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Welcome to Chinapolis

This year, China became a nation of mostly urban people. The nation has accomplished this at a speed that has disoriented even while enriching many Chinese.

world Updated: Nov 27, 2011 01:00 IST

Every few minutes another car brakes sharply as it reaches Tangbaguan on Guiyang's new ring road. Another driver does a double-take. The dual carriageway ends abruptly in a narrow dirt track twisting downwards through heaps of rubble.

The city is eating hungrily into the hillsides, swallowing up maize fields and rice terraces in loops of tarmac and towers of concrete and glass. But the pace of change is so rapid, the transition so sharp, that its citizens are increasingly bewildered by their surroundings.

This is the year China finally became an urban nation.

In April the census revealed that 49.7% of its 1.34 billion population was living in cities, compared with around a fifth as economic reforms got off the ground in 1982. By now, China's urbanites outnumber their country cousins.

"The process they have been going through over three decades took four or five decades in Japan and (South) Korea and 100 years in the west," says Edward Leman of Chreod, an urban consultancy in China.

By 2025, 350 million more Chinese will have moved to cities. Five years later the urban population will top 1 billion. There will be 221 cities with more than 1 million inhabitants; Europe currently has 35. The number of new skyscrapers could equate to 10 New York cities. The impact will be felt worldwide: in prices for steel and copper, and in greenhouse gas emissions.

Li Keqiang - the vice-premier expected to become prime minister in 2012 - has argued urbanisation should be the "strategic focus" of expanding domestic demand.

China needs to restructure its economy, moving away from exports and investment towards domestic consumption.

In the short-term urbanisation creates demand for infrastructure and property; in the longer run, urbanites consume vastly more than rural dwellers. A government think tank predicts the process will boost domestic demand by four trillion dollars by 2030.

Mountain City
Cities such as Guiyang are at the heart of the government's strategy. It is the capital of Guizhou, China's poorest province, where just 34% of the population is urban. It already has 3 million inhabitants and is challenging terrain for expansion: "This is Guizhou - you open the door, you have to climb a mountain," says one resident. But its boundaries are expanding north, south, east and west. There are cranes everywhere and scores of developments thrusting into the skyline, their names -Dreamland, Sky Acropolis - as lofty as their dimensions.

Further out, at Xinzaipo, a water buffalo is snuffling along a path and a cockerel crows in the distance. But a new road curves through the little valley and a vast printing plant is rising above the rice fields. When they drive three railway lines through another field, the farmers will move to new homes down the road, returning to tend what land remains.

Li Chengqiang has watched the city crawl upto his farm and begin to absorb it. "It's noisier now. When we were little, we didn't have to close our door at night to sleep. "

Yet he welcomes the transition. Despite his emotional attachment to the land, his main income now comes from selling cement.

"Of course urbanisation is good for China - but not this kind of urbanisation," warns Tao Ran, land issues expert at Renmin University.

Land is collectively owned and farmers have no right to sell the patches they lease. Land sales have become one of the main sources of income for local governments, generating as much as a third to a half of revenues in some areas.

But the tax system is skewed so that local revenues benefit from industrial development far more than residential.

Others support Beijing's strategy, but question its implementation. "The rush to build is creating cities that will have to be completely rethought in 20 years' time as expectations, aspirations and sustainability imperatives change," warns James. China risks wiping out older cultures and building dreary cities.

Others worry about the safety standards of so much rushed construction.

Beijing may drive urbanisation, but it does not control it. The results are often messy, chaotic and unanticipated.

"A lot of things are being built because they are flavour of the month," says Leman. "It's the nature of urban management in China that you go into a city and there are eight-lane roads that end in a field."

The Guardian

First Published: Nov 27, 2011 00:58 IST