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China’s new urban opportunity

The Coalition’s China Programme has published an ambitious new vision for China’s future urbanisation. The report was launched during a webinar and included presentations and discussions from academia and government representatives.

The impact of COVID-19 — combined with turbulent geopolitics, the uncertainty of global economic development and increasing climate risks — has called into question the sustainability of China’s current form of urbanisation. The three traditional pillars of industrialisation, marketisation and globalisation, which have spurred China’s unprecedented rapid urbanisation over the past four decades, can no longer guarantee the social, environmental and economic benefits that China requires.

To explore China’s new urbanisation path whilst considering environmental impacts and economic and social development, the Coalition for Urban Transitions, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), Tsinghua University (THU), and the World Resources Institute Beijing Representative Office (WRI) co-hosted an online workshop on 6th June. Renowned experts were invited to discuss the development opportunities and paths of China’s new urbanisation opportunity under China’s 14th Five-Year-Plan. The workshop was also the launch of our new report: China’s New Urbanisation Opportunity: A vision for the 14th Five-Year-Plan.

Jenny McInnes1Joint Deputy Director of UK government Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – ICF Partnerships and Capability provided opening remarks, expressing appreciation for the programme’s work and emphasising the need for China and the United Kingdom to work closely together to tackle climate change and protect biodiversity. She further stressed that achieving green transitions has become more important since a green economic recovery will maximise emission reductions, create more job opportunities and improve social welfare systems.

As presidents of COP26 and CBD COP15 respectively, the UK and China have an opportunity to work together to demonstrate our international leadership and our commitment to action and ambition.

Jenny McInnes

Engines of urbanisation

The report was presented by Professor Ye Qi, Head of our China Programme, Director of the Institute for Public Policy at HKUST and Professor at the School of Public Policy and Management at THU. He shared three engines for a new type of urbanisation that can help China achieve high-quality growth in the coming decade and create an economy based on high-value-added manufacturing and services while avoiding enormous environmental costs:

  • Engine 1: Developing a new national system of cities underpinned by basic infrastructure and a world-class intercity mass transit system, to rebalance growth away from coastal areas towards the interior.
  • Engine 2: Building compact, connected, clean cities to drive a low-carbon, climate-resilient urban transformation and tackle the degradation of critical natural resources and growing carbon emissions.
  • Engine 3: Reforming local governance and national and sub-national fiscal systems, in order to tackle debt overhang, generate sustainable financing flows for investment in sustainable infrastructure and enhance long-term urban planning.

To unleash these engines, three priorities for national action have been identified with specific recommendations for consideration:

  • Priority 1: Placing sustainable cities at the heart of China’s 14th Five-Year Plan and second Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), with the goal of developing a new national system of compact, connected and clean cities across the country. National government should push Chinese cities, especially cities on the east coast, to peak their carbon emissions during the 14th Five-Year-Plan, through guidance and incentives from energy reform, industry development, governance innovation, financial reform and transportation system optimisation.
  • Priority 2: Aligning national policies behind compact, connected, clean and resilient cities by replacing fossil fuel-powered vehicles with new energy vehicles, investing in mass transit, reducing the demand for fossil fuel, and fuelling a clean energy revolution.
  • Priority 3: Building a sustainable national and sub-national financing system for cities alongside complementary reforms to local governance and capacities for urban planning by shifting national transport budgets towards mass transit, introducing national to sub-national income tax piggybacks and property taxes, and enhancing the capacity of local governments to manage liabilities.

It is a priority for Chinese cities, especially developed ones on the east coast, to peak their carbon emissions during the 14th Five-Year-Plan.

Professor Ye Qi

Ways forward

The Chinese government at all levels is developing post-pandemic economy recovery plans. In his keynote address, Dr. Baoxing Qiu2State Counselor and former Vice-Minister of Housing and Urban-Rural Development Ministry of China and Chairman of Chinese Society for Urban Studies proposed six areas of focus for governments to enhance urban socio-economic resilience and better respond to climate change: installation of rooftop solar panels in older neighbourhoods; improvement of bike lanes; expansion of the ultra-high-voltage (UHV) power grid; increased investment in digital technology; encouragement of street vendors; and increased transit-oriented development.

China’s compact urbanisation model can avoid increasing urban sprawl seen in other countries. Post-pandemic economic recovery means low-carbon green transport like maglev trains, digital infrastructure, and a high-voltage transmission network to integrate renewables into the grid.

Dr. Baoxing Qiu

In his keynote address, Lord Nicholas Stern3IG Patel Professor of Economics and Government and Chairman of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, Fellow of the British Academy, President of the Royal Economic Society and Co-Chair of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate spoke of a world facing monumental risks of an economic recession, which greatly influences foreign direct investment, employment and commodity prices and impacts social stability. Considering that the climate crisis will have even more severe ramifications than the pandemic, it is important to clarify China’s role during post-pandemic economic recovery, which Lord Stern outlines in three stages:

  • Remediation stage: solving public health issues, saving lives while ensuring no large-scale unemployment and a collapsed economy are the priority.
  • Recovery stage: this is a phase to promote economic recovery and restart the economy. At this stage, paths to future urban development need to be considered, such as creating long-term sustainable jobs rather than repeating the same patterns.
  • Transformation stage: utilising the recovery stage to promote green and sustainable economic transformation to achieve green, dense and sustainable urban development.

2020-2030 is […] a critical time for China to demonstrate its leadership as a major country. China can show the world approaches to bringing forward a low-carbon and sustainable economic transformation in the post-pandemic economic recovery.

Lord Nicholas Stern

Following Professor Ye Qi’s presentation there was a panel discussion on China’s urbanisation opportunity with the following experts:

  • Professor Jiankun He
    Director of Low Carbon Economy Lab of Tsinghua University, Deputy Director of National Expert Committee on Climate Change, former Executive Vice President of Tsinghua University and Counsellor of the State Council
  • Professor Jiahua Pan
    Director of Institute for Urban and Environmental Studies of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and Member of National Expert Committee on Climate Change
  • Professor Fanghua Hao
    President of Central China Normal University
  • Dr. Lian Guo
    Senior Expert and former Executive Committee Member of China Development Bank
  • Dr. Xianjin Wang
    Deputy Director and Chief Engineer of China Academy of Transportation Sciences, Ministry of Transport
  • Professor Minjun Shi
    College of Public Affairs of Zhejiang University
Country programme:China