By 2030, one billion people are predicted to be living in cities in China. We often talk about migration in Europe, but it’s worth remembering that the largest migration in history has been taking place within one country, as rural Chinese move into cities and towns. 15 million people migrate from the countryside to cities in China each year, which is equivalent to a population twice the size of London. The environmental, economic and social impact of this migration will be immense, and the effects will be felt globally.
We recently spoke to Tom Miller, Managing Editor of China Economic Quarterly and author of the book China’s Urban Billion. We asked him if he thought urbanisation in China was purely an issue for the Chinese, or if there were opportunities for Europe to also be involved.
China’s urbanisation is fundamentally a matter for China to deal with itself. However, I think for European companies there probably are opportunities in terms of green technology. After all, China is trying to create carbon-efficient cities, and obviously some of those green technologies are more advanced in Europe than in China.
We also spoke to Pedro Ballesteros Torres, the EU Commission’s Special Envoy in charge of activities under the “EU-China Partnership on Urbanisation”, a joint initiative signed in 2012 between then-EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. The Urbanization Partnership is essentially a lesson learning process, aiming to “provide an open political platform for EU and Chinese stakeholders to cooperate and share experiences in addressing the economic, social and environmental challenges of urbanization”.
We had a comment on urbanisation in China sent in from Al, who thinks that the environmental impact of urbanisation is going to be extremely challenging for China. Is the Chinese government doing enough to prepare for this?
Well, I think that the Chinese authorities are doing something but very likely they are not doing enough, because maybe they are giving a higher priority to economic development than to sustainable development in those cities. Very likely, they could do more in terms of the quality and energy efficiency of buildings, or in terms of proposing systems for urban mobility that are less polluting. I think they are very much aware of these issues, and they are trying to do a lot – including many initiatives that are being taken in Beijing and other big cities.
However, maybe the problem is that they’re doing much more in terms of corrective measures rather than in terms of planning or ex-ante measures, and this is something that maybe could be improved. But, at the end of the day, this is their responsibility and their decision. The EU’s aim with the urbanisation partnership with China is to try to facilitate the exchange of experiences and the access of Chinese decision makers to good and bad examples of what we are doing, what we intend to do, and what we have done in Europe.
But is it really possible for Chinese cities to learn from European cities? We had a comment sent in by Yannick, arguing that the EU has shown that it’s possible to have sustainable urbanisation because many EU cities rank so highly in terms of liveability and attractiveness. But isn’t China developing in a completely different context? Can lessons learned in Europe really be applied to cities in China and vice-versa?
At the end of the day, the people in China have to live, move about, buy things, consume things, and they have to have hopes, rights and services. So, when we talk about urban activities in China and Europe we are speaking about things that are very similar. And the important thing about Europe is we have a long history of urbanisation, and we know how people can organise cleaner and more human ways in cities. I think the two sets of experiences – not looking at the political context but looking at the real purpose of cities – are quite similar.
Having said this, yes, the political context is completely different in Europe and China, and this has to be taken into account. Yes, the way urbanisation is being undertaken is also different. In Europe, our urbanisation was a relatively slow process that has been adapted to many different situations. In China, by contrast, it’s a planned process and, most of all, an accelerated process. That is quite different.
Nevertheless, basically, what Chinese people dream of when they go to a city is to live like many European people. It’s about living with their own car, with a large apartment, with appliances, with their kids going to school, having good medical assistance, having clean air to breath and having a community to share things. These are the same things Europeans want, and these are the things that, with common sense and good information, we can share with the Chinese people. We don’t want China to follow any particular pattern. We don’t think we can be an example for everything. We simply want to show what we do, and then it is up to the Chinese to take from that what they want.
In order to get a sense of the scale of the urbanisation in China and how it compares with the same process in Europe, we put together an infographic of some of the relevant facts and figures (you can click for a bigger image).
How can China and the EU encourage lesson learning between cities? Is the Chinese government doing enough to prepare for the environmental impact of its rapidly urbanising population? Have China and Europe urbanised in completely different contexts, or are there lessons that can be shared between them? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions!