Mostly anything with a $6 trillion price tag catches our attention. China’s new leadership plans to spend that much on infrastructure over its decade, with urbanisation the focus as an engine of economic growth.
Lucy Hornby and Jane Lee writing for Reuters underline the Achilles heel of such plans: cheap, shabby and often sub-standard working class — in China’s case, migrant worker — housing gets bulldozed to be replaced by expensive high-rise apartment blocks that the displaced can’t afford. The always promised affordable housing rarely materialises.
Some 350 million more Chinese are expected to move from the farms to the cities over the next two decades, completing one of the most remarkable transformations ever of a country from a predominately rural to a majority urban population. China isn’t the first country to face the problem of providing affordable housing for city workers, or of trying to strike the right balance in the provision of public and private urban housing. At the same time it has a rare opportunity, and the money, to build sustainable, efficient and livable cities.
Unlike most industrializing and emerging economies China has avoided large-scale slums in its cities. That is not to say that people aren’t living in makeshift accommodation, crowded and sub-standard tenements and dormitories that are no more than sub-divided rented rooms. Officials in places like Shanghai may be embarrassed to have residents living in old shipping containers (though it is possible to turn even those into designer homes), but the harsh reality of urban life is that many residents live on the margins. Even $6 trillion won’t change that for most of them.