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'Megacities' Are not the Future of Urbanization in China


As the most populous country in the world, China's sustained and rapid economic development is attributable to three processes, i.e. industrialization, urbanization, and its heavy participation in globalization. It can be deemed that these three driving forces under the background of reform and opening-up have supported the sustained rapid growth of China's economy for several decades. Large-scale urbanization has become one of the most important driving forces for China's economy.

According to data from China’s National Bureau of Statistics, by the end of 2019, the urban population of mainland China was 848.43 million, accounting for 60.60% of the total population (the share of the urban population in total population). The urbanization rate of the registered population was 44.38%. In 1990, the share of the urban population in total population in China was only 26.41%. In just 30 years, China's urbanization rate has increased by 130%.

Behind the rapidly increasing urbanization rate is the emergence and growth of many large cities in China. According to urban population statistics, there were 43 large cities with a population of more than 2 million in mainland China in 2019, among which 27 large cities had a population of more than 3 million, 14 megacities had a population of more than 5 million, and 5 megacities had a population of more than 10 million.

From a global perspective, most of the megacities with large populations are in developing countries, and less so in developed countries. According to another estimate, there are 36 cities in the world with a population of more than 10 million people. Among them, 28 are in developing countries and only 8 are in developed countries. It can be seen that the number of megacities has nothing to do with whether a country is developed or not, and it even shows a negative correlation.

Making cities larger and improving the value of urban assets has become accepted and is almost worshiped as a belief in China's urbanization process. The logic behind it is not complicated: increment of land fiscal revenue, as well as higher city rating (such as first-, second-, and third-tier cities, national central cities, etc.), better land indicators, more economic and population factors, and more urban consumption can only be obtained by constantly expanding the scale of the cities.

However, this urban development logic has a huge defect, which seriously neglects the conditions and resources needed to maintain the normal functions of the urban system. The larger the city is, the more basic energy and resources it needs, the more public services it needs to provide, and the more difficult it will be to effectively manage the city. What is particularly alarming is that mega-cities are often hit the hardest in the event of any major catastrophes, such as a public health event triggered by an epidemic of infectious diseases, war, large-scale terrorist attacks, social unrest, energy disruption, telecommunications network disruption, and severe natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and typhoons. High population density, high-value economic assets and industries, and high-density network, all these make disaster events to have a particularly huge impact on megacities.

As a strategic think tank with a long history of research on urban issues, ANBOUND has been tracking and studying the development of China's large cities for more than 15 years. Since 2006, ANBOUND's research team, led by Chief Researcher Chan Kung, has put forward a variety of issues and risks associated with the development of China's megacities, such as the limits of megacities, the environmental carrying capacity and resource consumption of megacities, the provision of public services and infrastructure in megacities, the difficulty of managing urban systems, urban diseases and aggregate control in megacities, as well as the potential risks faced by megacities. In his studies of the world's and China's megacities, Chan Kung has stated more than once that the development of megacities in Western countries has provided many lessons that the megacities in the West are in fact a deformed product. According to Chan Kung, managing and running megacities effectively is a worldwide challenge, while managing megacities with more than 20 million population efficiently is virtually impossible.

In 2013, the ANBOUND research team warned against rapid urbanization in developing countries, warning that the level of urbanization should not exceed 60%, and that if it exceeded that, cities would be unmanageable, the environment would be unsustainable, and risks and problems would abound. Unfortunately, these cautionary conclusions fell on deaf ears as it was at a time when the country was still in the midst of rampant urbanization. The urbanization process in developing countries, including China, has not only failed to learn the lessons of Western urbanization, but has also intensified and repeated the same mistakes.

ANBOUND also revealed the problem of the expansion of megacities from the perspective of welfare supply. Chan Kung pointed out that a megacity embodies the uneven development of the country, which is the result of the uneven welfare of a country's economic development, and it is not a sign of urban achievement. ANBOUND emphasizes the welfare balance between urban and rural areas. There is no reason to concentrate all public welfare in urban areas; if urban areas became the center of welfare, then poverty alleviation would be difficult to be implemented. It should be noted that the difference in welfare between urban and rural areas is a deformity and is not a normal state and as such, the existence of such a phenomenon should not be used to justify the reasoning that only cities and megacities are the future of humankind, or that the population should be concentrated in said cities and megacities. Cities are actually only nodes in the process of national welfare construction, not the endpoint; what is of fundamental importance is the equalization of welfare. Chan Kung emphasized that the existence of cities should not be based on the abnormal distribution of public welfare, nor should that be used as a reason to attract people to cities.

Comparing the urbanization development of developed and developing countries, we can see that the relative balance of welfare can actually be used as an important indicator to measure the degree of national development. Judging from the reality of China's urbanization, the abnormalities of imbalanced welfare is present everywhere in China. From medical services to culture and education, public transportation, plumbing, and electricity, there are obvious differences based on the urban levels in China. It should also be pointed out that the imbalance of urban welfare in China has also been superimposed with political and administrative power, which has become more deformed in actual urban development. Using medical and educational resources as an excuse for urbanization is also not something that is reasonable.

To change these obvious problems and various imbalances in urbanization, China must abandon its blind worship of megacities, and change the impulse of many of its cities to merge counties into city districts, as well as their spatial and population expansion. From the above analysis, we can see that there is no future for the development of megacities. After the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan in early 2020 and the implementation of the lockdown, ANBOUND’s emergency research team at that time reiterated that the outbreak exposed the difficulty of managing a megacity, and the risk that megacities are more vulnerable to public health issues. If the risks and problems of the megacity development models are verified in this way, the cost would be undoubtedly huge. This not only reflects the weakness of public policy research, but also shows that the probability of related research entering the decision-making system is extremely low. It is understood that after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan this year, high-level decision-making departments were greatly shocked by the management complexity and risk vulnerabilities of the megacity, and began to consider the negative impact of the development of the megacity more seriously. If high-level officials realize that the concept of a megacity is simply unrealistic from the impact of the pandemic, this, on the one hand, would make people feel the value of forward-looking research, and on the other, will make them realize that it is not easy for public policy research to influence decision-making.

As the entirety of China is intensively preparing for the 14th Five-Year Plan, city governments at all levels are thinking about future development direction, model, and goals. Based on our investigation and understanding, the starting point of most city governments’ thinking is how to expand and develop, how to attract population and investment, accumulate industries, expand land and space, make money through taxation and finance, and urban expansion through consumption. This kind of development thinking will undoubtedly continue to lead the cities to expand even towards becoming megacities similar to what happened in the past. What urban administrators need to pay attention to is that high-level officials worry about the potential policy orientation behind the development of megacities, which is probably something that cities at all levels cannot ignore when formulating the 14th Five-Year Plan.

Final Analysis Conclusion:

Although megacities are the result of the urbanization process, they are also the result of distorted urban development to some extent. They not only bring about various serious “urban diseases”, but also exacerbate the imbalance of welfare in national development and create more development problems. Looking at China’s 14th Five-Year Plan and the country’s long-term urbanization process, there is simply no future for megacities.