An unprecedented challenge

Updated: 2012-06-09 10:59

By Chi Fulin (China Daily)

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Bold planning, upgrading of industries and promoting social progress key to achieving sustainable urbanization

It is an unprecedented challenge moving nearly 300 million people - equal to the total population of the United States - into cities by 2030.

China's approach, which it has successfully used to crack every problem it has encountered during its reform and opening-up, is to experiment first.

Four years ago, the central government set Hunan province the task of "killing several birds with one stone". The province was charged with improving its ecological and environmental conditions, and upgrading its polluting and low-end manufacturing sectors into high-tech and green ones, while speeding up its urbanization and realizing better human development in the Changsha-Zhuzhou-Xiangtan city corridor.

The pilot in Hunan is of great significance for the rest of the country. Apart from the three big urban clusters, Beijing-Tianjin, the Yangtze River Delta and the Pearl River Delta, which are already densely populated, China has decided to build dozens of medium-scale urban corridors or clusters in central and western China, which can each host millions of residents.

So the Changsha-Zhuzhou-Xiangtan urban corridor in Hunan, which is home to more than 13 million residents and produces more than 40 percent of the province's economic output, needs to set an example for the rest of the country to realize the goal of building an environmentally friendly and resource-saving society.

To be frank, it has been a tough challenge for Hunan province and the three cities. For example, several years ago, Xiangjiang River was so contaminated by toxic emissions from low-end factories that it could not be used as drinking water. And in zones with chemical and fertilizer plants, the air was so polluted the taxi drivers told me that they would not open their windows when they drove through the zones. Although low-end manufacturing sectors were the drivers for local development the quality of life in the cities was poor and there was little environmental protection awareness among the public.

In May, I led an independent team of experts to assess the initial outcomes of this pilot project. After visiting villages, urban communities, schools, factories, industrial zones, and talking with locals, especially with local residents, I am pleased to report that the story is now completely different from four years ago. Hunan province and the three cities have been bold, innovation-minded and pioneering to break the old traditions and industrial structure.

Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, has been awarded a UN award for its beautiful urban environment. Zhuzhou, which used to be listed as one of China's top-10 polluted cities, is on the country's list of most habitable and ecologically sound cities. And Xiangtan is known as one of the country's gardening and forest cities.

A bicycle hire system has been set up in Zhuzhou while other cities have expanded their public transport systems to minimize use of cars. There are numerous other examples of green communities, schools, townships and villages.

Most importantly, the local economies have been upgraded. High-tech know-how and information technologies have improved traditional sectors such as construction materials, food processing, fireworks production, textiles, and chemicals. High-end industries, such as biotechnologies, software development, environmental protection, space technologies, aviation and cultural innovation have been made the drivers of the local economy and high-tech industries now contribute nearly 52 percent of the local economic growth.

Breakthroughs have been made in wind power technology, aviation, new energy automobiles, rail transport, super computers and hybrid rice.

Proper and scientific urban planning has been the precondition for implementing a roadmap of green urbanization. Protecting the environment and local eco-systems and restructuring the economy have been made priorities for the local governments.

Institutional oversight has been essential for the success of the transformation. Hunan province has set up an office, headed by a top provincial leader and leading Party and government officials of the three cities, to coordinate the greening of the urban corridor. They directly report to the Party secretary and governor of Hunan province.

Of course, four years are not enough to finish the task. The central government has set the deadline of 2020 for Hunan province to complete its mission of creating an environmentally friendly and resource-saving society. To meet this deadline, Hunan province will need to be even more ambitious and decisive.

Due to my close working relationship with people in Europe, especially Germany, I have visited cities in the Rhine valley many times and I have been impressed by their urban planning and construction, legacy and environmental protection initiatives, and industrial upgrading and human development. We should learn from their experiences. Europeans can also share their advanced technologies for treating pollutants and their experiences in green finance and taxation, emissions trading, ecological compensation and other reforms.

By doing so, Hunan can turn its Xiangjiang River into a model for sustainable urbanization that the rest of the country can follow.

The author is president of China Institute for Reform and Development.