China Builds Forbidden Cities

By Geeta Kochhar
Not long ago, Indian newspapers were flooded with news regarding the new definition of “poor” for categorizing Below Poverty Line (BPL) population. The criteria set at Rs. 965 and Rs. 781 per capita per month in urban and rural areas respectively, snowballed to debates and discussions at length over the unprotected approach of our Planning Commission. Thus, putting pressure on authorities to rework on the methodologies adopted to define poor in India.

If we stretch our lens beyond borders and look at our close neighbour China, whose infrastructure development has left many jaws dropped and whose economic growth figures has left many of our businessmen forget the bloody war, we tend to overlook the hard realities. How many of us have seriously dissected the realities behind the Chinese success model? Are we really prepared to walk the same road in a different style? At least, our policy makers and some politicians think so. While we have a very strong civil society that is up in the arms over any small issue that affects the lives of millions, in China, the presence of independent NGOs is almost insignificant and hence the issues left to decisions at the top.
Back in 2007, China Development Research Foundation, a think tank of economists, proposed a redefinition of China’s poor taking into consideration basic expenditure on education and medical services. The December 2011 revised official definition of poverty in China, placed earnings of 2,300 yuan a year (1yuan equals to 0.16 $) as the defining line. Hence, anyone earning 6.3 yuan a day is poor in China, which somehow fits the international criteria. The latest debate is ignited by Cui Yongyuan, a prominent Chinese TV personality, who tweeted in a social networking site Sina Weibo that his 10,000 yuan monthly salary was ‘not enough’, despite being more than twice China’s urban average of 4,000 yuan per month. The issue, therefore, is how much is enough for an urban living in China.

For a large part of history, Chinese Emperors ruled from within the walls of magnificent royal Imperial Palace in Beijing called the “Forbidden city”, built during the Ming dynasty in early 1400. The complex, a huge architectural wonder, got its name due to the prohibition of entry of common people and of uninvited nobles. For people outside the palace, it was a sacred precinct. The current Chinese notion of building ‘world-class’ cities predictably follow this historical legacy. The cities with infrastructural monuments are becoming unbearably costly and out of bounds for many. China’s average inflation for the last decade is around 4%. In addition, the cost of medical expenditure, high educational fees, and lack of employment opportunities have already become the “three mountains” for ordinary Chinese.

While on the one hand, China boasts over the great achievements in eradicating rural poverty, now down to 2.8% of rural population; on the other, the figures of urban poverty are becoming alarming, currently nearly 8% of the 660 million urban residents, according to a recent CASS report. These figures do not include the numerous rural migrants floating in urban centres. Reason being, they are not officially accounted as urban residents. China follows a rigid system of dissecting the urban and rural population under Hukou system (Household Registration System). The system binds people to the place of birth and any mobility without official permissions (granted only for permanent jobs, university education, and now for rich businesspersons) is illegal. Hence, the huge populace wandering on streets, begging or engaging in menial jobs, is not de jure urban population.

As this structural discrimination continues, local authorities resort to establishing “no begging zones”, depriving people of subsistence rights. Besides, Chinese cities have been engaged in massive urban demolitions and resettlement work. Many of the highlighted concerns are merely on improper compensation rather than on relocation to sub-urban or peripheral areas of the cities, which implied placing people on the margins of the cities if they are incapable of higher living standards.

A significant issue now in focus is the “villages-in-cities”, areas that have a strong village culture, but are a blot to the city image. The urban management plans to relocate these villages in the name of village transformation. Along with the transformation, a greater issue of rural migrants will be resolved, as many of them congest in these highly populated rental residential areas that still come under the jurisdiction of Village Committees. This will inevitably create future cities that are for the rich and high-class citizens. A similar debate engulfed Chinese blogosphere some time back when Zhang Weiying, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, suggested introducing a “green card” for entry to Beijing. Beijing’s Urban Management authorities were quick in supporting the argument with justification over the pressures “low quality and disorderly” population brings to the cities. Hence, China seems to build ‘socially exclusive cities’, forbidden for ordinary people. Does India really want to follow the suit?

NOTE--The writer, Ms. Dr. Geeta Kochhar, is Assistant Professor in the Centre for Chinese & South East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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