Much has been said about China’s “big city disease.” As population, industry, and traffic are growing in cities like Shanghai, what’s the impact on how the city operates? Data from the General Bureau of Statistics showed that by the end of 2013, Shanghai’s permanent residence population was 24.15 million; among them was the native population of Shanghai hukou, whose population was 14.25 million, an increase of nearly 50,000 from the previous year. The area also saw an increase in the transient population to almost 10 million. In total, non-natives accounted for almost 86 percent of the entire population. The large number of immigrants poses a number of problems for Shanghai, including overpopulation and an increasing burden on resources.

Last month, the Shanghai Development and Reform Commission (SDRC) released a statement that it would take a series of actions to curb the city’s exploding population through reducing, controlling, and regulating immigrant populations. The SDRC is a regulation department that makes economic and development policies to ensure aggregate balance, and also gives directions in urban economic system reform. The SDRC works to reposition Shanghai’s development strategy and ensure population control is a top priority. It believes that its policies, in partnership with strengthening the Grading System of the residential permit for immigrant populations, will lead to the decentralization of the population to towns around Shanghai.


Image via Wikimedia Commons

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Changxi Miao, deputy for Shanghai People’s Congress, proposed to strictly implement the Grading System for migrants applying for residential permits in order to maintain the population under a rational scale. When ‘grading’, the system rates applicants in terms of basic points, plus-points and minus-points, and takes several aspects into consideration: the applicant’s job, educational background, professional skills, housing conditions, and age. According to the goal of “China’s 13th Five-Year Plan”, which is currently under preparation, Shanghai must meet the scale control target of 24.8 million permanent residences city-wide by 2020. Given the reality of development demand, the Shanghai government needs to make mass-based controls to target its urban population, which means controlling urban population growth based on government-guided industry and market selection. Only human capital meets the standard and needs of the market. The Shanghai government hopes to optimize the population distribution and relocate immigrants into one of Shanghai’s nine adjacent satellite towns.


“…in recent decades, the excessive population concentration has been the root of many urban problems, for instances traffic congestion, heat island effect, environmental protection and increase the urban managerial difficulties,” said Zhou Haiwang, deputy director of the Institute of Population and Development under the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

In the SDRC’s plan to reduce the population, the first key step is to reduce the low-income job opportunities, which have largely been absorbed by the immigrant population. The Shanghai government would need to speed up industrial restructuring and upgrading, as well as reduce the use of backward production facilities (including electronic manufacturing services and high pollution production plants) and low productivity plants such as stamping, welding, painting, and assembling process work. At the same time, the government would need to continue to push the development of modern service industries (banking, software, information technology) to attract high-qualified populations. Second, the government plans to reduce the number of shelters for the immigrant populations by demolishing the illegal homes in the junctions of urban and rural areas that gather in the city and its outskirts. However, instead of building more homes for those who are living on the fringes of urban life in shantytowns, the industry’s restructuring plan will use these areas for green landscape and culture incubator parks. Creative industry, recreation industry, and tourist industry will occupy the areas currently occupied by migrant workers.

I am disappointed in the SDRC’s newly released act. It will result in a kind of class fragmentation and demobilization. People have the legal right to move to a place where they can make a good living, and anyone should be able to live in Shanghai as long as they can find a job. But the implementation of this act will undermine this right. Without a hukou (household registration) or high-qualified work skills, migrants will not be able to live in the city. The government should instead focus on how to let this population share public services with the local people without moving them out.

In his recent book titled Triumph of the City, Harvard urban economist Edward Glaeser writes, “a city is the triumphs of an anonymous corporation. The sterility of those Rustbelt cities that lost touch with the essential elements of urban reinvention–industrial diversity, entrepreneurship, and, most important of all, an educated workforce…” It is true, nowadays an educated workforce is preferable both for metropolitan areas and burgeoning small- and mid-sized modern cities. According to Glaeser, the correlation between education and earnings is striking: a 10 percent increase in the share of the population with college degrees is associated with an increase in per capita gross metropolitan product of 22 percent, which means an educated workforce has become the prerequisite of a successful city. However, the essential problem of a city is its failure to educate its workforce, and the essential mistake of a successful city is using zoning and historical district regulations to artificially limit supply. Tragically, this is what is going on in most cities around the world today, including Shanghai. The act that the Shanghai government will carry on is trying to achieve the three targets that Glaeser describes. Yet instead of focusing on improving their education systems and capability to enhance public service, many officials remain in the thrall of what Glaeser describes as “the folly of building-centric urban renewal.” In short, a city is not a project; it cannot be built solely on rigorous budgets or planning policy. We should be suspicious of central planning and celebrate the role that small businesses play in thriving cities. How can Shanghai realize this by gentrifying the so-called low-qualified immigrant population?

In the modern world, a city is a public space where the municipal aggregation effect can be fully experienced, and I believe diversity creates productivity. People come to cities to work, study, and live. Every person should be endowed the equal rights of living in a city. If a metropolitan city like Shanghai is the best choice for immigrant families to make a better life, it is unfair to reduce the immigrant population through government intervention. In addition, the current policy interventions are not long-term solutions. I believe the best solution is to give community members a hand, understand their needs, and let them have access to educational opportunities that will increase their work opportunities. Decentralization or gentrification will only put immigrants in a harder situation and cause new social problems and conflict. The only viable solution in the long run for a sustainable economy, society, and city is one based on a win-win philosophy; otherwise the parties at the negotiation table will walk away.

Although the Shanghai government has been doing its best to build more affordable housing and other new housing in the city’s surrounding suburban areas, it is unrealistic for low-income immigrants to rent or purchase these homes because they do not have residential permits. Maybe it’s time to think about this vulnerable group of people: those who are still struggling to find a way to stay in the city.

The population policy that the Shanghai government has taken will maintain the city’s economic growth and comparative advantage, but it will undermine the rights of vulnerable groups like non-native immigrants. The policy requires deeper insights from policy makers so that it provides better public support and services that are not at the expense of the interests of vulnerable communities.

Meng Yu '15

Meng Yu '15

Meng Yu is a fellow at the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs (CIPA) pursuing a Master’s degree in Public Administration with a focus on Government, Policy and Politics; concentrating urban planning policy, and immigration policy, in particular. She is a staff writer with The Cornell Policy Review Online, the co-founder for Horizon Urban Study and Architecture Design Studio, a volunteer at China Red Ribbon Foundation, a program for orphans with AIDs, and the former Business Development Manager for ARUP Engineering Consultants Great China-Beijing office. She has rich experience in linking knowledge and technical resources with market niche. Recently years she has been playing an active role in the study and practice in communities reconstruction in less-developed regions in China (Tibet Autonomous Region and Qinghai Province). Meng holds a Master’s degree in Business Administration from Nankai University in Tianjin, China.
Meng Yu '15

Written by Meng Yu '15

Meng Yu is a fellow at the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs (CIPA) pursuing a Master’s degree in Public Administration with a focus on Government, Policy and Politics; concentrating urban planning policy, and immigration policy, in particular. She is a staff writer with The Cornell Policy Review Online, the co-founder...
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