Beijing’s population is growing. Quickly.  Beijing has doubled in population within 25 years. From 2000 to December 2013 the population grew by 53 percent.  It is now home to 21.1 million people and to the problems that so many people together can bring: roads clogged with traffic; smog making the air hard to breath; poor quality housing.  So what do the local Communist authorities want to do to remedy this situation and to prevent Beijing from expanding any further? According to Bloomberg, they want to turn people away:

“What would Beijing be like with more than twice as many people?

It’s a dystopian scenario tormenting Mayor Wang Anshun and local Communist Party chief Guo Jinlong as they plow ahead with a mission impossible: turning people away…Instead, Mayor Wang, 56, who was acting mayor from July 2012 and officially took the role in January 2013, has banned the sub-division of apartments, restricting the supply of low-cost housing. Authorities are maintaining limits on services to those without a municipal residency permit and forcing markets, hospitals and agencies out of the city center.”

I’m reminded of the story of King Canute in the shallows…perhaps the story isn’t well-known in China.  The fact remains that despite all its problems and despite Beijing being voted the second-most inhospitable international city (behind Moscow) according to a study by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, people still want to live there:

“Beijing broke through its own 2020 population target of 18 million in 2010, just six years after setting it. Superior schools, universities, hospitals and job opportunities continue to lure people from under-serviced provinces.

‘Beijing is a victim of its own success,’ said Lu Jiehua, a professor specializing in demography at Peking University and a delegate to the city legislature. ‘As the capital, it’s directly controlled by the central government so it has a very strong capacity to direct and channel resources into economic investment, hospitals, schools and so on. It’s developed very well, so that’s why workers have flooded in.’”

This move by Beijing’s authorities is in line with China’s more general restrictions on internal migration that we’ve blogged about here. Commentators have argued that the response shouldn’t be to block people coming to Beijing, but to learn from other cities, particularly Shanghai, on how to cope with a growing population. 

“Shanghai ‘has a more pragmatic mentality, which is basically to drive whatever policy comes its way to making it a more important, successful city,’ said Kerry Brown, director of the China Studies Centre at Australia’s University of Sydney. Beijing ‘is stifled by the heavy presence of central governance and this makes it far less willing to take risks and experiment,’ said Brown, author of ‘Shanghai 2020,’ a book commissioned by the city government to outline a vision for the metropolis’s future.

Shanghai last year introduced a system allowing non-locals to accumulate points based on education or professional qualifications to access public services, an initiative designed to attract educated migrants. Beijing has no such measure.

Poor planning is a more likely explanation for Beijing’s struggles than the weight of its population, according to critics such as the University of California’s Wang. Tokyo’s density is greater yet it’s renowned for its efficiency; southern California has less rainfall without the same water scarcity, said Wang, who wrote a 2013 paper on the city for Brookings’ Global Cities Initiative.”

Beijing has obviously found it hard to cope with such fast population growth – but is banning more people the way to go? As an aside, isn’t it interesting that in today’s world we are living closer and closer together in urban areas? Our world is becoming more urbanised than ever. Yet at the same time we have the communication and transportation technology to not need to live so close to each other as before. I wonder if there will be a move in the future by city-dwellers to seek some more space and privacy in rural areas, while still being able to keep in touch through technology. Just a thought. 

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...