China: 5-year plan

Day Ten: China’s move from rural to urban

Kai Ryssdal Jun 8, 2011

OK, so now we’re in China. Shanghai’s a great city and all, but it’s very… Western. Anything you need as a foreigner, you can basically get. Out here in Chongqing, a thousand miles up the Yangtze River, you’re much more on your own. This is a place where Western brands are still rare, where most of the cars are still domestically made (don’t get me started, by the way, on traffic and the ever-increasing risk of life and limb), where it’s big news that Citigroup has finally opened an office and where foreigners who speak Chinese still get a double-take when they open their mouths.

And yet it’s a city whose development the central government in Beijing is keeping close tabs on. The explanation as to exactly why becomes clear on the long drive in from the airport. There are new apartment buildings going up here by the dozens. Big ones, too. Easily 25-30 stories high. A Chinese journalist here told me today the government’s just started on a plan to build 10 million square meters of new apartment space a year for the next 10 years. Works out to about a million and a half average-sized apartments over the decade that the government will subsidize for low-wage workers to live in.

But here’s the thing: They can build apartments here ’til they’re blue in the face, but it’s not going to be enough. China, as you might have heard, is in the middle of the biggest rural-to-urban migration in history. History as in… ever. Farmers by the tens of millions are leaving home and coming to cities looking for work and a better life. Which is great. That’s exactly what the government’s trying to encourage; moving people from farm to factory will keep China’s economy growing the way it has been.

But there are 800 million people out in the Chinese countryside waiting to be urbanized.

You want to know my guess for what keeps the Chinese leadership awake at night? How ’bout this for a start: “Where the HECK are we going to put all those people?”

So they’re building new apartments as fast as they can.

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