Zhou Qing 周勍, an artist who lives n Munich, Germany and has been closely following the issue of China’s household registration system as well as other social problems. This interview is conducted by Dong Xi Nan Bei Dong Xi Nan Bei [東西南北], the host of the Radio program Radio France International in January 2012. The recorded interview was held in Chinese and published on Urbachina’s blog on February 26.
Radio France International (RFI): The National Bureau of Statistics of China indicated that, at the end of 2011, China’s urban population accounted for 51.27% of the total population, the very first time the urban population has exceeded the rural population According to the China Statistical Yearbook, China’s urbanisation rate was only 10.64% in 1949 and had reached no more than 17.9% in 1978. Since then, the annual urbanisation rate has increased by 0.9% on average. More than 600 million people in rural areas have moved into urban areas. This large-scale urbanisation is a prominent characteristic of Chinese development when compared with other countries. How can we account for the fact that the urban population exceeds the rural population for the first time in China?
Zhou Qing: I still find that the calculation of urbanisation statistics in China is confusing. Distinguishing the urban population from the rural population still depends on the definition of residence, which means that when rural areas are converted into urban zones, the rural population still lives in the same place, but cannot benefit from urban medical Insurance. In this kind of situation, even though the urbanisation rate has increased, the living quality of rural people has not changed. This is simply a paper policy differentiating different types of residence.
RFI: Are you optimistic about the future of urbanisation in China?
Zhou Qing: I am pessimistic about it. The high urbanisation rate in China is a result of local government land sales. However, local governments have not paid much attention to the rights of farmers, and farmers have been treated like second-class citizens since 1957. They cannot even move about of their own free will. Now, the value of land is increasing, but local governments still expropriate farmers’ lands at a very low price. This is frightening.
RFI: Urbanisation in China is built on rural resources. First of all, there is the land, and secondly, there is the labor force. However, in the past 30 years, the government has been confiscating the farmers’ land at a cheap rate, and the salaries of rural laborers are unfairly low. In addition to this, the rural population cannot register as urban households. It is fair to say that farmers make up one of the groups that are subject to discrimination. As you have been especially concerned by the household registration system in China, how would you explain this phenomenon?
Zhou Qing: In order to have more space for urban development, the government confiscates rural areas and converts farmers’ household registration into urban household registration. However, after this change has been effected, the government does not provide the corresponding policies and measures to assist and educate the rural population. Farmers receive subsidies for their land, but nothing else; they suddenly possess a lot of money, but as they don’t know how to manage it and cannot work in urban zones, they use the money to get a wife from some remote place or else waste it on gambling. This is becoming a common security issue in China.
RFI: How can China benefit from the fact that its urban population exceeds its rural population?
Zhou Qing: This is merely one of the political achievements which demonstrate the high rate of industrialization in China.
RFI: What is the fundamental difference between China’s urbanisation and that of the West?
Zhou Qing: Western urbanisation involves establishing the city first, and then creating job opportunities, as well as the corresponding facilities. This will encourage the rural population to come to the urban areas. China’s urbanization, on the other hand, involves incorporating rural land into urban areas in order to confiscate land or to show that the industrialization rate of one area is higher than that of other areas. In other words, the government focuses on land development rather than on the improvement of the quality of urbanization. Therefore, for farmers, there is little chance of benefiting from the jobs, the culture, and the civilisation of urban areas.
Ph.D. candidate of EHESS ( École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris) focusing on regional economic development in China and Taiwan.