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In Nanjing A Front-Row Seat to the City’s Challenges

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As I write here at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC), entering its new academic year, orientation is in full swing. The center—with 168 students, our second-largest student body ever—is positively buzzing with excitement and anticipation.

The SAISPHERE theme for this year, “cities and global affairs,” is fitting for the HNC. There could hardly be a better perch from which to observe the challenges faced by major cities in emerging economies. With a population of 7.5 million and growing, Nanjing is grappling with severe challenges.

Behind many of China’s urban issues is the ongoing largest mass migration in the history of humanity. In 2011, China’s population became more than 50 percent urban for the first time ever. This is up from 37 percent in the mid-1980s. In just the past decade, the urban population has increased by nearly 200 million—around two-thirds of the population of the entire United States. With the percentage expected to rise to 70 percent by 2030, the current and future strain on China’s cities is unprecedented.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a talk by Song Linfei. As director of the Counselor’s Office of Jiangsu Province (of which Nanjing is the capital) and chair of the Chinese Sociological Association, he brings both policy and academic perspectives to the study of China’s urban centers. In his talk, Song identified three main challenges facing China’s cities.

First is what he calls “incomplete urbanization,” most plainly represented by stark inequalities between the services available to native residents of a city and the migrants who flock to cities looking for better-paying jobs than they can find in the countryside.

Second are ongoing infrastructure woes, including mass transit and the provision of social services to everyone, regardless of where they are from.

And third are problems relating to automobiles, including worsening traffic congestion and air pollution.

Nationwide, the average ratio of urban to rural income in 2011 was 3.13-to-1, down from 3.23-to-1 in 2010. The trend is good, but the gap is still vast. The positive news for Nanjing is that in Jiangsu Province, the gap is smaller at 2.20-to-1.

As long as urban incomes remain significantly higher than rural incomes, powerful incentives will remain for migration to cities. And because urban residents consume much more energy than do rural ­residents—about three times as much, according to Song—the drain on China’s already scarce energy resources poses tremendous challenges.

As if that were not enough, the working population continues to decline in absolute numbers, and even more so as a fraction of the aging population. This not only makes meeting the needs of the elderly more difficult but also creates inflationary pressures, as the supply of able-bodied laborers dwindles.

City governments are doing their best to stay out in front of these changes by reforming the residence permit (hukou) system, by increasing the provision of social services such as education and health care, and by setting up financial safety nets in the form of broader health insurance coverage and retirement funds.

The 2012–13 HNC curriculum offers some glimpses into these problems and possible solutions:

  • Political scientist Adam Webb’s Politics of Rural Development course sheds light on many of the causes and trends behind China’s rural-urban divide.
  • Economist Jacob Kurien’s Development Economics course provides grounding in the causes underlying the challenges of developing economies, including migration to cities. His Economics of Globalization course examines these and other issues in the context of the global economy.
  • Political scientist Gaye ­Christoffersen—new at the HNC this academic year and joining us from JHU’s Homewood campus in Baltimore—is offering this spring a course on Asian Energy Security, providing a broad perspective on East Asian energy challenges made more difficult by, among other things, China’s rapid industrialization and urbanization.
  • A longtime favorite HNC course, Hua Tao’s Social Issues of China’s Modernization, takes a broad look at modernization in China and the problems it poses, including urbanization.

The situation of China’s rural-to-urban migrants, especially their children, is particularly dire. For the past two years, and continuing this year, HNC students have been making a difference through the Migrant School Learning Initiative. Every Saturday morning, busy students, under the guidance of Paul Armstrong-Taylor, HNC’s resident professor of International Economics, travel to nearby Bainian School to teach English to students in their late teens. These students, who come to Nanjing from the countryside, are all from extremely impoverished backgrounds and are looking to improve their prospects through professional education, including instruction in English.

Armstrong-Taylor says of the effort, “The Bainian School offers a career path for talented but disadvantaged rural students. It provides training in academic and vocational skills but also internships in four- or five-star hotels in Nanjing. Our role, as volunteers, is to develop the students’ English ability and multicultural awareness—critical skills in the hotel industry. Already, graduates of the program have had considerable success—a source of great pride and satisfaction to us.”

This fall, the second round of the Hassenfeld Social Enterprise Fund competition began, and while it is up to the students to figure out how to make the biggest impact, there are many ways in which their work might be applied to Nanjing’s urban challenges.

How fortunate our HNC students are to have the chance to examine issues affecting so many human beings from right here—where the changes are happening—and to try to make a difference on the ground.


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