Apr. 7, 2014, Cambridge, MA – The Urban China Initiative (UCI) held its quarterly Urban Leaders Roundtable on Apr. 7 at the Harvard Faculty Club. Hosted by Jonathan Woetzel, co-chair of UCI and director of McKinsey & Company, the Roundtable focused on three major urbanization topics – Urban Development, Urban Design, and Urban Direction. Over 80 leading figures from the public, private and academic sectors in China and the U.S. gathered for an in-depth discussion on these issues.
Keynote speaker Orville Schell, the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York, cited DENG Xiaoping’s words “cross the river by feeling the stones” to describe the current challenges and opportunities that China is facing. “In a time of uncertainty caused by new patterns, new features and new economic models, China should make active efforts to experiment in its urbanization process,” he argued.
LUO Zhaoming, CEO of China Investment Development Corp, summarized the three stages of China’s urbanization – the first stage was based on the development of high-tech industrial parks; the second featured the government-led growth of China’s towns and cities and their subsequent residential and commercial development; and the current phase of new urbanization, would be driven by both the government and the market.
In the case of a Beijing high-tech industrial park, LUO said the role of businesses in new urbanization could be promoted by proper planning of industrial spaces, the establishment of an open industrial investment platform, innovative financing mechanisms, and improved public services and management.
Commenting on the case, John Macomber, Senior Lecturer of Business Administration of Harvard Business School, said projects like the industrial park would provide a good model to disperse pressure in the megacity if they had clearly defined spaces to attract the private sector.
On the Urban Development panel, GONG Sen, Deputy Director of the Development Research Centre (DRC) of China’s State Council, investigated major issues of China’s urbanization including industrial upgrading and hukou reform. “Urbanization should be backed by employment,” GONG argued, “but the current employment situation cannot be sustained without preferential treatment towards industry and cheap labor. Therefore, industrial upgrading is a high priority, especially for labor-intensive industries.”
As to the hukou reform issue, GONG believed that it is important to delink hukou status from social welfare and public services. “Equal access to public services is key in addressing the issue,” GONG said.
Speaking of the challenges China is facing, Edward Glaeser, the Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics of Harvard University, believed that it should be a priority for China to make its cities more livable. He suggested that, for example, to improve mobility, cities should introduce congestion pricing, charging cars for going on the road in certain situations; similarly, pollution charges should also be introduced to support environmental improvements.
In analyzing China’s urbanization, WANG Bing, Associate Professor in Practice of Real Estate and the Built Environment of Harvard University, argued that urbanization should be viewed at both the macro and micro levels, and in consideration of the relation between urbanized population and urbanized land. “Although China can boast a high urbanization rate now, it still has a long way to go,” WANG said, “in the U.S., there are strong ties between the urban and rural areas, whereas in China, urbanization is very polarized.”
On the Urban Design panel, Elliott Sclar, Professor of Urban Planning of Columbia University and Director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at the Earth Institute, talked about mobility, access and sustainable urban development from a perspective of urban design. “An important indicator of a city’s ability to create economic and social value is access,” he said, “but an increase in mobility does not equal to an increase in access. Now people are traveling longer in cities, and their travel time goes up despite faster means of transportation. It means a lot of mobility is created, but not access.” “It is estimated that another 100 million people will migrate into urban areas in China by 2020. But what does “urban” look like? It is a key question to be answered for China’s urban design,” said Prof. Sclar.
ZHAO Jinhua, the Edward H. and Joyce Linde Career Development Assistant Professor of Urban Planning of MIT, also pointed out the excessively rapid development of highways in China. “Even when researchers present findings to show the down sides, rapid construction does not slow down,” he said, “China should listen to research findings and learn from other countries’ history to avoid unnecessary mistakes.”
On the Urban Direction panel, Anthony Saich, the Daewoo Professor of International Affairs of Harvard University and Director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, talked about the social impact of China’s rapid urbanization on its rural population and migrant workers. “Although more people have physically moved from rural to urban areas, the social welfare and public services have not kept pace,” he said.
Professor Saich also questioned the seemingly contradictory approaches of natural, market-driven urbanization and “scientific”, government-driven urbanization, which were both stated in China’s government report.
ZHANG Weiwen, Professor of Zhejiang University’s School of Public Administration, argued that it is problematic for the central government to retain strict control of land with a quota system, for it ignores the actual supply and demand. “To use more land, local governments often trade the land quotas with each other, creating greater inequality,” said Professor ZHANG.
CHEN Jiaxi, Associate Professor of Shenzhen University and Director of the University’s Center for Chinese Local Government Innovations, pointed out that some urban issues are the result of conflicting stakeholder interests and power interplay.
ZHANG Haibo, Associate Professor of Nanjing University’s School of Government, sounded the alarm bell by warning that the rapid government-led urbanization may cause adverse impact on migrant workers. “Migrant workers would be the victims of urbanization without economic security, social ties and matching job opportunities,” said Professor ZHANG.
The Urban Leaders Roundtable Series is UCI’s quarterly flagship event. Invitation-only, it brings together each time 20 to 30 urban leaders, including ministers, government directors, corporate senior executives, top academic theorists and NGO leaders.