By Bingqin Li, Bo Hu & Tao Liu

China is experiencing the largest wave of urbanization in human history.

In 1979, only 17.9 percent of the population (84.51 million) lived in cities. At the end of 2017, the urban population reached 813 million, 58.52 percent of the total. Migration on such a massive scale poses great challenges for urban services and governance.


Credit: Reuters / Thomas Peter

The son of migrant workers listens to music on a mobile phone as he uses another to play a game outside his home in a cluster of migrant dwellings that is slated for demolition at Dongsanqi village in the outskirts of Beijing, China, Aug. 6, 2017.

Major cities in China these days each host millions of domestic migrants. In Shanghai, there are 9.8 million migrants who are not from the city – 40.5 percent of the total population. In Beijing, this figure is 37.3 percent; for Shenzhen it’s 67.7 percent and for Guangzhou it’s 38.0 percent.

In smaller cities, the share of the migrant population could be even larger. For example, 75.7 percent of the long-term residents of Dongguan are migrants. On average, China’s migrant population has grown by about three to five percent each year from 2001 to 2016.

The above figures refer only to migrants who have lived in cities for more than six months. It is estimated that another 73 million people across China have lived for less than six months in cities as temporary residents. In addition, at least 100 million farmers have been resettled to cities because of urban expansion, environmental protection, major infrastructure projects and poverty reduction.

Migrant workers either live in urban neighborhoods alongside local residents or concentrate in peri-urban houses built by farmers. Resettled farmers usually live in purpose-built high-density neighborhoods given to them as compensation for relocation.

The fast-growing migrant population is seriously challenging urban governments. An urban neighborhood can accommodate 501 to 3,500 households (1,500 to 10,000 people). Each neighborhood has a Residential Committee (RC), a self-governing body that functions as a grassroots-level agency to implement government policies. Each RC has seven to nine government-funded staff members.


Credit: Reuters / Thomas Peter

Migrant Mrs. Zhong embroiders shoe inlays outside her one room home at the outskirts of Beijing, China, Oct. 1, 2017.

An RC is responsible for keeping social order, providing services designated by the government, coordinating third-party service providers, and resolving conflicts in the neighborhood. Because of insufficient staffing, RCs tend to focus on administrative tasks which are heavily geared toward crime prevention. They have been criticized for the tendency to act on behalf of the government rather than serving the community

Historically, urban neighborhoods were responsible for providing accommodation to the employees of work units, such as state and collective enterprises and government agencies. Because these work units would provide a large part of the social services the employees would need, the residential neighborhoods only provided minimal standardized services. In this sense, Chinese cities were defined for their role in supporting economic production.

As a result of the country’s labor market reform, which started in the early 1990s, employees no longer tend to work for a single employer their entire lives, and few work for employers that provide any social services.

Consequently, there is a growing demand for services where people reside. Moreover, as income inequality rises, urban residents are sorted into neighborhoods according to their ability to pay. The expectations for services vary greatly in different neighborhoods, placing huge pressure on the small number of staff to deliver services and govern.

In neighborhoods where migrants concentrate, governments must improve safety, provide basic services, promote civic engagement and build a stronger sense of community. Such needs are currently not being met.

To overcome staff and funding shortages, some city authorities are adopting a ‘co-production’ model for service delivery and governance.

In this model, private and non-profit actors, charitable funds, and volunteers are all encouraged to play a part as initiators, funders, or providers of services, and the government’s role is limited to coordinating or partially funding the activities involved.

Unlike many other parts of the world where co-production emerged from the bottom up, in these Chinese cities, local governments have been the ones initiating, and at times aggressively championing, the co-production model. RC staff members are coached to fund and run co-production activities and encouraged to work together with multiple stakeholders.

Co-production activities may include: community patrolling; public infrastructure improvement and communal gardens; the operation of libraries, function rooms and sports facilities; the organisation of festival activities; old age support; and after-school childcare. These activities and community-based projects can be subsidized by the government directly or funded through participatory budgeting.


Credit: Reuters / Thomas Peter

Migrant worker Wang Jun carries scrap material she collected from debris of demolished buildings at the outskirts of Beijing, China Oct. 1, 2017.

We studied four pilot cities and found that despite all the effort by local governments, migrant participation in co-productive activities is still limited. One reason might be that many RCs still attempt to maintain significant control over the process, in particular when RC staff members believe co-production may reduce their importance in the community and threaten their jobs.

However, it takes time, effort, a sense of belonging, and often money to turn a housing estate full of strangers into a real community, let alone develop active public engagement. It is not always realistic to wait for self-governance and self-service to emerge and become self-sustaining on their own.

The fact that China’s RCs and local authorities are taking the lead on co-production has enhanced awareness and ignited enthusiasm for community-based activities, such as the establishment of neighborhood watches and social clubs.

If RC staff members believe in the power of co-production and can find ways to exercise it effectively, their organizations can function as long-standing coordinators of migrant participation in China. This could help ensure that the largest wave of urbanization in human history is less of an ordeal for the millions of people experiencing it first-hand.

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The News Lens has been authorized to publish this article from Policy Forum – Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis, opinion, debate, and discussion.

TNL Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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