Debate: Beijing's population

(China Daily)
Updated: 2010-10-25 07:53
Large Medium Small

Can the capital accommodate more people, or has its population reached the optimum level? Two professors from the same university have totally different views.

Tao Ran

Don't blame population growth for all ills

The growing pressure of their migrant population and increasing traffic jams have pushed some big cities to the limits. This has made many people support the view that rapid population growth in major cities is creating more serious and perhaps unsolvable problems, such as traffic jams, and disruptions in water and power supplies.

Take Beijing for example. At the end of last year, it had a population of 19.7 million, 40 percent of which was floating. The total population and percentage of floating population, are both beyond the government's target of keeping them below 18 million and 10 percent until 2020.

To deal with the situation, many experts support the practices of Beijing's Shunyi district. The district government has implemented strict rules on small service industries like catering, massage parlors and retailing. It has set strict requirements, too, for garbage collection, realty management and housekeeping to reduce these businesses' demand for migrant workers. And its policies on employment and real estate development are tilted in favor of the local people and high-income earners.

Population pressure is not a new subject. Debates have been going on for years, but are becoming more heated, as traffic jams throw city life out of gear and water supplies are badly hit. But with the debates concentrated on whether the population in big cities should be controlled, few have paid attention to other possibilities.

To doubt that population control can solve all the problems is quite natural in a society that professes equality. We should instead know that the problems could be better solved through technical and systematical innovations, and improvement in management.

Traffic jams in Beijing are becoming perhaps one of the most serious in the world, and some experts believe that controlling the population is a feasible way of easing the problem. But it is the Beijing government that should first take the blame for road congestion.

The city government should have long ago introduced measures, such as license-plate bidding, higher parking fees and congestion fees in downtown areas, long ago to control the rising number of cars on the roads. Now as the roads get more crowded, more people are buying cars because sitting in a car is better than sitting in a bus while waiting for traffic to move during a jam. This is a vicious circle and has little connection with the growing population.

If the measures mentioned above are introduced and the public transport is improved on a priority basis, Beijing's traffic system - based on the city's well-built infrastructure - can run much efficiently.

As for water scarcity, the city's large population, no doubt, is one of the reasons for its erratic supply. But again that is not the root of the problem.

In fact, Beijing's water supply can be improved significantly if people across the economic divide adopt water-saving measures. The agriculture sector is a major consumer of water, but it is yet to introduce water-saving measures like drip irrigation, because buying low-priced water is more economical.

Incentives for using less water and punishments for using more should be introduced across the country, especially cities, to raise the awareness of individuals and industries about saving water.

It's one thing to predict the growth of population in cities or how much more people will consume in 10 or 20 years and another to think about controlling population growth.

But one thing is still worthy of discussion, that is, the reconstruction and/or improvement of suburbs, and villages close to cities. These areas, where mostly low-income migrant workers live, have been playing a positive role in the country's urbanization process. Migrant workers live in such places because they offer rental accommodation and food at prices affordable to them.

Many developing countries have raised (or are raising) their investment in these "urban villages" and low-rent areas to create more service infrastructure and strengthen police presence in order to improve people's living conditions and reduce crime.

But in China, many local governments simply tear down old and even not-so-old buildings in "urban villages" and suburbs (and even in cities). The result: low-income people find it more difficult to keep working and living in cities despite making a great contribution and sacrifices to build our metropolises.

But why have local governments performed so poorly in managing such areas? It's not difficult to answer this question.

Many local governments still concentrate on economic development, for which cities need to be built as magnificent as possible.

It's time the governments shifted their focus to the well-being of the people, especially the vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, as part of their efforts to strengthen social harmony.

Tao Ran is a professor at the China Center for Public Economics and Governance, School of Economics, Renmin University of China. These are excerpts from his interview with China Daily's He Bolin.

Hou Dongmin

Where's the water for more people to drink

Beijing's population is close tolion and increasing by 1 million every two years. This is cause for worry and begs the question: Is such population growth in cities like Beijing sustainable?

Those who answer in the affirmative may cite metropolises such as Tokyo and Seoul as examples. But compared with those cities Beijing lacks one basic resource to sustain life: water.

The utilization ratio of water resources in any place should be kept below 40 percent to ensure ecological balance. If the per capita per year water resources in a place is below 1,000 cubic meters, it's a sign of water scarcity. If we use these two critical yardsticks, the situation in Beijing is alarming, because its utilization ratio is above 90 percent and its per capita per year water resources are below 200 cubic meters.

For the past few years, Beijing has been trying desperately to ensure adequate water supply to its ever-increasing population and ever-expanding industries by reducing the use of water for ecological purposes, and over-exploiting reservoir and groundwater. Plus, upstream and already water-scarce areas in Hebei province have to reduce their water consumption to ensure the capital gets enough supply.

But even these measures have not been enough. Beijing has, off and on, considered diverting water from the often-dry Yellow River and pins its last hope on the South-to-North Water Diversion Project. The latest scientific expedition to the project's resource area in Southwest China, however, has yielded pessimistic results, because rivers and lakes there are also shrinking.

Adding other uncertainties to the problem is the impact of global warming and the frequent droughts in southern and western provinces. All this has made the project's prospects gloomy.

Beijing's annual water resource is about 3.7 billion cubic meters. After completion, the South-to-North Water Diversion Project is expected to add another 1 billion cubic meters. But even then Beijing's per capita per year water resource would be only 250 cubic meters. Remember that is calculated on Beijing's current population and is far below the standard 1,000 cubic meters.

As for groundwater, according to a survey conducted by the Beijing bureau of geological and mineral exploration, the city's groundwater reserve between the ground surface and 150 meters is 60 billion cubic meters. In the 1960s, wells hardly 10 meters deep used to have water. Today, even 100-meter-deep wells are being discarded. New wells are been dug to depths of 150 meters, almost reaching bedrock.

Some may argue that water is not the only factor that determines whether a city can take in more newcomers, and other aspects such as the economy, land and traffic should be taken into account to make the right judgment. The population density of Tokyo is 6,000 per square kilometer and that of Shanghai 3,000 per square kilometer. At 1,200, Beijing's population density is optimistically low, prompting some experts to say the city still has plenty of room to absorb more newcomers.

But this logic is misleading, for Tokyo, Shanghai and Seoul are in regions that have abundant water resources and get ample rainfall. With its dwindling water resources, Beijing cannot sustain a larger population. Instead, it should make serious efforts to control the population, if not reduce it.

But then population control is a controversial issue, especially for Beijing because a large part of its population is migrants. Since the city's population has risen rapidly because of the economic growth model followed by the government, efforts should now be made to raise people's standard of living and manage the market.

Beijing's efforts to strengthen population management have failed because they did not focus on the cause of population growth, which is unlimited market access to enterprises.

From 2004 to 2008, between the city's first economic and second census, the number of industrial units grew from 2.9 million to 4.4 million. No government policy can stop such an increase in enterprises from attracting larger crowds of job seekers to the city. Though free market access to enterprises has helped Beijing a lot in expanding its economy, it has slowed the pace of improvement in industrial efficiency.

Hence, checking the unfettered growth of industrial units should now be at the core of the battle to ease Beijing's population growth and water scarcity. It might slow the city's GDP growth but would be a wise choice for all.

Hou Dongmin is a professor at the Population Development Studies Center, Renmin University of China. These are excerpts from his interview with China Daily's He Bolin.

Debate: Beijing's population