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.

tom-millerChina’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!

IMAGE CREDITS: CC – BY NC 2.0 / Flickr – Marsh Gardiner

14 comments Post a commentcomment

  1. avatar
    Nando Aidos

    I am not minimizing the importance of foreign markets, but Europe needs to stop thinking about the “large companies” and start thinking about the “small companies”, the “very small companies”, the “individual professionals”. Those are the ones who employ the largest number of people anywhere in the world with the least help from Europe. Imagine what they could do if Europe would decide to help them?
    The problem is here in Europe and so is the solution!

  2. avatar
    Tarquin Farquhar

    @Nando Aidos

  3. avatar
    Gatis Gailitis

    Always. It’s a global economy. It’s not 1900s. Join forces or be left out..and once you’re left out its only a matter of timw you will be swollowed by more powerful economies.

  4. avatar

    Obviously China is moving 15 million people/year from rural to urban because of jobs. What jobs? We all know who’s the winner and who’s the looser between Europe and China in this matter, thanks to EPP vision/doctrine against any market regulation.

  5. avatar
    eusebio manuel vestias pecurto

    europe needs of modern political powers and be the seedof a new europe quality of life in sustainable communities

  6. avatar
    Vladan Lausevic

    Great opportunity both for the Union and China to learn from each other, exchange ideas, opinions etc. As cities are goring they are becoming more important for each other in order to find inspiration. And after all both Europe and China need sustainable and green economy for the future. This could be a chance to develop green market and trade between China and EU.

  7. avatar
    EU reform- proactive

    Have China and Europe urbanised in completely different contexts?

    Yes, the historical & statistical records will confirm that. Europe & North America developed & grew rather pedestrian during & after the creative & innovative 1st & 2nd industrial revolution lasting ~170 years, followed by its post WWII “Western European WIRTSCHAFTSWUNDER”- and repeated by various baby “Tigers” around the world afterwards.

    China in comparison is setting new world records and standards by creating a “miracle” within only ~35 years- being the real TIGER- amongst all of them- plus the world’s factory.

    Europe’s greatness is being wasted, consummated and gambled away by its new leadership after the introduction of the experimental & unworkable EU! Europeans can now go into “partnerships” and (sell) ‘hand over’ their expertise & innovations to a competitive China who have all the money, power, brains and are creating all the opportunities!

    It is the Members politicians and the EU leadership who owes all European a plausible explanation what and where it’s “democracy” went all wrong and how to correct this EU disaster- & not hide & keep silent- otherwise a popular revolution will destroy all past achievements one day! Take heed & earn some lessons from China.

    But, China has besides huge opportunities big problems too- like growing old!


    • avatar

      There never really was a ‘Wirtschaftswunder’, it was a combination of destroyed infrastructure being repaired and simply population growth.

      Population growth causes economic growth. Other factors have some additional influence, but population growth is the #1 factor.

  8. avatar
    catherine benning

    Only if the Chinese leaders and their people decide they want Europe to play a role. And, do they? Then if they do, what role is it they want Europe to play? Seeing as that role would be limited to the desires and request of the ECB and the IMF it appears a very narrow, if any, benefit could be derived by either Europe or the Chinese.

  9. avatar

    It won’t be long, maybe a decade or so, that China will be in a position to dictate terms to western countries in general and European ones in particular.

  10. avatar

    ” 15 million people migrate from the countryside to cities in China each year”

    Not 15 but 20 million each year

    • avatar
      Franklin F. Carbone

      China has all the tactical skillsets to UTTERLY CONSUME any nation state they wish…I was in Aerospace for decades and I have no doubt they will be the Quintessential MASTERS “of the deal” the Chinese people and their Government are simply amazing…”SUPERSONICLY” talented

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