Why Talking About Chinese Urban Policy Is Hard: A Response to English-Language Coverage of China’s National Urbanization Plan

In my last post, I outlined my perspective on China’s new national urbanization plan. I tried to put the plan in context, outlining its motivations, structure, and challenges without getting bogged down in the details (which I plan to tackle in the coming weeks). The post was motivated, in part, by the fact that this kind of balanced review has largely been lacking from English-language blogs and media reports addressing the plan. Some of this coverage has included insightful analysis of Chinese urbanization, but very little of it has engaged with the urbanization plan as a systematic piece of policy.

Most English-language coverage has focused on just one or two specific issues, talking past the plan in order to rehearse well-established critiques of Chinese urbanization.

As an integrated policy platform, what is the national urbanization plan trying to achieve, how does it propose to do so, and why? Instead of answering these fundamental questions, most English-language coverage has focused on just one or two specific issues, talking past the plan in order to rehearse well-established critiques of Chinese urbanization. Meanwhile, little of the plan’s content is actually discussed beyond its ambitious (though not particularly meaningful) numerical targets. These shortcomings highlight some of the reasons why talking about Chinese urban policy is hard, including both the speed and scale at which Chinese urbanization takes place.

Missing the Forest for the Trees

If you were to skim the articles and blog posts on China’s national urbanization plan, you might be led to believe that the State Council had actually released several different urbanization plans. According to Jamil Anderlini of the Financial Times, China released “a plan for a multiyear round of state-led infrastructure construction.” According to Ian Johnson of the New York Times, the plan is China’s “first attempt at broadly coordinating one of the greatest migrations in history.” According to the Economist, it’s “a more ‘people-centered’ plan for urbanisation … focused on making cities fairer for migrants.”

Technically, all three of these claims are correct. China’s national urbanization plan calls for substantial investment in new infrastructure, the migration of tens of millions of rural residents to cities, and the provision of services and welfare to tens of millions more migrants already living in cities.

The plan is a complex web of interdependent policies, making it a kind of Rorschach Test for China watchers—you see what you want to see.

But each of these articles also misses the bigger picture. What’s really significant about the urbanization plan is that it combines all of these initiatives (and many more) in one integrated policy framework. To be fair, these articles do all gesture at the wider implications of the plan, but only briefly. And when the Times chose to title Johnson’s article, “China Releases Plan to Incorporate Farmers into Cities,” it obscured more than it revealed.

Why is the comprehensiveness of the urbanization plan important? As I argued in my last post, Chinese urban policy is like a gigantic game of Jenga—move one piece, and the whole thing could come crashing down. Want to bring more migrants into cities? You need to build more infrastructure and provide more services. Want more infrastructure and services? You need change how development is financed. Want to change development financing? You need to improve protections for rural land rights. And so on. The urbanization plan is China’s first effort to systematically rearrange the Jenga pieces—not one at a time, but altogether.

As a result, the plan is a complex web of interdependent policies, making it a kind of Rorschach Test for China watchers—you see what you want to see. Ian Johnson has been writing a series of articles for the Times on rural-urban migration in China, so he saw the plan’s implications for migration, which are significant. But in the process, his readers missed out on the larger story.

Missing the Trees Too

A corollary of this tendency to focus on one aspect of the plan is the tendency to miss all the rest. The most common instance of this is to simply talk past the plan, using it as an excuse to explore some facet of Chinese urbanization without actually discussing how the plan proposes to address it. Some of the most rigorous responses to the urbanization plan fall into this category.

For instance, an online comment piece for Nature goes through an exhaustive list of policy challenges facing Chinese urbanization but then only briefly mentions a few of the measures the urbanization plan proposes in response. Similarly, half of Adam Tyner’s wonky (and I mean this in the best possible sense) piece for The Diplomat focuses on how to strengthen rural land rights without ever mentioning that the urbanization plan calls for precisely such an initiative. And Michael Lelyveld’s article for Radio Free Asia extensively discusses the environmental implications of the plan without really considering the environmental protection measures the plan proposes. By not seriously engaging with the pieces of the plan relevant to the issues they raise, these articles imply that there is something important missing from the plan. In fact, the urbanization plan directly addresses all of the issues raised in these three articles.

These authors might respond that the plan simply doesn’t say enough about the issues they raise. While it’s true that the urbanization plan is thin on details, this is not the point of the plan. China’s National Plan for a New Form of Urbanization is a programmatic national policy platform. As discussed above, it’s meant to provide a comprehensive framework through which to integrate the various policy initiatives of the central state. Were it to provide exhaustive detail on each one of these initiatives, the document would be impossibly long and unwieldy.

The desire for more detail is understandable, but it also betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the Chinese policy process. Like other areas of Chinese policy, urban policy is iterative, moving from broad consensus among the national ministries and other central state stakeholders to specific policy initiatives at the local level. This process allows for policy implementation to be tailored to local contexts, including the parallel development of multiple local policy experiments to see which approaches work best. It also accommodates the intensive bargaining and negotiation that accompanies the development of all Chinese policy. This is especially true for a comprehensive national policy framework like the urbanization plan, so it’s not shocking that the plan has taken multiple years to come to fruition, a fact more than one Western news outlet has remarked on with surprise.

Tilting at Windmills

All of this pales in comparison to the news outlets that have criticized China’s urbanization plan for leaving out crucial issues that it, in fact, includes. For instance, The Economist criticizes the plan for not doing enough to help the hundreds of millions of rural-urban migrants who will still be left without urban household registration, a problem the plan addresses by calling for the gradual equalization of welfare and services for all citizens, regardless of registration status. Businessweek criticizes the plan for leaving out reforms to the land tenure and fiscal systems, both of which are included. Ian Johnson, in his article for the New York Times, suggests that the plan can only succeed if reforms to China’s tax and land systems are implemented—both issues are included in the plan. Similarly, the piece by Jack Maher and Pengfei Xie for The Nature of Cities claims that the plan’s success will depend on tax reform, improved land use governance, and better environmental protection measures, all of which the plan addresses.

But the real culprit here is the New York Times Editorial Board, which wrote a brief but pointed opinion piece criticizing the national urbanization plan for overlooking crucial challenges facing China’s urban development. If you actually read the national urbanization plan, you’ll find that every point raised in the editorial is explicitly addressed by the plan, which makes me wonder if the Times Editorial Board did, in fact, read the plan. It’s worth enumerating these points in detail:

  • The editorial claims that China’s target for increasing the percentage of the population with urban household registration—45 percent by 2020—is too low, still leaving the majority of rural-urban migrants without access to basic public services, such as education and health care (this is similar to the argument put forward by The Economist above). This would be true, except that Chapter 7 of the national urbanization plan calls for municipal governments to provide public services to their long-term populations, including all rural-urban migrants, and not just the registered population. This includes access to education, healthcare, and employment services, as well as the provision of low income housing for migrants. The plan also calls for the eventual integration of China’s urban and rural social insurance programs so that all people can access similar coverage regardless of registration (the much more trenchant problem here is the increasing marketization of social welfare in both urban and rural areas).
  • The editorial also calls for the increasing marketization of rural land, another worthy objective that is already addressed in Chapter 20 of the national urbanization plan. The plan calls for the clarification of rural property rights, including rights to occupation, use, income, alienation, and financialization (i.e. mortgage) for contracted agricultural land. It also proposes to experiment with giving villagers financial alienation rights over housing construction land. Most significantly, it calls for allowing rural collectives, the grassroots economic organizations that technically own China’s rural land, to be able to sell and rent collective land with the same protections and at the same prices as state-owned (i.e. urban) land. This includes establishing a formal market for rural property rights.
  • The editorial suggests improving the compensation standards for rural land that is expropriated by the state, an issue that is also addressed in Chapter 20 of the plan. In addition to proposing strict limits on the scale of rural expropriation, the plan proposes improving the system for sharing compensation monies and insists that all compensation schemes should ensure the long term viability of rural households.
  • Finally, the editorial claims that the plan calls for construction of an untold number of new towns, undoubtedly resulting in further urban sprawl. New towns may be built, and there will likely be some sprawl as a result, but Chapter 15 of the urbanization plan explicitly calls for strict limits to be placed on the construction of new towns. New towns are only to be allowed in situations where urban functions and populations are too dense and where existing urban areas are at risk from natural disasters. Instead, it calls for the redevelopment of existing development zones and reinvestment in existing urban areas.

It’s also worth noting here that there is a serious error of fact in both the Times editorial and Ian Johnson’s piece: both claim that all land in China is owned by the government, while rural residents only have use rights. This is only half true. All urban land is owned by the Chinese state. Rural land is owned by rural collectives, which are not technically part of the government—they are ambiguously defined social and economic organizations that are supposed to represent villager interests. (They often don’t succeed in doing this, but that’s another story.) The distinction is important, because one of the best ways to protect the land rights of rural residents is to improve protections for and governance of collective ownership. This is precisely what is proposed in the urbanization plan.

The Magic of Big Numbers

Instead of thoroughly reading the urbanization plan, it seems that most commentators in the English-language media took the shortcut of just reading the plan’s numerical targets. Businessweek marvels at the price tag of $6.8 trillion. The comment piece in Nature translates a table of numerical targets from the plan. Pretty much everyone regurgitates the projected changes in urban population, both in terms of absolute numbers and as a percentage of total population.

This isn’t so surprising. After all, the numbers are impressive, but they are also relatively meaningless. China is notorious for juking its urban population stats. If state leaders want 60% of its citizens spending more than half the year in administratively urban areas by 2020, I’m sure their subordinates (and particularly local government leaders) will find a way for the numbers to reflect this, whether or not it is actually the case. Indeed, it’s problematic enough that media reports have taken China’s statistics for its existing urban population at face value. China’s urbanization rate should be taken as a point of political rhetoric, not as a scientific fact.

What would be much more revealing are specific numerical targets for implementation of the plan at a local level. But these will require extensive central-local negotiation and may not even exist yet. Even if they do exist, the state is unlikely to make them public.

Is the Plan Really That Good?

The short answer to this question is, No. There are good reasons to criticize China’s national urbanization plan. But a lack of comprehensiveness is not one of them. Indeed, the most important contribution of the plan is its effort to integrate the many dimensions of social, economic, and political transformation involved in urbanization into one broad policy framework. Though many of the specifics have yet to be worked out, the plan covers most of the key issues. Claims to the contrary are unlikely to find much traction.

As the authors of the Nature commentary point out, and as I argued in my last post, local implementation is going to be problematic. As Adam Tyner suggests, top-down, centrally directed developmental policy is almost guaranteed to go awry, a là the Great Leap Forward. I’ve labeled the state’s persistent penchant for urban-rural engineering “methodological urbanism.” Until the Chinese state finds a different conceptual framework for structuring its policy, it’s unlikely to escape the sharp dualism it has inscribed in Chinese society. Finally, as the New York Times Editorial Board insists, there is “a lot more work to do.” I heartily agree.

Why Talking About Chinese Urban Policy is Hard

The problems encountered by the English-language media in covering China’s national urbanization plan are symptomatic of a larger set of challenges facing anyone who attempts to talk or write about Chinese urban policy: scale and speed.

The real rubber meets the road at the local level. Truly incisive coverage of Chinese urban policy needs to proceed from the bottom-up, a daunting challenge as Western media outlets increasingly pull back from their foreign bureaus.

China is a huge, complex country. This makes it difficult to dig into the details and easy to be overawed by the unprecedented scale of its urbanization. It’s therefore tempting to tell the story through numbers and skip over the nitty-gritty. But those numbers are an old story, and they are often misleading. The real action is precisely where the hardest work is—in the details. This is particularly the case when it comes to local implementation. Because China is so big and so diverse, national policy is often thin on details. The real rubber meets the road at the local level. Truly incisive coverage of Chinese urban policy needs to proceed from the bottom-up, a daunting challenge as Western media outlets increasingly pull back from their foreign bureaus.

Another implication of China’s size is that policy formulation tends to move slowly, particularly when compared to the rapid pace of development and urbanization. The two seem out of sync, with the Chinese state constantly floundering and hopelessly out of touch. It is therefore easy to get impatient with the state’s policy process—they are never doing enough and never with enough urgency. (But then, look at the US Congress.) If the national urbanization plan does nothing else, it demonstrates that the Chinese state is, in fact, deeply cognizant of the challenges facing the nation’s future development. They may be running in place, but at least they are starting to run.