012-13. The official buzzword since 2009 is ‘townshipanisation,’ said economist Chenhao Zhang at J L McGregor & Company in Shanghai. “From now on, development will focus on the county and township-level more than the hub cities. It will have huge implications.”

Beijing is planning faster growth in the remote western region that lags behind the eastern and coastal cities.

Reforms are being planned to give migrants social security benefits on par with urban residents. Graduates are being offered jobs as village heads, to help modernise the countryside.

“The plan is to reverse the flow of labour from the east to the west,’’ said Chenhao. “But this will take one or two decades.’’