Milwaukee would be a Podunk burg in booming China

As the news media reports on the riots in Xinjiang, the forces which have been changing China’s traditional rural agricultural society into an urban production machine grind on.

In Xinjiang, 607 million people, 45.7 percent of the Chinese population, now lives in urban areas, an increase of 147 million since 2000. In contrast, 25 years ago 80 percent of the population lived in the countryside.

At a time when we in the United States have clocked our first trillion dollar deficit, it is easy to lose the significance of large numbers. Think of it this way: a group of people larger than the entire population of the U.S. moved from farms to factories in the space of 25 years.

It gives you an idea why the construction crane has become the unofficial bird of most Chinese cities and where China’s manufacturing muscle came from. The movement is not finished. Over the next five years, it is expected that another 150 million people will make the transition to urban areas.

In the midst of this massive demographic shift, both the government and the people are struggling to keep pace with the changes.

From the government’s point of view, the logistics of moving so many people so quickly are mind boggling. China now has 118 cities with more than a million people, 39 of which have more than two million. In 1985, there were only 22 cities with a million or more people. Think of the amount of infrastructure required for Milwaukee’s 600,000 people, and that it is the 23rd-largest city in the United States. In China, it would be a medium-sized town you never heard of.

Think how many miles of road and sidewalk, sewer and water pipe, electrical and communication lines, the number of schools, government offices, hospitals and the amount of police, firefighters, teachers, inspectors and government workers needed to support these new cities and how quickly they were built and staffed. It will explain in part why China is becoming the largest market for just about everything.

But along with the hustle and bustle, there are issues. As of last year, 66 percent of China’s largest cities by GDP were located in the Yangtze River Delta, SE Costal area and the Bohai Rim regions, basically China’s east coast. The 88 cities in these areas account for 42 percent of the population and 75 percent of the nation’s GDP. In contrast, 13.3 percent of the population in 1953 was classified as urban.

In essence, China’s population was spread more or less evenly based on the agricultural productivity of the land. This geographic disparity, in terms of economic development, is an issue and fairness is an issue. The disparity between urban and rural income has gone from 2.8 to 5, in the last eight years.


Rural tensions

 As China’s 800 million rural residents look at their city cousins, they are envious.


Another issue is that the displaced farmers are not necessarily welcome in the cities that swallowed their land. Even if they find work, it is difficult for them to get the necessary residential papers to be able to use local government social services. China’s government has put a high priority on addressing these problems, but the sheer size and scope of the process will make it difficult to make progress quickly. In the meantime, there will be ongoing friction between those who feel left out of the economic miracle and those who think they deserve more.

For some people, the cities grew up around them and they learned to adjust to China’s brand of fast-paced urban development, where a Hutong (a traditional cluster of one story homes) or a farmer’s field could be changed into high-rise apartments, office towers or a sprawling factory in a matter of months. Indoor plumbing, neighbors above and below, new jobs, new stores, refrigerators, air-conditioning, cars and a slew of new services and products they had never even considered before were now part of their everyday lives.

Along with these changes came influxes of new residents, the migrant workers, who built the high rises and manufacturing plants and then stayed. The makeup of this second group is more complex, rather than being from the next town or county, they were most often from distant provinces, they had different languages and customs, they dressed differently they looked different and they felt foreign.

Like the waves of immigrants who came to the United States over the years, China’s moving masses created close-knitted communities based on their differences and often suffered the consequences, from distrustful locals and other immigrant groups. For these people the changes were and are more dramatic. For many the move was from sturdy but primitive earthen shelters, where they worked as farmers, to concrete apartment complexes and work as construction, factory or service employees. In addition to all the adjustments their urban counterparts had to make, they struggled with lower education levels, differences in local language, customs and often open hostility. They had to abandon the traditional patterns of rural life and react to the circumstances they found themselves in. For some it was too difficult and they returned to their home provinces as soon as they could afford to. Others stayed for the economic opportunities, bidding their time for a triumphant return home, and others, regardless of their intentions, became enmeshed in the local world about them.



The new patterns, bred by the times and circumstances, brought new tensions, locals vs. migrants, one migrant group vs. another migrant group. In the United States, the patterns and groupings were based on countries of origin, but over time the very differences created a melting pot which absorbed those who came. Our expanding economy created the jobs and our workers created the output which allowed our manufacturing sectors to compete globally.


Much of the same is true of China today; immigrants from the south and west are fueling the economic engines in the eastern Chinese cities. The difference is that America had uncharted lands, rich untapped resources and those with the grit and willingness to work could make a new life for themselves. In China the land is already claimed twice, once by the government and then by those who lease it. It is an old society where land has been a zero sum game for thousands of years. Friction over land is still a fighting issue in the U.S. but in China it can be a matter of life and death. It is hard to see how China could manufacture a conceptual Chinese melting pot. The country is 92 percent Han but, as stated, there are marked differences in language and custom which separates them and in addition 55 other recognized minorities who maintain there own languages and cultures.

So, when you look at the news from Xinjiang, you may want to think beyond the headlines so you have a better notion of what these types of tensions mean to China and you.

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