In Beijing’s population cap, echoes of the Maoist and Soviet eras

One of the most visible Chinese government policies of late is the campaign to reduce the population of Beijing (and Shanghai); in order to push out migrants, their children have been expelled from local schools, and the shops and markets they work at have been demolished. Lucy Hornby at the Financial Times has a good summary:

The Chinese capital will cap its population at 23m “long-term residents” by 2020 “and keep it at that level for the long term”, a city government notice said. The permanent population of Beijing’s central districts dropped by 353,000 last year, according to municipal data released last week. The capital’s official population is now close to 22m. …

In the past two years Beijing has torn down wholesale markets and made it harder for children to attend school in order to force out migrant families. In 2016 the capital tore down 30m square metres of small shops, restaurants and fruit stands deemed “illegal construction”. It is targeting the destruction of 40m sq m this year, shrinking the land zoned for construction to 2,760 sq km by 2030 while expanding parks and gardens.

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Former shops in Beijing’s Tuanjiehu neighborhood

In both the population caps and the increasingly harsh methods used to implement them, it is easy to hear echoes of the planned-economy era. In 1955, for instance, State Planning Commission chairman Li Fuchun launched China’s first five-year plan with an exhortation to control the size of large cities and shunt population elsewhere:

Our present task in urban construction is not to develop the large cities on the coast, but to develop medium and small cities in the interior and to restrict appropriately the expansion of the large cities. The present blind development of the coastal cities is a problem that has to be corrected.

60 years later, the government is still capping the growth of China’s largest cities, and Premier Li Keqiang is still saying “We will promote the development of small towns and small and medium-sized cities in the central and western regions”–a rather striking continuity.

The justifications that 1950s planners offered for controlling the growth of big cities also sound very familiar. Here is an excerpt from a 1958 article in the Workers’ Daily by one Zhao Qingwu, entitled “Why Must We Reduce Urban Population?” (translated in Christopher Howe & Kenneth R. Walker, The Foundations of the Chinese Planned Economy: A Documentary Survey, 1953-65):

Urban public communications, hotels, restaurants, department stores, hospitals, cultural establishments, and many other public places, were overcrowded and inconvenient. None of the measures proposed to alleviate this were able to keep pace with the requirements of the increased population, and this has placed a heavy burden on the cities. Moreover, since the rural population, which is blindly flowing into the cities, cannot find work, hardships easily arise in those peoples’ lives. They drift about the streets to such an extent that a minority get led astray by bad elements. They steal, swindle and engage in other criminal activities that endanger the normal social order of cities. From analysis of the above circumstances, we can see clearly that we must reduce urban population, restrict peasants from blindly flowing into the cities, and lighten the cities’ burden.

Again, the contemporary narrative about overcrowding and the “city disease” is very similar.

Chinese planners seem to have inherited this distaste for large cities from the Soviet Union, which was the direct inspiration for much of what China did in the 1950s. The following discussion is from Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy’s The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold, a very interesting book on Soviet economic geography:

In addition, in the 1950s and 1960s, Soviet urban planners became concerned about the impact on the USSR of trends in the West toward increasingly large cities. They attempted to prevent the development of so-called “city-giants” by trying to cap the population of large Soviet cities at 250,000– 300,000. …

From the very beginning of the Soviet regime, state planners sought to limit Moscow’s population. The internal passport and propiska system of 1932 [a Soviet analogue to China’s hukou system] was designed not only to control internal migration in the USSR, but also to prevent a massive influx into the Russian capital. In 1935 the Communist Party Central Committee tried to cap Moscow’s population at five million, but in the aftermath of World War II, postwar reconstruction efforts drew more and more villagers from surrounding areas to Moscow.

The interesting question is why there is such a strong continuity in how Chinese officials think about cities, since so much else has changed in China. For instance, one of the planned-economy justifications for controlling urban populations was that it was necessary to economize on “unproductive” investment in housing in order to put more money into heavy industry. Contemporary China has if anything completely reversed this logic, going to ever greater lengths to continue high levels of investment in housing. But it is still trying to “economize” on urbanization by limiting access to the higher-quality and more-expensive social services offered to residents of the big cities.

The decision to cap the population of Beijing and Shanghai also shows a very clear judgment that the potential decrease in welfare of existing residents (through crowding and congestion) is more important than the potential increase in welfare of new migrants (through higher incomes). The government thinks it should provide more amenities to the extremely well-off residents of megacities rather than allow more people to become well-off residents of megacities.

Such a deeply inegalitarian value judgment is embedded in China’s hukou system, which divides the population into groups with different rights and privileges. Increasingly the hukou system is not just enforcing a division between urban and rural people, but between different tiers of urban people. Here is a passage from “The Origins and Social Consequences of China’s Hukou System,” a 1994 article by Tiejun Cheng and Mark Selden, that I found enlightening:

Throughout the People’s Republic policymakers have consistently assumed both that the countryside could absorb virtually unlimited supplies of labour, and that feeding the rural population was the responsibility of each locality. The administrative and welfare responsibilities of the state would in essence be confined to the small minority of the population living in urban areas. One reason for this hypersensitivity to urban problems is the fact that the new state accepted more or less axiomatically from the start (presumably derived from Soviet practice) a responsibility that no previous Chinese state had ever assumed: to provide jobs and subsidized food and housing for all urban residents.

While the planned economy that guaranteed jobs and housing for all urban residents may be gone, it seems that some of the underlying political assumptions–that the state should look after the welfare of some urban residents first–still remain.

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