Green Development and Urbanisation in China

Green Development and Urbanisation in China

To anyone visiting China for the first time, the experience comes as a shock, despite all that one has read, heard or even seen on TV.

This writer was no exception. The scale in which all development is undertaken, the sheer audacity with which projects are conceived, the speed with which they are implemented, and the determination with which the whole nation seems to move, are all well known characteristics of contemporary China. But when you actually see all this, it still completely shakes you up.

Com.Nilotpal Basu, Member of the CPI(M) Central Committee, and D.Raghunandan of the Delhi Science Forum and President, All India Peoples Science Network, were both in Xi’an, China during 29-31 May, 2013. Com.Nilotpal Basu was the CPI(M) delegate to the Special Conference of the International Congress of Asian Political Parties (ICAPP) on the theme of Green Development and Urbanisation, and the latter was one of four Expert Panelists in a parallel Dialogue on Conservation Culture in Asia on May 31. Field visits were organized on 29th May for all delegates to a model village, a benchmark wetlands project and a completely new “third generation city,” all in the emerging urban agglomeration of Xi’an and Xianyang Cities of Shaanxi Province.

This article is an account of these field visits along with a brief report of the Conference and the parallel Dialogue. Together these seek to give the reader some idea of how the Communist Party of China, as well as the central and provincial governments, view what they perceive as the key issues of urbanization, environmental conservation and “green development.”

The Conference itself, which is the third ICAPP Conference with both previous rounds also having been held in China, saw participation of a wide spectrum of political parties from Asian countries covering South Asia including Nepal, Pakistan, SriLanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan besides India (from where the Congress and CPI(M) were represented); East and South-East Asia including Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos; North-East Asia including South Korea and Japan; Central and West Asia including Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Iran, Iraq and Turkey; along with some observers from Africa where a similar process has been initiated. Representatives of each Party presented their views to the Conference in a limited time of less than 10 minutes. A Draft Xi’an Declaration was circulated and amendments or suggestions were invited based on which the final Xi’an Declaration was adopted in the closing Session.

Model Village Shaanxi province (pronounced shaan-si) and Xi’an (pronounced shi-yaan) city are both located in the comparatively less prosperous western region as compared to the booming manufacturing and exporting regions of south-eastern and eastern China. As Chinese officials explained, and as the literature distributed also informed, developmental activities now being undertaken in Shaanxi specifically seeks to redress this regional imbalance which has increasingly been noted at the highest levels of decision-making including at the latest 18th CPC National Congress.

The field visits sought to showcase a range of model projects across different developmental theatres.

It is well known and repeatedly emphasized by official spokespersons during the Conference that, ever since the process of “reform and opening up to the outside world” initiated in 1978, urbanization and linked industrialization has been pursued determinedly by the Chinese Party and Government as a key component of rapid economic development. The ICAPP Conference itself sought to focus attention on the environmental problems thrown up by this accelerated process of urbanization, and on steps to address these issues. Apart from environment-friendly urban development, one of the important issues identified for reducing urban-rural disparities is development of rural areas themselves, particularly modernization of agriculture and increase of rural incomes.

The Baicun Modern Agricultural Park about an hour’s drive down the highway from Xi’an city is among the models showcasing the new “ecological agriculture.” Baicun is located in Liquan County with 317 villages and a population of around 500,000. Liquan is a warm temperate region mostly growing horticultural crops especially apple, pear, peach, apricot, walnut and grape. According to local officials, the county produces about one-fifth of the world’s apples and about one-third of its apple juice. Naturally, food processing industries are an important element of the local Economic Development Zone.

The Baicun Park covers 6 villages spread over about 1400 hectares. The Park has excellent roads, irrigation network, electricity supply, agro-produce storage and other amenities. Farmers’ lands are pooled for joint operation by a Company headed by a village leader, in this case the Party Secretary, with professional personnel hired from outside to perform the requisite technical, marketing and other managerial functions. Farmers mostly lease their lands to the company, earning rental and also wages for working on the lands and in allied activities. Farmers also earn what local officials described as “third income” from a village-level “rural tourism” complex where several cottages have been built on village land for urban tourists coming to experience rural life. Given local cultural heritage sites such as the world famous Tang dynasty Zhaoling Mausoleum, and the even more famous world heritage site of Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum housing the renowned Terracotta Warriors, the region seeks to build upon leisure and cultural tourism.

Water-saving and energy-saving intensive agriculture is practiced in Baicun. Trees are spaced and oriented so as to harness maximum sunlight. Irrigation water is delivered through sprinklers and drip systems. Pig rearing is done in a separate part of the village, with animal wastes along with agri-residues being converted into bio-gas and fertilizer-rich slurry. Some solar photovoltaic (SPV) power is also used for pumping groundwater.

A very different type of agriculture, described variously as “urban agriculture” or “modern agriculture,” is promoted on the outskirts of the cities, and is seen as a key element of the “new urban areas” and “third generation” cities. This is intensive vegetable cultivation in polyhouses, and numerous large clusters of polyhouses could be seen on the outskirts of all cities and new urban settlements.

Xixian New Area Xi’an and Xianyang cities, about 25 km apart, are both ancient capitals of China. A popular saying in China is that to learn about China’s history in the past 200 years, one should visit Shanghai; to learn about China over the past 500 years, one should visit Beijing, and to learn about China 1000-2000 years ago, visit Xi’an! As we noted above, this region is dotted with ancient monuments and mausoleums. As one of the western-most urban agglomerations other than the more remote Xinjiang province in the north-west and Tibet in the south-west, the Xi’an-Xianyang area has been earmarked for major expansion and development, and as a international gateway to Central Asia despite being located almost at the geographic centre of China. During 2009-10, it was decided that Xi’an and Xianyang would virtually be integrated along with other nearby areas to form a new international metropolis. Plans for the Xi’an-Xianyang New District, billed as a “third generation district,” were officially issued in 2011 and the Xixian (pronounced shi-shiyaan) New Area, one of five new urban clusters in the new metropolitan area expected to have a total population of 25 million by 2025, was formally launched.

Xixian New Area is planned as an exemplar of “green development,” and a “demonstration zone” for “integrated urban-rural planning, construction and management,” “guided by the principle of building an ecological and harmonious city.” In keeping with the lessons learned from Beijing, Shanghai and numerous urban-industrial clusters throughout China where air and water pollution have become endemic, the planning and construction of the Xixian New Area exemplifies the new thinking on next generation urban design in China. The city has a built-up area of around 25 percent with the rest planned for open spaces, urban agriculture, tree cover and water bodies.

The main city areas have mixed zoning with commercial establishments and clusters of high-rise residential buildings planned for minimizing commutes. Looking to the future, the area around the city visualizes high-tech and service-oriented industries besides China’s largest land-based bonded warehousing and export-zone facilities.

The area is well served by the new Weihe and Bahe River eco-development projects which include the massive Chan-Ba National Wetland Park which delegates also visited. Space limitations prevent a detailed description of the Wetland Park, conceived and built with the theme “meditating the meaning of life, appreciating the taste of living.” But these river-environment management schemes and the Wetland Park act as flood control measures, provide drinking water to the cities and provide other crucial environmental services especially as the “green lung” for the urban agglomeration. A major aspect repeatedly emphasized in the literature is to create a tranquil ambience, eco-friendly scenic area for relaxation and tourism, and to create a “modern farmland city”.

A major planning principle is the preservation and development of cultivable land, even if it is not actually used for farming. As explained earlier, some lands on the outskirts of the city are earmarked for polyhouse vegetable cultivation, whereas lands that may earlier have been farms have been incorporated into the new “urban-rural plans” as parkland or tree-covered ecological zones. In fact, in the wetland and river-development zones, “conversion of farmland into forest” or tree-covered lands is a key idea that has been extensively implemented. While the literature and other presentations stressed these transitions, including of earlier built-up settlements giving way for new developments, no data regarding shift of population, habitations or occupations was available.

The Conference The presentation by Com.Nilotpal Basu at the Conference of Political Parties emphasized that the era of neo-liberal globalization had witnessed accentuation of the conflict between the social character of production, and the corporate and sectional character of appropriation of its benefits. This had driven several environmental problems to crisis proportions, notably climate change which now threatened all of humanity. Climate change was a global problem demanding global rather than national solutions, and was today a theatre in which interests of developing countries clashed directly with those of the global North which now sought to transfer the burden of the solution on the shoulders of the former. Steps that could or should be taken in India, or other developing countries, for mitigation of this problem must be seen against this background.

Com.Nilotpal Basu’s presentation highlighted that, in Indian conditions, urbanization and related low-carbon development required to be understood and addressed in the specific context obtaining in this country. He pointed out that despite rapid urbanization in India, with urban population expected to overtake the rural population around mid-21st century, India must still contend with a mostly poor rural population of around 700 million. The developmental needs of this huge section of population, particularly as regards access to modern energy such as electricity and modern cooking fuels, need to be addressed which will entail higher emissions. Urbanization is known to increase emissions compared to equivalent rural populations. Present skewed income distribution and upward mobility of one section of society has meant galloping energy consumption in metropolitan and urban areas. Therefore there is a need to reduce energy use in the urban-industrial sectors. Several inter-related measures are required such as increased public transport and reduced use of personal vehicles, inter-modal shift from road to rail transport of goods and people, changes in urban design to reduce commutes and to promote mass transit as well as non-motorized movement, changes in building codes so as to reduce air-conditioning loads, mandates for rapid introduction of energy-saving devices and so on. All these and other measures call for new forms of development, and improved systems of governance and public participation.

At the Panel Discussion on May 31, D.Raghunandan of DSF/AIPSN also highlighted the above aspects and specifically highlighted the importance of addressing societal inequality in general and as regards energy access in particular. He stressed that mere technical solutions to environmental problems would not be adequate and that people-centric solutions were required. Not just new ways of doing things, but doing new things was required, he said, and called for socially equitable and environmentally sustainable development, which in turn would call for social transformation.

These views attracted considerable attention among Delegates as well as the Press. In particular, the centrality of the current context of climate change and the need for cooperation among developing countries especially in Asia to achieve an equitable global agreement compatible with the science, as highlighted by both the above, was specifically noted in the Valedictory Session and incorporated in several places in the final Conference Document. The crucial importance of social equity and of new paradigms of development were also specifically noted by the Chairman of the Drafting Committee and found place in the amended “Xi’an Initiative.”

In brief, the final Document underlined that although humankind had created huge wealth through industrialization this had come at a heavy cost in terms of severe environmental pollution, eco-degradation and more frequent natural disasters, all sharpened by the impact of the global financial crisis and economic slow down. The Document called for ensuring a “green way of development and creating a positive cycle of growth where development is boosted by and provides for green conservation… Achieving green development is not only a pressing task