The 840km journey offers a great opportunity to appreciate how China is managing rural-urban migration at a time when millions of younger people are increasingly encouraged to abandon villages and move to live in China’s ever-expanding cities.
By Justin Ojangole
The journey from Beijing to Luoyang city in Henan province, central China, is three-and-a-half hours by high-speed train.
The 840km journey offers a great opportunity to appreciate how China is managing rural-urban migration at a time when millions of younger people are increasingly encouraged to abandon villages and move to live in China's ever-expanding cities.
Henan is one of the most populated provinces in China with over 100 million people — more than twice the total population of Uganda. The province lies in the middle and lower reaches of the famous Yellow River and has an area of 167,000 square kilometres. Its major cities include the ancient towns of Luoyang and Anyang, as well as Zhengzhou which is the capital and industrial city. Henan has a long history dating back to years before Christ and is often touted as one of the important birthplaces of Chinese civilisation.
In recent years, the province has urbanised rapidly. More than half of the total population now lives in cities and towns, enjoying a very high quality of life, decent housing, increased employment opportunities, and modern social services. Just how did this largely agricultural province achieve this level of urbanisation?
Sitting in the Beijing-Henan high-speed train less than a fortnight ago, I noticed one peculiar thing — we sped passed many destroyed houses in the countryside. In some villages, destroyed houses were visible over several kilometres. This is perhaps the most obvious indicator of China's deliberate policy to move people from villages to urban areas. The Chinese government projects that it will achieve 70% urbanisation by 2020, mainly through building new towns and cities and transforming rural areas into urban settings.
The urbanisation policy encourages rural people to settle in smaller towns and cities, rather than larger cities due to overpopulation in the larger cities. The urbanisation programme is being implemented using four approaches. First, towns and cities with a poor economic outlook are being internally restructured.
Secondly, selected cities and towns are expanded by setting up new urban areas around them (cities outside cities).
Thirdly, spot development is encouraged through identifying small towns with a competitive comparative economic advantage and taking steps to develop them. The fourth approach is through localisation where residents in an area or town organise themselves by working hard to develop their own area into a town. Yiwu city in Zhejiang province is one such city that developed through residents establishing small industries.
"We should advance urbanisation by putting people first. The essence of urbanization is to bring more people to settle in urban areas. We should encourage those rural households which are capable of maintaining a stable job and life in urban areas to relocate there. In this way, we can achieve a steady increase in the labour supply, reduce the pressure of the rising labour costs and expand consumption in the real estate and other fields," notes China's president, Xi Jinping, in his book titled, The governance of China.
One key aspect of the ongoing urbanisation programme is environmental protection. The train ride from Beijing to Henan meanders through some of China's most ever-green areas. Mr. Wang, our guide in Luoyang City explained that the administration of Henan province has managed to protect the environment and specifically maintain trees in cities by enacting rules and sensitising local people.
Cutting a tree without permission is prohibited. Along streets and roads, trees are planted to beautify the cities and towns. At the same time, local authorities actively encourage people to plant trees with leaders setting an example by doing what they expect local people to do. This is echoed in President Xi's references to environmental protection. "Humanity must respect, protect and stay in harmony with nature in its development activities. Otherwise, nature will take its revenge," the president said in his book.
In Luoyang, my hotel room on the 16th floor offered a bird's eye view of the thick tree canopies that line the streets. It was the same story in Anyang city. According to Mr. Wang, environmental protection is taken so seriously that some trees which get affected by diseases are treated to save their lives. He showed us some trees in poor condition on the streets which were ‘on treatment and on water drip'. To educate tourists, the authorities provide writings on some trees saying something like: "This tree is 500 years old." Local people, who are continuously sensitised on the values of China's ecological system, are given incentives including financial motivation to encourage them to plant more trees. The results of these initiatives are everywhere. Through strategic urbanisation, China is working to achieve the perfect balance between modernisation and nature. From the widow of the train, one sees beautiful mushrooming skyscrapers, modern towns and tall residential buildings connected by first-class road networks, flyovers and railway lines alongside extensive greenery.
As the Chinese Ambassador to Uganda, His Excellency Zheng Zhuqiang, often emphasises in his speeches to Ugandans or interviews with local media, the sister countries of Uganda and China have a lot to learn from one another.
"China has always considered Uganda a key cooperation partner in Africa. The development strategies of our two countries are compatible and present each other with important opportuni-ties. China is working hard to realize Chinese Dream of the great rejuvenation of Chinese nation," he said during his most recent interview with China-Uganda magazine.
Returning from China last week, where I had been invited by the Chinese Embassy in Uganda to attend a television production technology course for ‘The Belt and Road' countries, I got convinced that there are many lessons that Uganda can learn from China on how to successfully manage its rural-urban migration.
According to the World Bank, more than 20 million Ugandans will live in urban areas by 2040 up from 6.4 million who currently live in towns and cities (of whom an estimated one in every three live in Kampala). However, the quality of life in most urban areas remains poor. Many of the mushrooming urban areas do not provide an efficient working and liveable environment for people living there. In particular, the towns lack good housing, decent transport networks, access to quality social services and effective administrative institutions. Many residents live in slums.
With the population of Ugandans that live in towns increasing by about 4.5 percent every year, urbanization is increasingly seen as one of the key drivers of Uganda's economic growth and transformation. However, to achieve that goal will require strategic planning and investment on the part of the government.
One starting point is to take a leaf from China's experience.
The writer is the publisher of the China-Uganda magazine and an executive member of the China-Africa Friendship Association