If rural China sneezes, won’t the world catch a cold?

If China fails in its experiment of building an “urban army” of consumers, at the cost of its rural population ...

Ehtesham Shahid
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Let us imagine a boat with 100 people onboard. It has men and women scattered all over, just about maintaining the delicate balance necessary to sail through choppy waters. Then a few individuals – egged on by the captain and lured by material comfort on the other side – choose to make a move. As the number swells up on one side, the ship starts to rock, jeopardizing its own survival.

At a completely different level, this is what appears to be happening in China today. It is now established that more than 55 percent of the country’s 1.38 billion population lives in urban areas, making it a nation of town and city dwellers. A human migration of that scale in China is expected to have a ripple effect elsewhere as the country comprises 18.72 percent of the total world population with its urban population expected to exceed one billion by 2030.

Concerns are routinely voiced as we live in a far more connected world and we are getting to a stage where a China sneeze can lead to at least some parts of the world catching cold. This flight of human capital from rural areas goes beyond just increasing pressure on urban space. There has indeed been human impact of China’s new urbanization, which will only worsen if not addressed immediately.

It’s the economy stupid!

But what is triggering this scenario? It is apparent that, faced with shrinking exports and slowing growth, China is trying to push ahead with a massive plan to uproot 100 million farmers and turn their fields into urban dwellings. The idea is to create a giant new middle class and boost demand.

Such drastic measures always come at a cost though. In this case it is the vast countryside lagging far behind in terms of income growth, public services and job creation. Reports have emerged from China suggesting that land disputes owing to rapid urbanization are making people angry over the disproportionate profits authorities make from. This is also causing social and cultural upheaval.

The trouble is not just uneven distribution of human population, and the resultant ecological misbalance, the trouble is this is part of a well-defined policy – to realize the government’s goals of boosting consumption amid slowing economic growth.

If China fails in its experiment of building an “urban army” of consumers, at the cost of its rural population, then the world will probably has to pay the price for it

Ehtesham Shahid

In other words, it is the government, not the economy, which is dictating resettlement. It is a trap that has been in the making for a while now. If the world can no longer consume all that China produces, the country has no choice but to nurture its own citizens to become consumers.

This entire model is based on the expectation of a certain rate of growth in the country. If that is achieved, it will indeed lead to jobs, schools, factories, and shopping malls. The country would have successfully built a brand new consumer population out of poor, uneducated farmers. However, if things do not go according to plan, and a sharp downturn happens, it can reduce these very cities into ghost towns and farmers into an army of the unemployed.

Here’s hoping China’s tryst with population migration doesn’t go its one-child policy way, which, ironically, focused on urban China, allowing population to grow more rapidly in the countryside. Now that there are more people in villages and more products and services in the cities, bringing the thirsty to the pond appears to be the obvious choice.

Best case scenario suggests these urban centers will give rise to an unprecedented market economy, leading the world to prosperity. But if it fails to achieve its targets, a spiral effect seems to be the only outcome. You don’t have to be an economist to imagine that if China fails in its experiment of building an “urban army” of consumers, at the cost of its rural population, then the world will probably has to pay the price for it.

Ehtesham Shahid is Managing Editor at Al Arabiya English. For close to two decades he has worked as editor, correspondent, and business writer for leading publications, news wires and research organizations in India and the Gulf region. He loves to occasionally dabble with teaching and is collecting material for a book on unique tales of rural conflict and transformation from around the world. His twitter handle is @e2sham.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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