Why the Chinese can build new megacities from scratch and we can’t (and shouldn’t)

Jeremy Cronin argues for dreams more directly aligned to the five key presidential goals

Concerned perhaps that it was not sufficiently inspiring, towards the end of what was nonetheless an appropriately sombre SONA speech, President Ramaphosa called on South Africa to share a dream. “I dream of a SA where the first entirely new city built in the democratic era rises, with skyscrapers, schools, universities, hospitals and factories…We have not built a new city in 25 years of democracy.”

Ramaphosa was explicitly drawing inspiration from the Chinese. He carried the Chinese model even further: “We should imagine a country where bullet trains pass through Johannesburg as they travel from here [Cape Town] to Musina, and they stop in Buffalo City on their way from eThekwini back here.”

In the current fraught inner-ANC factional reality, it is easy for comradely concerns regarding anything said by President Ramaphosa to be mapped into a pro-state-capture agenda. So let’s put matters squarely up-front and in plain sight on the table: stabilising our constitutional democracy around a Ramaphosa-led administration is one of the most important strategic tasks of the present. The SACP is proud of the role that we have played from within the Alliance in advancing this agenda. But strengthening the Ramaphosa-led administration must surely also involve comradely criticism where such is necessary and appropriate.

There is nothing wrong, in principle, with dreaming. China’s accomplishments are, indeed, often impressive. But as we dream, it is also important that we keep our feet firmly planted in our South African reality.

President Ramaphosa is not the only South African to marvel at how the Chinese are able develop detailed scale models of new cities that will then rise out of barren land in all of their concrete and reinforced steel glory, and in record time. Why can’t we emulate that?

The first thing to appreciate is that China’s massive but remarkably ordered urbanisation programme is based on two key pillars: state ownership of all urban land and, what in South Africa, we would call stringent influx control measures. The latter is known in China as the “hukou” system. This is a household registration system, an internal passport arrangement that is used by the state to regulate population distribution and allocate labour resources within the country.

The “hukou” is linked to access to social benefits like education, healthcare, and retirement pensions. Migrants from the rural countryside who lack an urban “hukou” are prohibited from permanent settlement rights in the city and are discriminated against in terms of accessing social services. Currently, these restrictive measures impact on China’s vast floating population of migrant labourers, around 234-million people. But they also impact on urban insiders who wish to relocate from one city to another. Hukou rights are related to a specific city.

There are seeming echoes here with our horrible apartheid-era influx control, pass-book and rural labour reserve-based reproduction of super-exploited migrant labour. But, again, we need to understand vastly different contexts.

South Africa’s migrant labour system was built on the brutal foundation of colonial land dispossession of the African majority, reserving a mere 13% of land in which utterly impoverished households were coercively forced to subsidise the social reproduction of cheap labour power mainly for the mines. The legacy of this colonial and apartheid past lives on in the desperate poverty of South Africa’s former bantustans, and indeed in the plight of millions of other rural households throughout southern Africa, places that were also coercively drawn into labour migrancy that drove South Africa’s 20th century industrialisation.

China’s socialist revolution was fought and won largely in a backward countryside with the principal mass base being the peasantry. The 1949 revolution abolished feudalism on the land and, after many trials and errors, created sustainable and productive rural livelihoods and communal ownership of land. The rural population in its hundreds of millions was lifted out of poverty.

As in the very different, but also remarkable case of South Korea, industrialisation and modernisation were first based on a massive anti-feudal land reform programme. Notwithstanding vastly improved rural livelihoods, in China, as in South Korea, the attraction of moving to cities is a powerful magnet. Cities offer greater prospects for upward social mobility. 

Migrant labour

In China, the controlled planning and administration of this urban-pull effect has been a major factor in the country’s rapid modernisation development. China’s low-wage, floating migrant labour force has played a key part in the country’s breakneck-paced industrialisation. A floating migrant labour force plus, importantly, sustainable rural livelihoods still play an economic but also social shock-absorber role. This active reserve army of labour is directed to areas of labour shortage, and returned back to a poorer but not devastated countryside in times of economic downturn, as happened in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis.

The hukou system is used to fine tune labour supply and demand, and to effectively plan massive but highly controlled urbanisation. This is done in a shifting context. Currently, the Chinese government is planning a further major expansion of urbanisation, seeing possibilities of rising productivity and the further growth of a national market.

The 2019 Chinese urbanisation plan, published in April this year by the National Development Commission now envisages, for instance, scrapping restrictions on household registration in “small and medium-sized cities” (“small and medium”, of course, in Chinese terms, that is, those cities with populations between 1- and 3-million). Many of these “smaller” cities have actually been experiencing de-population. In addition, cities with populations of between 3- to 5-million will now relax some restrictions on new incomers, particularly for graduates of universities and vocational colleges. But megacities like Beijing and Shanghai will continue to vigorously enforce hukou restrictions.

This is social engineering on a vast scale. It has a strong authoritarian colouring and lurking dangers of bureaucratic abuse and corruption in awarding hukou rights. There is also evidence of other negative social impacts – exploitation of migrant labourers housed in huge dormitory compounds controlled by multinational corporations, the plight of left-behind children, and much more. Indeed, there are lively debates within China and within the Chinese Communist Party itself about these and many other issues. However, what you won’t find in China are the crime-infested favelas of Brazil, or the squalid bustees of India, or Kenya’s Kibera where the inhabitants are forced to defecate into plastic bags that get tossed onto shack roofs, or the devastated landscapes of the many blikkiesdorp dumping grounds of South Africa where, nonetheless, the poor and marginalised still heroically struggle on.

Our South African and southern African social reality is totally different from the Chinese context. It would be absolutely unjust and, in any case, administratively impossible to impose influx control measures on rural South African homesteads in the interests of “orderly” urbanisation, still less building new post-apartheid cities in the veld. If there is anything we can learn from the Chinese it is that the former bantustan areas urgently require a major (and belated) land reform programme.

One-third of South Africans, a majority women, still live as demi-citizens in these former “homelands”, often under the thrall of so-called “traditional” patriarchal con­trol. Any land reform programme here must promote small-scale farming, appropriate agro-processing technologies, productive sustainable livelihoods, and active substantive citizenship for all. At the moment, these areas are barely kept afloat through South Africa’s impressive social grant system.

Running out of space

What about urbanisation? To justify the dream of a brand new South African city, President Ramaphosa in his SONA Chinese moment said “the cities of Johannesburg, Tshwane, Cape Town and eThekwini are running out of space.” This is, strictly, not the case. What is true is that in urban spaces dominated by a private and often highly speculative property market, government’s proclaimed intention to promote integrated, mixed-income, medium-density and well-located urban settlement patterns constantly run out of market-priced, affordable space.

By international standards, South Africa’s towns and cities are actually characterised by extreme urban sprawl. It is true that there are spaces in which there are extraordinarily high levels of population density, like Alexandra bursting at the seams, cheek-by-jowl with a high-rise and underpopulated Sandton. The 3-million plus RDP houses the post-apartheid government has built are mostly located on distant peripheries where the land was cheap. This has simply further entrenched apartheid-era settlement patterns and huge social inequalities.

After 1994 we, or rather private property speculators, have built new cities – arguably Sandton for example. But these have simply replicated and entrenched apartheid spatial patterns. Which is why the land reform debate needs to have a major urban focus.

Let’s dream. Let our dreaming focus on the five fundamental goals President Ramaphosa announced in his SONA speech – eliminating hunger in a country that already produces enough food for all; let’s have moderate economic growth that outpaces population growth; let’s have 2-million more young people involved in the world of work; let’s have an education system in which all 10-year-olds are able to read for meaning; let’s have a country where violent crime is significantly reduced.

As we dream let’s ask the practical questions about what is needed to realize these fundamental goals. Do we need new cities? Or do we need transformed urban spaces in which all have the right to the city, in which it is safe for women to walk about at night? Do we need unaffordable bullet trains (China’s current debt on its high speed rail system, buffered by China’s huge surpluses, makes Eskom’s debt look puny)? Or do we need much better public transport. Let’s dream, but let’s dream at a human scale. And let’s dream with our feet firmly anchored in the realities of South Africa.

Cde Cronin is a former SACP Deputy General Secretary, and former Deputy Minister. He currently serves in the SACP Central Committee and Politburo

This article first appeared in the SACP journal, Umsebenzi.