Why does India not have skyscrapers like China does

The greatest urbanization in world history

In a good ten years, every eighth citizen will be living in a Chinese city. China's extreme urbanization harbors great opportunities and risks.

Until the 1950s, Beijing was surrounded by a city wall. This set clear boundaries for the Chinese capital. But the old wall and its magnificent gates had to give way to a motorway in the post-war period, the so-called second ring. The first ring consists of a wall around the Forbidden City, which still exists today. The second ring road was followed a little later by a third, which was soon overloaded. Today the Seventh is being built. It is so far from the city center that most of its route does not run through Beijing's metropolitan area, but through the neighboring province of Hebei. At its most remote point, it is just 180 kilometers from the Forbidden City. Because it can already be foreseen that this will not be enough either, the eighth ring is already being planned.

The reasons for this can be found in the development of the population of Beijing. In 1930 around 1.6 million people lived in the city, a little less than in today's Hamburg. In 1953 there were already 2.8 million. In the year of the 2008 Olympics, the population was just under 12 million. Today over 20 million people live in the capital, more than in all of eastern Germany. This has not only happened through immigration and population growth, but also as a result of incorporation. Even so, the increase in Beijing's population seems incredible. However, the development of the city is by no means an exception, but rather the norm.

If anything deserves the name “megatrend”, it is the urbanization of China. There has never been such a wave of urbanization in all of human history. The number of Chinese city dwellers has increased by more than 500 million over the past 30 years. This roughly corresponds to the population of all EU countries.

The end of growth has not yet been reached. The proportion of China's urban population is around 56 percent today, well below the 70 percent that is the norm in countries with a per capita income similar to that in China. As a result, the urban population in China will continue to grow: In the next 15 years, it is expected to increase by more than 300 million people, roughly the equivalent of the total US population. More than a billion people are expected to live in China's urban centers by 2030. At this point in time, one in eight people on earth will be urban Chinese.

Marx, Dickens, urbanization

The first major urbanization wave occurred around 200 years earlier in Great Britain, where more people lived in cities than in villages in the 1850s. One observer of this was Karl Marx. In his view, one of the great virtues of urbanization was that it freed people from the "idiocy of rural life". Whether this portrayal of rural life is correct remains questionable. After all, it is clear that urbanization brings great opportunities and equally great dangers.

Marx and his contemporary Charles Dickens have impressively described one of the dangers - the impoverishment of the urban underclass. A second major threat is that urbanization can undermine fundamentals if it is not ecologically sustainable. Meanwhile, the opportunities for urbanization are at least as tempting as the dangers are to be taken seriously. A reasonably successful urbanization goes hand in hand with economic growth, increasing individual prosperity, a higher level of education and a better quality of life. What is more, it is the indispensable foundation without which modern societies and economies are inconceivable.

"Will the Chinese government succeed in seizing the opportunities and avoiding the dangers?"

At least she is aware of the potential and risks. "Today's leaders in China, especially Prime Minister Li Keqiang, are much more pro-urbanization than their predecessors," said Tom Miller, author of China’s Urban Billion. "She believes that the development of large, affluent cities will increase the share of domestic demand in the economy as a whole," Miller said. "This mainly affects private consumption."

In 2010, China's cities generated around 75 percent of the national gross domestic product. This proportion is expected to increase to 90 percent by 2025. This would mean that the urban centers of China would provide around 20 percent of global economic output. By then, China's cities are expected to provide around 470 million jobs - a good 170 million more than in 2005.

The integration of migrants who flee from the land has also worked comparatively well in China up to now. However, it is not without serious problems. Above all, the legal situation of the around 200 million city dwellers nationwide without an urban residence permit - hukou in Chinese - has been causing friction for decades because it excludes migrants and their families from basic social services in the cities.

The poor living conditions, on the other hand, as observed by Marx and Dickens in England of their time, can hardly be observed in today's Chinese cities. The slums, which other emerging economies such as Brazil and India help shape the image of cities, are also not found in China. This is a remarkable achievement, especially when you consider the size of the task facing Chinese city planners.

Today there are 125 cities in China with a population of more than one million. Over the next ten years, their number is expected to increase to 221. For comparison: across Europe there are 35 cities of this size. Even more: 23 Chinese cities have more than five million inhabitants. On top of that, six out of ten “megacities” worldwide - defined as metropolises with more than ten million inhabitants - are in China.

Such metropolitan areas, especially if they continue to grow, create ecological problems, which in turn have a negative impact on the quality of life of their residents. Anyone who has been to Beijing on a smoggy day knows the problem. Can Chinese planners secure urban energy supplies, solve traffic problems, while reducing energy consumption and minimizing CO2 emissions, all while the urban population continues to grow? The fact is, planners face a major challenge in every respect. However, their focus should be the slowdown in city growth.

At the current pace of urbanization in China, urban GDP is projected to grow by 200 percent in the coming years through 2025. During the same period, energy consumption is expected to increase by around 100 percent. So the goal is to curb the growth in energy consumption so that it “only” doubles. This means that the improvement in energy efficiency must advance faster than the growth in energy consumption. This places high demands on the expansion of the infrastructure in Chinese cities.

The metropolises partly solve this problem by simply outsourcing it: Cities that can afford it are putting a stop to dirty production through higher environmental regulations. This often leads to the affected companies relocating production to poorer communities that cannot afford such requirements. It remains to be hoped that in the long term a kind of trickle down effect will also set in with regard to environmental regulations.

Other measures attack the problems more directly at the root. As unprecedented as the extent of Chinese urbanization is, the sums that China is investing in expanding its infrastructure are also extraordinary. Since 1992, China has spent an average of 8.5 percent of its national income on infrastructure measures every year. For comparison: in the EU and the USA the figure is around 2.6 percent and in India 3.9 percent.

This is particularly evident in the subways that are tunnelling more and more Chinese cities. It is no longer just the largest metropolises in the country that afford subway networks; medium-sized cities have long been relying on metros and trams as well. In the longer term, the McKinsey Global Institute estimates, such mass transport systems could emerge in around 170 cities in China. That is also a world record. There are currently around half as many in Europe.

In addition to energy generation, production and transport, another key area is building technology. In the years up to 2025, five million new buildings with a total of 40 billion square meters of floor space are to be built in China. Around 50,000 of these buildings are likely to be skyscrapers. In Shanghai alone, more skyscrapers have been built in the past ten years than there are in all of New York City. The sheer volume of construction activity shows how important it is for the cities' ecological footprint which building materials are used and how efficiently the new buildings use their energy.

It remains to be seen whether it will be possible to ensure that the opportunities of urbanization in China outweigh its risks in the long term - or whether the opposite will happen.







Justus Kruger

Justus Krüger is China correspondent in Hong Kong with articles for CNN, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Deutschlandradio and many others.