China’s shrinking cities

Hegang, China in 2012

Hegang, China in 2012

China has almost 1,000 cities that are losing people:

The perception that China’s urbanisation is still in full swing is untrue for nearly one-third of Chinese cities, whose populations are shrinking, according to new findings by a Chinese university.

A research team from Tsinghua University used satellite imagery to monitor the intensity of night lights in more than 3,300 cities and towns between 2013 and 2016. In 28 per cent of cases, the lights had dimmed.

China now has 938 shrinking cities, according to Long Ying, an urban planning expert at China’s Tsinghua University, who founded and led the research group, Beijing City Lab. This is more than any other nation on Earth.

The urban shrinkage is related to China’s declining population.

The Chinese cities under the greatest pressure of shrinking include those heavily dependent on natural resources, such as the coal mining town of Hegang in Heilongjiang province.

Also diminishing are cities “in the process of transformation”, such as Yiwu in Zhejiang province, once christened the “largest small commodity wholesale market in the world” and famous for its sprawling networks of stalls selling counterfeit goods.

More about Yiwu here.

Most Chinese city planning is detached from the reality of today, Long said after his team reviewed ambitious urban development plans for more than 60 cities. The plans usually include key infrastructure projects, as well as industrial, commercial and residential developments that may diverge significantly from the demographic trends.

The best-laid plans of mice and men. Anything is possible in China, but Herculean development plans (such as the Greater Bay Area “blueprint”) need to be taken with a grain of salt.

Huge apartment buildings dominate the skylines in most Chinese urban areas. These buildings would be much more costly to tear down should they be vacant than the standard smaller houses in shrinking cities in the US, for example.

These large buildings may also be sparsely occupied – it could be difficult to survey how many homes are empty, Long said. Furthermore, no official wants to face a decision over whether to tear down a building that might just have a few occupants.

Chinese academic Gan Li calculates that some 22% of the nation’s housing stock is vacant, or more than 50 million homes.

However, the desolation that haunts many of America’s decaying post-industrial towns could be replicated in China, if the situation is not managed properly, Long said.

“Although shrinking cities in the US and China are different on many levels, many landscapes in the US rust belt could be the future of some of China’s shrinking cities,” he warned.

China’s population begins to shrink

Beijing traffic jam

Welcome news for some

China’s population is believed to have shrunk last year for the first time since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. Despite the loosening of the one-child policy in 2016 to allow for two children per couple, new findings from a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison indicate that China’s population dropped by 1.27 million in 2018. The number of live births nationwide dipped by 2.5 million last year, after being projected to grow by 790,000. Thus, China is on track to get old before it gets rich.

This is most alarming:

The number of women of childbearing age is expected to fall by more than 39 percent over the next decade and China’s two-child policy isn’t enough to shore up dwindling birth rates, [Yi Fuxian] added.

That is an absolutely colossal decline in 10 short years. For reference, a Chinese newspaper gives the total number of women of childbearing age (15 to 49 years old) as 346 million. If we apply Yi’s 39% reduction to this figure, that would mean a net removal of almost 135 million women from the childbearing population. That’s more than the whole population of Japan. In a decade!

He is now urging the government to get out of people’s bedrooms by scrapping the two-child limit and offering more incentives including generous maternity leave and tax breaks for parents.

If the government doesn’t intervene now, “China’s aging crisis will be more severe than Japan, and the economic outlook will be bleaker than Japan,” Yi said.

China’s labor force is becoming smaller as the population grays, putting intense strain on the country’s fragile pension and health care systems.

[…]

“The U.S. economy will not be overtaken by China, but by India, which has a younger population,” he said.

“China’s economic vitality will continue to decline, which will bring about a disastrous impact on the global economy.”

Ditching the two-child limit would be most welcome. It’s questionable, however, whether pro-natalist incentives like maternity leave can make a significant dent in the problem. Chinese women have to really want children.

Here’s an insight from the financial blogger Luo Zhen (罗臻) way back in August 2013:

Consider the bigger picture. China is urbanizing and one plan for keeping growth from collapsing to near 0-3% is to push more people into cities. The fertility rates in the cities is already low by choice. China increasingly looks like Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, where the fertility rates are 1.1, 1.1 and 0.8 children born/woman, respectively. China’s fertility rate is currently about 1.6 children born/woman.

If they want to raise fertility, they should deurbanize. China’s fertility rate is headed lower, one child policy or not.

There’s an idea: deurbanization. Perhaps it’s time to ease back on the crazy city-building drive and start ushering people back to the countryside. It’s been done before, sort of: China sent roughly 17 million youths to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.