As a general observation, since the opening up reforms, the economic freedom of ordinary people has increased. However, reforms are taking a gradual road in China. As they walk along this road, people’s freedom gradually expands, and abstract rights protecting freedom also gradually develop. Only, the development of freedom and that of abstract rights protecting freedom are not in balance.
I have said before that after 1979, China’s urbanization graph rose back up, and recorded that for urban and rural residents, but particularly rural residents, the scope of economic freedom increased significantly. However, the imbalance of progressive reform has induced many imbalance rights problem in multi-dimentional economic reform. This has a profound impact on the process of urbanization in China.
Let’s talk a bit about the example of “land urbanization”. What is “land urbanisation”? The literal meaning is not complicated, it means nothing more than that land which used to be classified as rural and used by farmers for agricultural production has now turned to the city, and been allocated for urban construction. If the proportion of urban population among the overall population represents the “urbanization of the population”, then the proportion of the total land used for urban constructions represents the “urbanization of the land”.
Commonsense says that as the rate of urban population increases, so city limits must be expanded and urban land use increase. In a big metropolitan city like Beijing, the current population is around 20 million. When such a large number of people gather together, of course, they occupy more land than a 5 million people city, or a 10 million people city. Up to this point, no problem, it’s the same in all ages and everywhere, and there’s no need to make a fuss of it.
The problem is, people have found out that in recent years, the rate of “land urbanization” in the country grew far more quickly than the rate of urban population increased. From what I’ve read, the first to point out this was Paul Wen, professor of Economics at Trinity College in the United States. Guanzhong graduated from Fudan University and had worked at Chinese Academy of Social Science, and he had also studied overseas , and used to be a student of Professor Gail Johnson at University of Chicago. He is an old friend of mine. In 1988, we went to Meitan to investigate land issues, and in a blink of an eye, twenty years have passed already.
In July 2009, we held a conference to discuss the Chengdu experience in Langrun Park, and Professor Wen Guanzhong was one of the invited guests. I remember his main argument, at that time: that our urbanization process had undergone some deviation. And his most critical point was that the growth in urbanized land area was faster than that of the urban population growth! At that period of time, Guanzhong was researching the urbanization of Shanghai. He pointed out that the Pudong model, which suggests to occupy the land first has deviated from the right path. Himself supported the Puxi model – a small place with large population, giving a strong sense of urban life. Whether you would agree or not, the concept of “land urbanization exceeds population urbanization” has become popular since that time. I wanted to make an advertisment for Guanzhong here. If there is any mistake, please correct me.
He grew up in Puxi, and so had enough experiences to support his point of view. But after reading Paul’s article for the first time, my thoughts ran in a different direction: if the urbanization of the land grows more quickly than that of the population, does that not mean a decline in urban population density? And so, can we speak of urbanisation, should that not count as “counter-urbanization”?
That’s how it is, with the surge of “urbanization”, people don’t even really know what “the city” is! Just after the column had been launched, there was a clear definition of a city’s “density” (see “urban and rural China”, part two). According to the authors , 正是空间密度的提升，才反映了人口的集聚；也因为人口集聚，才汇集了需求而容纳得下更高水准的分工，从而推进生产率提升、推高收入，并对人口更高程度的聚集，产生难以抗拒的引力。From this point of view, urban density is the core feature of urbanization. How can urbanization happen without stimulations caused by increased level of labor division, income and productivity.
What is happening now? Because the urban land area increases faster than the urban population, it means that urban density is falling rather than rising! Readers shouldn’t think I’m just playing with words here, there’s actually a big problem in the package: if urbanization loses its own ‘core’, or if the core thins out, then can it sustain its own movement over the long time? And can it still bear the heavy responsibility that people commonly put on it – rely on urbanization to sustain China’s rapid economic growth?
The difficulty in understanding is not small. Land, of course, is the mother of wealth, but it has no legs, and can’t run off to the city on its own. “Land urbanization” is not a spontaneous phenomenon, but is undoubtedly the result of human behaviour. So we must ask: what kind of incentives motivated people to prioritize “city enclosure” over “population urbanization”.
The title of this article proposes an answer: “rights are not balanced”. Let’s explain this a bit: the flow and reallocation of resources between urban and rural areas involve arranging institutional rights at various levels. Thus, we can also simplify things by focusing on the lack of balance between two sets of rights. On the one side, the rights of farmers to live in the city is made relatively light of; on the other hand, the rights to reallocate rural land for urban use is emphasized. And so by comparison, with one set of rights abnormally light, and one set abnormally heavy, lack of balance ensues.
Let’s first look at the constitution. The 54 constitution included “freedom of movement for the citizens”, but this was not actually well implemented. The 1975 constitutional rearrangement, in the middle of the “Cultural Revolution”, took that set of rights “out of the Constitution” altogether, and until today, it has not been recovered. We are all aware of this. By contrast, “urban land is entirely State property”, and “The State, in the name of public interest, can, in accordance with the relevant regulations, expropriate 实行征收 or expropriate with compensation 征用并给予补偿“, 则都是宪法准则，有明确的表达，and receive constitutional protection. So at the constitutional level, the respective weight of the citizen’s rights to choose their place of residence and the rights of the State to acquire land is immediately visible.
Let’s consider it from the angle of “negative freedom”. Do farmers have the freedom to refuse to move, refuse to relocate, refuse to live in the city? The answer is yes in general. 只不过“强制农民进城”的报道多了，不免让很多人心里打了折扣。对比土地进城，“城市土地全盘国有”，谁家的土地进城全然取决于城市规划和行政审批，被划入者无权拒绝。征地不是自由交易，被征一方就是一百个不愿意，也不能拒绝。征地补偿法定，没有留下双方讲价钱的合法空间，更不可以“买卖不成仁义在”，下次再说吧。这样看，农民拒绝进城，要比“土地拒绝进城”，拥有更大的“消极自由”。
Now let’s look back at the facts. From the early 80s, there has been a large-scale movements of farmers moving to cities to work, open businesses and settle has become the trend. 1984年中央红头文件予以“允许”的确认，我们已经引用。In the 90s, with China’s access to the WTO on the basis of complementarity, China’s East coast became the world’s factory, and long-distance, inter-provincial flows of migrant workers has become common practice. The most iconic manifestation of this is the hundreds of millions getting back to rural areas for the “Spring Festival”. This shows that change happens more quickly in life practice than in the text of the law, and also proves the large-scale changes in China’s urban-rural relations. However, more careful observation reveals that flows of workers are one thing, and settling down is another. The later involves household registration, education of children, and problems of social security and health insurance, which are much more trouble than simple flows of workers. 沿着城市的等级系列观察，外来人落户小城镇容易，落户大城市就偏难。这也与土地进城构成了鲜明的对照：城市的级别越高，圈地能力越强，扩展的版图越大。
No matter how we look at it, the rights of farmers to move to the city and the rights for the land to become urbanized have both increased. But the outstanding problem is，此两项事关城市化大局的关键权利，“发育进度”很不平衡。The conclusion is that urbanizing land is easy, but urbanizing farmers is hard. 由此，才发生了“土地城市化快于人口城市化”的现象。而我们的分析，也将由此入彼、由表入里，要追溯到制度安排的非平衡层面，来增加对中国城市化特色的理解。
Source: 21ccom.net, 11 September 2012
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