Returning to China’s Urbanization

Thanks to Bill Bishop and others, my post on China’s urbanization and democracy, Urbanization Won’t Drive Chinese Democracy, has had something of a second life. I wanted to take the opportunity then to connect that piece and my other arguments to the recent and excellent special report from The Economist on China’s urbanization.

Getting cities right will help China to keep growing fast for years to come. Getting them wrong would be disastrous, bringing worsening inequality (which the World Bank says has approached “Latin American levels”, although Chinese officials insist it has recently been improving), the spread of slums, the acceleration of global climate change (cities consume three-quarters of China’s energy, which comes mainly from coal) and increasing social unrest.

After more than a decade of spectacular growth in China, much of it in double digits, doubts are setting in both at home and abroad about the sustainability of the “Chinese model”. Growth is slowing. Lavish spending by local governments has piled up huge debts. …

At a plenum of the Central Committee in November the party declared that market forces must play a “decisive role”, the strongest support it has ever expressed for the market. This seems all the more stirring after years of vacillation under Mr Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, who retreated from reform in the face of powerful resistance by vested interests, above all local governments, huge state-owned enterprises and, ironically, the new middle class, which would rather not share the fruits of growth with rural migrants.

The piece is well researched and presents a sophisticated picture of what is happening on the ground in and around China’s cities. What I think is missing or problematic is the overall frame. Most nondemocratic regimes are replaced not by revolution and democracy but by other dictators.

Most nondemocratic regimes lose power to other nondemocracies, not to democracy.

Large cities can exacerbate tensions within the elites of nondemocratic regimes in ways that are detrimental to regime survival. As I have written elsewhere:

The threats that cities pose to nondemocratic regimes manifest themselves through different channels. Large cities bring together huge numbers of people in a shared space. This makes effective collective action more likely and reduces the ability of the regime to understand, observe, and govern the population. These mechanisms connect large cities with the collapse of nondemocratic regimes.

Protests and the potential of protests can push a regime to violence, split elites, spark coups, and, yes, foment revolution. Massive cities are difficult to govern and make failures public rather than private affairs, but failure and regime change do not necessarily imply democratization.

For this reason, the Chinese regime’s hukou system is “sharpest of all in China’s ‘first-tier’ megacities,” as the report rightly notes. For decades now, the regime has encouraged the development of the West and the country’s interior in an effort to spread urbanization, growth, and wealth outside of a few coastal megacities. I argue that these efforts are in part attempts to separate the perception of China with the perception of Beijing or Shanghai. Developing Xi’an and Kunming and Chongqing and Wuhan provides ballast for the regime should Shenzhen or Shanghai descend into violence. It can point to other successes rather than rely on the first-tier cities serving as the sole symbols for China’s dream.

Two final thoughts to conclude. First, the report notes that the interests of incumbent urban hukou holders conflict with those of the vast migrant populations who remain without access to the full range of social services that cities provide. One of the last chunks to be cut from Cities and Stability touched on these topics:

Consider the following potential scenario. The regime attempts to lock in the support of the urban rich by claiming that without the CCP and its hukou policies, the rich urbanites will be overrun by the rural peasants. As such, the rich would have no choice but to support the dictatorship. However, with incentive-based policies that are compatible with democracy—in fact, that are progressive and support the majority poor at the expense of the minority rich and are fundamentally similar to what one might expect under democratic rule—the regime is losing that potential argument and ability to lock in the support of the urban rich.

This pattern is not something that is limited to the situation of China and hukou policy. Whenever a nondemocratic regime engages in good policy-making that is consistent with democratic rule and replaces policies that were incompatible with it, then the survival dynamics are unclear. Presumably, good policies improve general support for the regime through greater outcomes and beliefs about its competence, leading to increased assessments of duration. On the other hand, by replacing policies that require dictatorship with policies that do not, the regime might be making democracy and democratization more likely through the back door. Of course, since nondemocratic regimes most often collapse through transitions to other, different dictatorships, perhaps this risk adjustment is not that disconcerting for the regime. The question becomes does the regime believe that it alone possesses the unique ability to provide for stability of this territory while at the same time enacting policies that look more in line with those in democratic regimes. By improving its governance, the current Chinese regime may be biasing China’s future towards democratic rather than authoritarian rule.

The general sense, then, that the Chinese regime is likely to end by transition to democracy could be supported not simply by a vague remembrance of modernization theory (where everything good goes up the escalator together, as Stephen Krasner put it recently) but by the very quality and type of policies that the regime is putting forward.

Second, the section of the report on “The urban voice” ends with this rather ominous statement:

The possibility of revolution still appears remote, but the risk of larger-scale social unrest in urban areas is growing. To divert attention from trouble at home, China’s leaders may be tempted to flex their muscles abroad.

As it happens, Jessica Weiss of Yale University and I have written a paper (that I have teased before) on subnational variation in anti-Japanese protests during the 2012 crisis. Consistent with my general argument, larger cities are more likely to see such protests even after controlling for a number of other factors. What is also intriguing is that cities with larger migrant populations also were more likely to have protests. One of the big questions in China going forward is the extent to which the regime can address the divisions within society–urban/migrant, rich/poor–while simultaneously stoking anti-other sentiment in its foreign relations.

One response to “Returning to China’s Urbanization”

  1. […] a calamitous drop in prices. The Economist’s recent special report (which I wrote about here) on China’s urbanization touches on these […]

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