Beijing Doesn’t Have a Population Problem

It has an urban planning problem.

Driving through the smog on the Third Ring Road in Beijing, Chin
Driving through the smog-filled Third Ring Road in Beijing, July 9, 2008.

Photo by Juliana Jiménez

This post originally appeared in Caixin.

The Beijing city government has taken several steps lately to rein in its population growth, a problem authorities blame for foul air, worsening traffic, and other woes.

However, academics said much of the government’s argument for the curbs is flawed, and some are also asking whether the latest moves will work considering previous attempts to slow population growth in the capital failed.

The government of the capital said in July that it planned to move the bulk of its agencies from downtown areas to the less populated Tongzhou District in the east over the next several years, a move authorities hope will shift 1 million people out of crowded downtown areas. The authorities have also been moving factories and major wholesales markets to the city’s outskirts or to neighboring Tianjin and Hebei provinces to comply with an order from the central government for Beijing to shed some functions that do not match its status as the capital.

In a more controversial move, city authorities have in the past two years tightened requirements for children from migrant families to enroll in public schools. This is an apparent effort to rein in the growth in the number of migrant workers in Beijing. The capital had 8.82 million migrant workers—38 percent of the total population—at the end of 2014.

Slowing the population growth of Beijing features prominently in the plans, which were announced in April, of the 25-member Politburo, one of the ruling Communist Party’s top decision-making bodies for better integrating Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei provinces. The ideas, which were only made public recently, require the capital to limit its population to 23 million people in 2020. This level “must not be exceeded,” Beijing’s party boss Guo Jinlong said at a meeting of the city’s legislature in July.

Several academics at think tanks affiliated with the city government said the cap has factored in land and water resources available to Beijing and the potential impact of population on the environment and public transport. Citing his own study of water resources available to the capital, Peking University professor Yang Kaizhong, who serves as an adviser to the city government, said Beijing should keep its population below 23 million people by 2020.

A government-backed study in March 2013 showed that Beijingers have an average of 119 cubic meters of water available to them, while the United Nations says a country or region is heavily short of water if the figure is as low as 1,000. The study also found that Beijing’s population density soared by more than 60 percent from 1999 to 2011 to 1,300 people per square km, a level described as unsustainable. The dense population weighs heavily on the city’s roads and public transport systems, the report said.

But some academics say Beijing may not have the population problem that officials think it does. Huang Wenzheng, a demographer at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, wrote in an article published on Caixin’s Chinese website that the city’s population density ranked only 138th out of 224 cities around the world with populations of at least 2 million people.

The Chinese capital is more crowded than big cities in most developed countries, such as Tokyo, Paris, and New York, but is less cramped than cities in developing countries, including Brazil’s Sao Paulo and Ankara, in Turkey. “From a global perspective, it’s untenable to claim Beijing has too many people,” Huang wrote.

Also, many major cities have much less water than Beijing, he said. Singaporeans have an average of 113 cubic meters of water available to them, and Los Angles can only meet 15 percent of its water demand, relying heavily on supplies from other areas. Zheng Xinye, a professor of economics at Renmin University, said that based on his studies of official statistics, Beijing’s water reserves more than doubled from 1.92 billion cubic meters in 2001 to 3.95 billion cubic meters.

Residents of the capital each had access to 193.3 cubic meters of water in 2012, up from 139.7 cubic meters in 2001, largely due to an increase in recycled water. In 2012, the city recycled 750 million cubic meters of water, up from 210 million cubic meters in 2003. On top of that, Xinye said that Beijing also received 280 million cubic meters of water from the South-North Water Diversion Project in 2012, up from 70 million cubic meters in 2008.

A desalination project in Caofeidian, in neighboring Hebei province, can provide the capital with 1 million cubic meters of water per day, the official Beijing daily newspaper reported in March 2013. This works out to one-third of the city’s needs. Many experts argue that if Beijing can devise an effective conservation strategy, water should not be a problem. They also say that poor urban planning is responsible for Beijing’s other big problems, such as air pollution and overcrowding.

Official data indicates that some of the capital’s traffic woes could be blamed on a lack of roads. The city’s streets accounted for only 7 percent of its total space, while the figure in New York’s urban areas is 25 percent. Meanwhile, many roads in the capital are off-limits to the public because they are reserved for government agencies and the military.

Yang Ming, a senior urban planner at the Beijing Municipal Institute of City Planning and Design, a state-run urban planning agency, said that at the core of Beijing’s problems is officials’ inability to run a big city.

He said greater Tokyo was more developed when its population hit 30 million than when it had 20 million inhabitants, proof that a city can be better planned even as its population grows. “Take Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital of Hebei province as another example,” Yang said. “It’s more polluted than Beijing even though its population is only one-sixth of the population of the capital.”

He may have a point that officials would be better served by focusing on urban planning than setting population targets, especially considering that goals set in 1983, 1993, and 2004 were all missed.