In 2014, China adopted what it called a “new-style” urbanization policy. But it was more like “everything old is new again.” Rather than resetting priorities, the policy reinforced many of the existing tendencies: a desire to control and even reduce the population of the largest cities, and a preference for pushing population flows into smaller cities.
These goals are now being backed by ever more forceful measures, as the government adopts coercive methods to reduce the population of Beijing and Shanghai, and launches megaprojects to resettle people in entirely new cities. Understanding this development has been a recent obsession of mine. Here’s what I have learned so far:
- This type of urbanization policy actually dates back to China’s planned economy era of the 1950s, and was likely copied from the Soviet Union. In particular there are parallels between the management of Beijing and Moscow. (In Beijing’s population cap, echoes of the Maoist and Soviet eras)
- The historical legacies in fact go even further back. Criticism of the ills of large cities, and hope for an idealized redistribution of population to smaller cities, were an important part of Engels’ thought, and were taken up forcefully by Lenin. (Friedrich Engels is still shaping Chinese cities, 120 years after his death)
- In the Soviet case, this led to a highly planned and top-down form of urbanization, with much forced population movement. (Soviet urbanization was highly coercive)
- This deep ideological background to China’s contemporary urbanization policies helps explain both why they are so firmly entrenched, and why they attract so much criticism from more free-market oriented thinkers. (Ren Zhiqiang has an acerbic take on Xi Jinping’s urban planning)