By He Qinglian on February 12, 2013.
Speaking of China's urbanization, many would feel proud that there are no slums in cities in China, and they use this as their main supportive argument that China's dictatorship is better than India's democracy.
China deprives hundreds of millions of rural people their rights to free movement
That cities in China do not have slums is not true. The definition of “slum” is that a densely populated part of a city marked by poverty and sub-standard apartments. If China is measured by its four modernized window cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, then its third- and fourth-tiers cities would have huge numbers of slums.
Hidden beneath the vanity that slums are not formed in the few major cities is the Chinese government's disrespect of human rights: to ensure the cleanliness of those cities, they deny Chinese peasants the rights to free movement.
Chinese officials are not oblivious to this. On April 12, 2011, at a “China-ASEAN cities exchange and cooperation symposium”, Malaysia's representatives were quite envious of the appearance of Chinese cities and they kept asking Li Tie, director of MOHURD Cities and Towns Development Center through the translators: “Why are your cities so neat? Why are there no slums in your cities?”
Li Tie's reply was, “From the government's perspective, we do not want to see slums like those of Brazil, India appear in our mega cities; the rural people cannot freely get an urban household register in cities, which means they could only work in cities, lead a drifter's life, and are not entitled to the same public services residents in the cities enjoy.”
And he also admitted that this restriction policy stifles the development of the Chinese economy and of the rural villages of China.
Due to the barrier of languages and difference in circumstances of the countries, it might be probable that the ASEAN representatives had no idea the fact hidden from those statements was very cruel. To keep the cities' bright and clean appearance, the Chinese government devises visible segregation such as the household registration system, and the society at large uses invisible barriers like high housing prices and expansive public services to deprive up to hundreds of millions of people their basic rights.
Slums: inevitable product of urbanization
The coming and going of slums are in fact the manifestation of the strengthening of a country's national power. In European and American countries where industrialization was first started, during the gradual elimination of peasant economy, huge numbers of peasants flocked to the cities for a living. Britain, France, and the United States have had slums before. Frederick Engels' renowned work, The Conditions of the Working Class in England, depicted the living conditions of the poor in the East End of London; in New York there were also some world-famous slums. As Britain and the United States became stronger, slums in the traditional sense were gone, yet there remains a difference between affluent districts and ghettos.
Latin American and Southeast Asian countries are in their developing stage, their national strength is not strong enough to resolve their domestic living issue of the poor, and therefore slums remain the most serious social problem in these countries. The reasons that slums emerge in these countries are similar to those of the European and American countries: huge numbers of peasants lost their land, the peasant economy had gone bankrupt, and those peasants had had to move to cities, where there were not sufficient jobs for them. Under such circumstances, these people were stuck at the suburban areas and slums were thus formed. The slums in Nairobi, Capital of Kenya; Honduras, Venezuela; Mumbai, financial center of India and Jakarta, Indonesia are known worldwide.
In October 2003, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN–HABITAT) published an important report, The Challenge of Slums, which pointed out that slums are all over the world. Generally, a slum means where the poor live, the UN-HABITAT defined it as a densely populated area that is characterized by sub-standard living conditions and poverty. In State of World Population 2007, “slum” was used to refer to various types of housing, including those that could be improved, and could be used interchangeably with “informal settlements”, “squatter settlements”, “shanty housing” and “low-income community”.
Traditionally, slums meant residential areas that were once prestigious, but declined as their original occupants relocated to newer and better part of cities. Today, the term also includes the large number of makeshift housing in cities of developing regions. In 2008, the worldwide number of people living in cities for the first time exceeded that of rural residents. However, a third of urban-dwellers live in slums. The UN predicts that the number of slum-dwellers will double in the next 25 years.
The Number of Slum-dwellers in China tops the World
How many people in China live in slums? The Chinese government does not provide the corresponding statistics. Yet in its State of the World Cities 2010/2011, the UN-HABITAT mentioned that from 2000 to 2010, the proportion of slum-dwellers in China shrunk from 37.3% to 28.2% and India, the same figure dropped from 41.5% to 28.1%.
The conclusion of the report had completely smashed the pride of the Chinese that there is no slum in China by stating that in terms of absolute number of population, 384 million people in China live in slums, India, 343 million. That means the number of slum-dwellers in China is a whole 41 million larger than that of India.
The fact that no slums like those in Southeast Asia or Latin America are formed in China may on the surface appear to be an accomplishment. Yet a closer look would reveal that this is not a glory of China. The slums in India, Brazil and other countries show precisely that the state of human rights of the impoverished in those countries is better that of China. Take India for example. The Indian Constitution stipulates that all citizens of India enjoy the right to free movement within the territory of India, no matter where they live, they enjoy the same rights as the local residents in terms of job, children's education, medical care and other aspects. The law of India also stipulates that should any individual continuously use a plot of land for 30 years, he or her shall automatically obtain the the title to that land.
The law of India provides, in addition, that people could live in any areas that the government does not prohibit people from living. Therefore, the downtown areas of the center of cities, those lots of land by the sea or river, and common lands that belong to the state are occupied by the poor as their homes.
Those 20 million peasants who work as street-sweepers in cities might have brought with them their families. Some of them rent as a place to live the houses or basement of suburban residents; others built their own shacks in any probable spaces. Under the slogan of “clean city”, Local governments would dispatch municipal management teams to tear down such illegal constructions whenever one is spotted. These “shack quarters”, “shantytowns”, or “villages-within-cities” are actually slums.
In addition, most parts of rural China are in rapid decline both in terms of economic and of cultural function due to the gradual hollowing of population and resources these areas had, and had already become the world's largest “hidden slums” .
In November 2012 the 21st Century Education Research Institute released a “Ten Year Evaluation Report of Rural Education Planning Adjustment”, which pointed out that on daily average, 63 primary schools, 30 teaching sites, and 3 junior high schools disappeared in rural China from 2000 to 2010. And almost with each hour, four rural schools would disappear. The negative impact the decline of education would have on future China cannot be overestimated.
After March this year, China would launch in full scale the “new urbanization”. I would like to urge the policy makers of China to bear in mind that in the process, slums would inevitably appear in cities, how occupants of slums are provided with the basic living conditions and equal education, medical care and other public services would mark not the disgrace of but progress in human rights in China.