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Greening China's cities of tomorrow

Author : Understanding China
Policy briefing
By Shen Wei and Peter Taylor, edited by Shada Islam and Maximilian Rech

China is witnessing a massive surge in urbanisation as millions of people move from rural areas to bustling urban centres. Thirty years ago, China was a land of villages and rural communities. It is now a largely urban country. According to China's National Statistics Bureau, in January 2012, the number of urban dwellers represented 690.8m, nearly 51.3% of China's total population of 1.35bn. Although the rise of mega-cities is a phenomenon across Asia, the speed and scale of China’s urban development is unprecedented in human history.

It’s no secret: those moving to the cities are looking for a better life, higher wages and more employment opportunities. Overall, China is still less urbanised than most developed nations, but it has the largest pool of the world’s urban population, a trend that is set to continue in the near future.

Rapid urbanisation has been a major driver in boosting China's economic growth and reform. It is also one of the key development challenges facing China. Migration to urban centres and the physical expansion of cities and metropolitan areas in China is putting immense pressure on energy resources, environment, health, public funds and basic facilities and services. Many Chinese cities are now battling with congestion and pollution, while rising real estate prices and lack of access to affordable social housing are becoming a source of instability.

Urbanisation in China still lags behind Europe where over 70% of the total population lives in cities. The challenges of China's unparalleled urbanisation will not only impact on China's future growth but also have important implications for other nations. The European Union and its 27 member states have faced or continue to face similar challenges of city management. The EU-China Partnership on Sustainable Urbanisation, launched at the EU-China summit on February 14, 2012 in Beijing, is a response to these pressing common challenges and offer new opportunities for expanding and reinforcing EU-China relations.

The potential for EU-China synergies in tackling the challenge of urbanisation is further highlighted by the joint declaration issued by the two sides in Brussels on May 3. As the declaration underlines, “we need to draw on experience from each other, strengthen interaction and cooperation, jointly seize the opportunities and cope with the challenge of the future”. China’s urbanisation “offers a huge development potential and market opportunities,” it says, adding that both sides can learn from each other on ways of promoting “healthy urbanisation development”.

The EU-China Urbanisation Partnership fits with the strategic development targets included in both the ‘Europe 2020 Strategy’ and China’s ‘12th Five-Year Plan’. To be successful, the Urbanisation Partnership must be based on a two-way exchange and involve multiple levels of stakeholders, including different layers of government, business sectors, academia and civil society, working across different policy areas, ranging from waste treatment, to transportation links, green architecture, efficient energy consumption and urban governance.

This policy briefing puts China's urbanisation process in a historical perspective and points to the country’s massive current urban challenges and the way to deal with them as set out in the 12th Five-Year Plan. It will illustrate how the EU and China can work together constructively in tackling the challenge of urbanisation by helping to make Chinese cities greener and more sustainable, and adding fresh dynamics to EU-China economic and trade relations.

Download the full briefing here: EN
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