Helen Clark: Speech at the Launch of the 2013 China National Human Development Report On “Sustainable and Livable Cities: Towards Ecological Civilisation”

Aug 27, 2013

Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator
Speech at the Launch of the 2013 China National Human Development Report
On “Sustainable and Livable Cities: Towards Ecological Civilisation”,
Beijing, China.

Your Excellency Minister Xie Zhenhua, Vice Chairman of National Development and Reform Commission

Your Excellency Mr. Wang Weiguang, President of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences,

I am pleased to be participating in the launch of this 2013 China National Human Development Report, entitled Sustainable and Liveable Cities: toward Ecological Civilization. Led jointly by the UNDP and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the report examines the recent history of China’s urbanization, key challenges faced today, projections for the future, and measures which could guide urbanization towards the goal of livable and sustainable cities.

In December 2011, China’s National Bureau of Statistics announced that at the national level, more than fifty per cent of the population of the country was now living in cities. With this in mind, UNDP and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences worked to produce the National Human Development Report 2013, which we are launching today.

Around half of humanity – some 3.5 billion people – now live in cities. UN Habitat estimates that the proportion is likely to increase to seventy per cent by 2050. Ninety-five percent of this urban expansion will take place in developing countries, mostly in Asia and Africa.

While the transition to a predominantly urban population is not unique to China, urbanization here has two striking characteristics. The first is its speed, and the second is its scale.

According to China’s national censuses, its urban population grew from only eleven percent in 1949 to thirty six percent in 2000 and now to over fifty percent. The speed of this urbanization is astounding - urbanization in Europe took 150 years to go from twelve per cent to 51 per cent.Internal migration to cities in China has occurred on a massive scale and shows no sign of abating. The urban population is predicted to rise to 70 percent by 2030, resulting in an additional 310 million new city dwellers in the next two decades.By then, one billion Chinese will live in cities. This speed and scale of migration is unprecedented in human history and places China at the forefront of the world’s rapid urban transformation.

This raises challenges on several fronts. As urbanization increases, China will face pressures to ensure the efficient use of natural and energy resources, and the development of urban governance systems. It will need to ensure that there are employment, transportation, housing, access to basic social services, and security for its urban citizens, and to protect the livelihoods of migrant workers. There will also be challenges to China’s development related to the ageing population, the structural transformation of the economy, and air and water pollution.

Aware of the urgency, the Chinese authorities are already taking action on many fronts, introducing new policies, experimenting with innovative ideas, and beginning to compile national plans to guide urbanization.

In early 2013, Premier Li Keqiang referred to a new type of urbanization: “people’s urbanization”which should be human-centered, ensure the prosperity of the people, and support China’s growth. Premier Li’s remarks reflect China’s determination to promote social and economic development through sustainable urbanization.

China’s leaders have also called for the development of an “ecological civilization” to minimize or avoid the negative impacts of industrialization and urbanization. This concept stresses ‘respect’ for nature instead of its ‘conquest’, and promotes an ethical basis for people and nature to exist in harmony.

Around the world, cities are acknowledged as major drivers of growth and innovation. China’s economic success, including lifting hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty, could not have been achieved without the vibrancy and dynamism of its cities.

In 2010 when the population in the municipal districts of China’s “prefecture and above”-level cities accounted for only 29 percent of total population, those areas generated about 56 percent of the country’s total GDP. The economic importance of cities here will only grow: this report estimates that cities will contribute some 75 per cent of China’s GDP by 2030.

China’s Twelvth Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) and many recent political statements underscore its leaders’ strong aspiration for more balanced development. What happens in cities, how well they are managed and governed, and how effectively they address the needs of growing urban populations is vital for that.

The China Human Development Report being launched today focuses on two main questions: how can China’s cities become more livable, and how can it be ensured that its citizens will benefit from urbanization?

To answer these questions, the report explores the current urban transformation in China from the perspective of human development. It looks at international practices and makes recommendations and projections for the future based on key areas of China’s urban transformation which directly impact on people.

The report argues that the most realistic pathway to optimal urbanization – where cities are socially equitable, economically dynamic and environmentally friendly – may entail a compromise between the quality and scale of urbanization. In other words, moderation is key to the emergence of cities which are both sustainable and livable.

Such an approach would likely lead to slower aggregate GDP growth than a rapid urbanization scenario, but it would also bring higher human development benefits. To realize that scenario for optimal urbanization, the report emphasizes the importance of effective governance, including through reforms in city management which encourage more citizen participation and ownership and performance monitoring of public officials.  

The report’s human development approach fits well with China’s pursuit of people’s urbanization, which Premier Li has mentioned on many occasions. This approach led the report’s authors to explore the concept of “ecological civilization” which is deeply rooted in Chinese traditional culture. It suggests that a key responsibility for government is investing in culture-related priorities, which include the preservation of historic urban areas as well as cultural services and infrastructure.

The human development paradigm has long guided UNDP’s work. It is about enlarging people’s choices and opportunities in ways which are economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable, in order to benefit present generations without compromising the prospects of future generations. Urbanization can be guided by the same principle.

This National HDR has been compiled by a distinguished team of Chinese and international experts. They provided analysis of the challenges of China’s ongoing urbanization, identifying strategies which could produce both harmonious and successful urbanization and human development for all. Workshops were organized to solicit broader input, and were attended by a wide range of stakeholders, including policy makers, academics, and civil society, and private sector representatives.

I congratulate all the authors, and particularly Professor Pan Jiahua’s team, for their outstanding work. My appreciation goes to President Wang Weiguang for providing the necessary support to the report team at CASS. I would also like to thank Minister Xie Zhenhua for providing valuable comments on the report in his capacity as Senior Advisory Board member.

At UNDP, we hope this report will be of great value to the Government and people of China. We greatly value the opportunities we have to work with China as it pursues its rapid development.

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