In the weaving alleys of Shanghai’s Laoximen district, swathes of residential buildings sit empty. The historic area in the heart of the city is slowly demolished, and many residents have already abandoned it, leaving behind rows of traditional terraced houses with boarded-up windows and demolition signs on the doors. Laoximen is one of some neighbourhoods in Shanghai to be “upgraded” in the city’s relentless race for modernity. The redevelopments are a reaction to the city’s runaway growth, and key contributors to the first population fall in Shanghai and Beijing for decades. Reducing population has been heralded as an answer to “big city disease,” characterised by state media as an overcrowded, polluted city with too many people living in it. As a result, both Shanghai and Beijing, the Chinese capital, implemented population caps last year, leaving little room for additional growth – Shanghai plans to limit the population to 25 million, Beijing to 23 million. It appears that urban planning policies to control the inflows of people and force out lower-skilled populations are already having an effect. Beijing housed 21.7 million people at the end of 2017 – about 20,000 fewer than at the end of 2016, according to official figures – while Shanghai’s population fell by about 10,000 to 24.18 million.
Demographic factors also could be at play: despite a reversal in the one-child policy, implemented in 1979 to curb the country’s growing population and limit demand on resources, the number of births fell in China last year. Meanwhile, the population is ageing – a demographic crisis that will put immense pressure on state services from healthcare to employment. However, it is state-led rules which are the cause of this population drop in Shanghai and Beijing. Ongoing efforts to “beautify” both cities have included rebuilding grittier districts, rounding up street vendors, closing or moving hundreds of markets and bricking up restaurants, bars and shops without licences. While the government has said it is not specifically targeting migrant workers, critics claim the reforms disproportionately affect the cities’ poorest. Tens of thousands of migrants were forced out of Beijing last November as part of a government crackdown on illegal housing. After a fire in a crowded district on the city’s southern outskirts killed 19 people, the government carried out a swift wave of demolitions and mass evictions, giving many residents only minutes to pack and leave their homes. Protesters argued the authorities used the fire as a pretext to accelerate their targets to demolish 15 square miles of illegal structures – mostly shops and homes for low-income residents – and drive “low-end” migrant workers out of the city.
In Shanghai, the government has also carried out sweeping removals of “urban villages” – low-cost housing populated by migrant workers – and the rebuilding of older neighbourhoods. “What used to hold four families is now the luxury ground floor in a building for one rich person,” says Saskia Sassen, professor of sociology at Columbia University and author of the book Expulsions. “China’s government is moving people out of its top cities to its underused cities – not the likes of Shanghai or Guangzhou, but overbuilt half-empty cities that were just projected for the construction companies to make money.” Sassen argues that cities such as Shanghai and Beijing have been systematically making room for a “new very high-income middle class,” and pushing the lower-earning middle classes out to the edges of the city limits. This leaves even less space for poorer communities and creates more economic opportunities around the city-centre real estate. Newly built apartments in these cities can be out of reach for many of its citizens, costing upwards of 20 times the average annual income.
However, there will always be demand for lower-skilled jobs and services, experts say, so efforts to push migrant workers out of the city are instead likely to add new problems. “This urban gentrification is not a good thing for the city,” says Dr Yan Song, director of the University of North Carolina’s programme on Chinese cities. “You attract wealth, but you push away lower-income people. The demand and the need for the lower end of services will still exist, but those people will just live further and further away from the city centre and have to spend longer getting to work. “People come to these cities because of better services, opportunities and incomes, so if you can’t provide that in other places, they are still going to come.”
A key part of China’s plan to limit city growth involves the redistribution of populations into new urban areas, such as the Jing-Jin-Ji region outside Beijing, and the 39 square mile Xiong’an New Area, a new city district near Hebei which the government is hoping will attract tech companies. These new districts and hubs are designed to take the pressure off overcrowded cities. Factories, manufacturing hubs and markets have already been relocated to Jing-Jin-Ji. But others argue that policies to decrease city populations are misguided. “Population is not the root of this ‘urban disease’; it’s due to poor management of the cities, and poor urban structures that causes a lot of unnecessary, chaotic commuting, traffic congestion and overcrowding,” says Song. “I would say if there is overcrowding or a shortage of services, why don’t you expand public services? Provide more education, opportunities, healthcare, hospitals – that’s something the government could do, rather than putting effort into pushing away the migrant population.”
Credit: Helen Roxburgh for The Guardian, 19 March 2018.