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Urbanization needs more money for public services – Opinion

A panoramic aerial drone photo taken on January 24, 2024, shows Yundang Lake and its surroundings in Xiamen, East China’s Fujian Province. (Photo/Xinhua)

Xiamen, a coastal city in Fujian province, offers free accommodation to university graduates from other cities seeking employment in the city. According to a recent news report, approximately 2,400 beds are being offered for free to applicants looking for a job or working as an intern for six months.

However, Xiamen is not the only city to offer such facilities to attract highly qualified or well-educated workers, thus enriching the talent pool and increasing its population.

Long the world’s most populous country, China witnessed negative population growth in 2022, with its population falling by 850,000 in 2022 and by 2.08 million last year, despite a series of government measures to boost the fertility rate.

But while China’s overall population is declining, its urban population has increased by about 1 percentage point per year in recent decades. The government is committed to modernization to give the Chinese people, especially rural residents, a better life. Accordingly, many villages and small towns have lifted hukou (household registration) restrictions on migrant workers working there.

Some major cities are also lifting some hukou restrictions, although they tend to be more selective when it comes to granting housing registration. Some cities grant hukou to people with higher education and stable employment, while others grant it to people who buy local housing or start a business. Quite a few cities offer PhD holders and national/international award winners settlement grants and project support funds that can run into the millions.

Such policies have increased the population of virtually all major cities, despite urban fertility rates being generally lower than rural areas. For example, the population of Hefei, Anhui province, grew by 219,000 in one year – the highest in the country – while the populations of four other cities increased by more than 100,000 each.

In 2023, Chongqing, with a population of 32.13 million, was the only major city to experience negative population growth last year. A large rural population – which makes up almost a third of Chongqing’s total population – is believed to be behind the population outflow from the city, as young farmers can easily find jobs in other cities. Chongqing’s population fell by 219,000 in 2023.

But while many cities have managed to attract talent and grow their populations, both government officials and market observers have warned that local authorities should not go too far in attracting talent. Top talent needs the right environment to hone their skills and drive results, but unfortunately the right environment is not available everywhere, market observers warn. City authorities must also create the right jobs for people with higher education, otherwise they will not be able to retain them.

Thus, more efforts should be made to improve the investment climate of cities, for example by ensuring that investors bring money, technology and scientific projects, and that platforms are established and suitable jobs are created for them. Better infrastructure, including reasonable housing prices and convenient transportation services, can also contribute to a city’s appeal to outsiders.

More money should be spent on improving the local environment as this is increasingly becoming a primary consideration for young people when deciding which city to work and live in. The populations of both Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, and Chengdu, Sichuan Province, have increased by about 140,000. every year not only because of their talent-attracting policies, but also because of their relatively mild climate and beautiful natural environment.

More money should also be spent on improving public services, such as providing more efficient services in hospitals and increasing the quality of education in schools, apart from building good schools and hospitals. Survey results show that most people, especially mid-career professionals, are most concerned about such issues when considering settling in a new city.

If China’s urbanization continues even at its current pace, approximately 160 million rural residents—representing nearly half of the entire U.S. population—will settle in cities and towns over the next decade. That is not an easy job. We must prepare ourselves well for this.

The author is a former deputy editor of China Daily.

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