SHANGHAI (Reuters) - China has added details to its plans to migrate millions of its citizens from the countryside into cities, state media reported Saturday, to help restructure the economy by boosting consumer demand.
The government hopes 60 percent of China’s population of almost 1.4 billion will be urban residents by 2020 as the country’s new leaders seek to sustain growth that last year slowed to a 13-year low of 7.8 percent.
However, the leadership is struggling to balance multiple, occasionally conflicting goals such as encouraging the migration of millions of former farmers into cities without creating the slums and unemployment problems that have occurred in other countries experiencing similar migration.
Restrictions on migration, which have created a de-facto illegal immigrant population in many Chinese cities, composed of Chinese citizens who have migrated without permission, have proven a significant source of social instability and have highlighted the uneven distribution of the fruits of China’s economic growth.
At the same time China wants to maintain an agricultural sector capable of keeping the country fed independently without recourse to imports, and some officials worry that this will become impossible if too many farmers leave their farms.
The statement issued at the end of a government conference committed to improving the quality of the process, without mentioning any new policies or timetables.
Indeed, the report specifically warned of undue haste in pursuing quick results.
The statement said it would improve the quality of “human-centred urbanisation” in an orderly manner. It said doing so would be key to dealing with the problem of rural poverty.
It also said more attention would be given to environmental protection during the process, and said care would be taken to more efficiently use land. China is short on arable land given its enormous population, and the government is concerned that too much farmland is being converted to residential or commercial property for the purposes of speculation.
“Endeavours will be exerted to gradually allow migrant workers to become more integrated in cities, fully remove hukou restrictions in towns and small cities, gradually ease restrictions in mid-sized cities, setting reasonable conditions for settling in big cities while strictly controlling the population in megacities,” said an article in the official Xinhua news service describing the report.
But despite much talk, Beijing has proven reluctant to eliminate the system and has given mixed signals about how aggressively it is prepared to move in the near future.
Similarly, regulators have given mixed signals on how land reform will be managed. Giving farmers rights to sell their land and keep the proceeds would transfer wealth to individuals and give them a source of savings if they moved to a city, but it would also deprive local governments the ability to sell that land, which is currently a major source of revenue for them.
Reporting by Pete Sweeney; Editing by Alison Williams