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Tag: development

China, An Urban or Rural Society?

Is China a rural or urban society? Is this likely to change over the next decade?

The answer to the question of to what extent China is a “rural” versus “urban” society depends largely on how one chooses to quantify and qualify “rural” and “urban.” This choice is particularly complex and complicated for the case of China; as a result of China’s enormous territorial and demographic size, massive populations live in both “rural” and “urban” areas, making it difficult to come to a single, general conclusion about the overall character of Chinese society. Furthermore, various factors blend the distinctions between “rural” and “urban.” The difficulties which arise in answering the question because of these factors will be discussed later in this response. However, to provide a simple response to the question, and using population statistics as a measure to quantify the “rural” and “urban” nature of Chinese society, I would conclude that China is now an “urban” society. Over half of China’s population lived in urban areas by the end of 2013. In addition, migration into urban areas is likely going to only increase over the next decade, as both governmental forces, such as plans to move millions of people into developing cities, and nongovernmental forces, such as work-related migration, drive continued urbanization. Indeed, official predictions for 2020 state that at least 60 percent of the population will live in urbanized areas.[1] As such, China is slated to become even more of an urban society in the coming years.

Approaching the question through the lenses of structural and elite analysis also brings about the conclusion that China is arguably more “urban” than “rural.” Various structural and organizational features of the Chinese political system give more importance to urban areas than to rural areas. For one, China’s cities and other major urban areas are more directly connected to the state and party apparatus than its rural areas. Individual cities exist at the same level in the regional organization of China’s government as large rural areas, and a particular few of China’s largest cities exist at the same level of government as entire regions. Accordingly, China’s urban areas are more directly governed by, influenced by, and in turn more directly influence, the higher levels of the Chinese Communist Party than China’s rural areas, which often operate with a degree of independence and autonomy. In a country where party and state are so intricately linked, these connections serve as important measures of the significance of urban versus rural areas in Chinese society. Furthermore, the prominent road to higher power for aspiring members of the Chinese Communist Party is to administer major urban areas. For the political elite, urban areas represent career advancement and a chance to make a name for themselves far more readily than rural areas, thereby reinforcing the importance of urban China over rural China in Chinese political culture.

Historically, too, the heightened political importance of China’s urban areas over its rural areas is apparent. The countryside has long been neglected by the party elite, who have, through policies and patterns of investment which have benefited urban areas, created a significant discrepancy between high urban and low rural levels of development. Even during the Maoist years, which gave rhetorical and theoretical importance to the rural peasant and rural society, were China’s rural areas given secondary importance behind the urban areas; such can be seen as an explanation for why the famines and poverty of the Great Leap Forward struck China’s rural population hardest. Not only have such patterns of inequality in Communist Party policy persisted into the Reform Era, but the party’s ideological stance has grown to incorporate and highlight the importance of distinctly urban populations. Jiang Zemin’s idea of the “Three Represents,” which highlighted “high culture” and served in part as an ideological justification for allowing private entrepreneurs to be members of the Communist Party, is representative of the growing political importance placed on these developing urban trends and groups.

Yet these answers fall short of truly addressing the question, again perhaps because it is difficult to distinguish China as either an urban and rural society. While some states with small populations and territories can be clearly defined as “urban” or “rural,” China, with its massive population divided between intensely urbanized areas and deeply rural areas, is perhaps best defined as “both.” Defining China’s society with a broadly general term overlooks the complexity of and divisions in China’s population, with the lives and livelihoods of China’s rural and urban populations often being very dissimilar, and ignores the separate and often very different issues that China’s government faces when dealing with and administering urban and rural areas. In the particular case of China, there are also issues with the method by which “urban” and “rural” is usually quantified and qualified. Much of China’s “urban” population is actually comprised of “rural” migrants who have moved into the cities for work, and who often then return to the countryside. Accordingly, the distinctions between urban and rural populations are often blended, complicating the task of clearly defining who is an urban versus a rural resident. Furthermore, rural and urban areas are often mixed together in China’s administrative system; the administrative areas of some cities extend over both urban and rural zones. The fact that there are people living rural lifestyles in urban areas in China further complicates the answer to this question.

China is thus perhaps most appropriately defined as both an urban and a rural society. It is otherwise too difficult, and perhaps poor political science, to broadly generalize and define Chinese society. While a number of lenses of analysis and units of measurement would point to China being more of an urban than rural society or would indicate that China’s urban areas are more important than its rural areas, the fact nonetheless remains: more Chinese than the total populations of many of the world’s countries live in China’s rural areas and live rural lifestyles, and, despite increasing urbanization, the issues and characteristics which define and make distinct rural China are likely around to stay for a long time.

[1] “China’s urbanization level to reach 60 pct by 2020,” Xinhau Net, accessed March 15, 2015, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-03/16/c_133190605.htm

The Chamber of Commerce: A Journey to Saudi Arabia Pt. 6

On Wednesday, our last day in Riyadh, we were taken to the Saudi Chamber of Commerce, the agency officially responsible for overseeing and coordinating the Saudi economy. Our visit provided use with some deep insights into the functioning of and current challenges facing the Saudi economy, as well as a candid look into how the members of the chamber, all important and influential Saudis, feel about their culture, their society, and the current relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. I felt that our visit also revealed some important differences between the older generation of Saudis and the younger generations, something which was apparent during the meeting and which I will talk to in further depth later. The fact that we were taken to such an important agency demonstrates that the Saudis want to reinforce the importance of their economic success and growth on us; obviously, it is a source of pride for them, as well as something that they feel will continue to serve them well in the future.

IMG_0750[1]The Chamber of Commerce in Riyadh

We learned during our visit, which consisted of a roundtable discussion with the chairman and leading members of the Chamber of Commerce, that the chamber helps Saudi business achiever their objectives and grow stronger financially. It serves as the primary lobbyist for Saudi businesses and entrepreneurs to the government, relaying their concerns and desires directly to the leading policymakers in the Kingdom. The Chamber collaborates heavily with the Saudi government and Saudi businesses in order to develop policies which will resolve business concerns, obstacles, and problems. It accomplishes this by both developing and helping implement different economic policies and plans. Additionally, the Chamber of Commerce represents Saudi economic interests abroad, coordinating and conducting international trade and fostering greater international economic cooperation. In many ways, the Saudi Chamber of Commerce represents our own, and it is obviously a very important element in the growth and success of Saudi business. Institutions such as these are important in developed and developing countries as they serve as conduits between businesses and entrepreneurs and policymakers, and the Saudis clearly felt it was important that business concerns are responsively met by their government policies.

The chairman of the Council spoke at length about the success of the Saudi economy, as well as the current challenges it faces. He said that a major factor in the rapid growth of the Saudi economy has been that the Saudis invest much of their oil wealth in their own country as opposed to spending or investing it abroad. This has, according to him, helped spur economic development in the Kingdom, as it has kept money circulating within its borders. It has also provided Saudis with better standards of living, further contributing to economic activity and, in turn, growth. The Saudi economy, as it starts to diversify, increase its exports because of new and lucrative trade deals, and continues to develop more advanced, will only continue to grow, according to the members of the Chamber. Though they mentioned a number of challenges that lay ahead, they made it clear that there is much optimism about the continued success of their economy. For an observer of this optimism, it is clear that the Saudis feel that they are in a position of economic strength, and that they feel that their economic success will propel their country towards a greater and more successful future. The members of the council all seemed very proud of their work, and committed towards increasing the development of their economy. Though I am relatively ignorant of macroeconomics and the specifics of the Saudi economy, it seems as though this country is one which is economically growing, and that perhaps a greater economic relationship with them would be a good course of action for both of our countries.

Some of the challenges that they mentioned lay ahead include the need to increase entrepreneurialism in Saudi society. They talked at length about how most Saudis do not create their own businesses or are especially involved in capital pursuits, and that this has prevented a further growth in the economy. Furthermore, without this entrepreneurial attitude, the diversification of the Saudi economy and expansion of its various sectors will struggle to take place. This diversification of the oil is another challenge they mentioned. Right now the economy relies heavily upon the export of oil, and such reliance upon a single export leaves the economy vulnerable to volatility in its price. The members of the Chamber talked about how they have not yet succeeded to the degree they were hoping to with the diversification of their economy, but how this is one of the most important goals they currently have. Another problem mentioned was the high rates of unemployment among Saudis, and how they are trying to find a solution to this. One solution that has been implemented is forcing Saudi employers to pay higher salaries to Saudi citizens, in order to incentivize citizens to go to work. With such a large foreign labor force present in Saudi Arabia but high rates of unemployment among Saudi citizens, the members of the Chamber were concerned that something was going wrong in how they were developing their economy. Though these challenges will be tough to overcome, they are part of economic development. The Saudis seem committed to overcoming these problems, and it appeared as though they recognized that these problems exist in part because their economy is strengthening. It will be interesting to see the policy approaches that the Chamber develops in order to combat them, and whether these problems will actually create serious issues for the Saudis in the future.

Our discussions with the members of the Chamber of Commerce did not only touch upon economic issues, however. We talked in depth about the Saudi perceptions of their country and the United States. This provided an interesting look at the Saudi perspective of the world, and also revealed some interesting things about the Saudi leadership. The main person who talked was the chairman of the Chamber, a conservative-leaning member of the older generation. His name is Dr. Abdul Rahman Al-Zamil, and he is one of the richest men in the Kingdom, having built a fortune off of owning air conditioning factories. His background and beliefs allowed us to see how the policymaking leadership in Saudi Arabia feels and approaches issues and, contrasted against what some of the younger and apparently more liberal members of the Chamber were saying, showed the generational gap which is currently so pronounced in the Kingdom.

He first talked about the issue of terrorism, saying that Saudi Arabia has never sponsored terrorists nor has it ever contributed to the growth of radicalism in the Islamic world. Indeed, he said that the United States has played a much larger role in the growth of terrorism by its actions in Afghanistan in 1989. Talking about corruption, a major issue facing Saudi Arabia today, he similarly said that his country has some corruption issues, but that corruption is also rampant in the United States and is an integral part of the American business culture. With regards to the role of women in Saudi society, he clearly reflected the conservative perspective, saying that women were “too shy” to take on major roles and jobs. However, he did note that Saudi society is slowly evolving, and that new roles for women are being found as that evolution is made. Still, he argued, any change will need to come slow, for rapid change will damage the order and stability of society. He pointed to the Shah’s Iran, its rapid Westernization, and the subsequent Islamic revolution as evidence of this belief. From these statements, he clearly held a belief that many of Saudi Arabia’s problems are the result of American meddling in the region. He further demonstrated the more conservative perceptions of women’s roles in society and the need for society to hold onto it tradition. As someone in a high position of leadership in the Kingdom, and as a member of the older generation currently in power, his statements reflected the current political outlook for the Saudi leadership. Though what much of what he was saying was perhaps not fully correct or was contradictory to our own beliefs, it was a candid and revealing look into the current character of the Kingdom, and these beliefs are important to understand in order to understand how the Kingdom operates and how it is going to evolve. The younger members of the Chamber took a rather different stance from him, stressing the importance of our program’s mission in fostering intercultural communication and understanding, and arguing that the Kingdom is indeed evolving and that change is coming. They were obviously in damage-control mode, trying to present an alternative perspective from what the chairman had been saying. This contrast in views revealed the large generational gap between young and old Saudis, and further revealed the reality that Saudi Arabia is a Kingdom whose population is in transition. As the younger generations, which make up much of the Saudi population, start coming into positions of higher leadership and power, perhaps we will start seeing their more liberal and progressive views turning into more liberal and progressive policies.

Constructing the Kingdom: A Journey to Saudi Arabia Pt. 3

A sight as common in Riyadh as the towering skyscrapers and urban sprawl is that of massive construction projects and half finished buildings. Indeed, the skyline is perhaps as full of buildings in the process of being constructed as it is of finished ones.  Everywhere you look, you can see construction crews busy at work building new infrastructure, new malls, new houses, and new skyscrapers. Riyadh is experiencing a massive construction boom, transforming the barren desert into a thriving urban center.

IMG_0660Perhaps no other photo as clearly demonstrates the incredible amount of construction taking place in Riyadh as this one, which shows a huge development project underway near the downtown area.

Saudi Arabia is like some of the other Gulf countries, which are experiencing their own rapid urbanization and construction boom. This is perhaps a testament to the vast amounts of wealth they have to use to spend on such projects and their desire to develop their small, rural communities into major cities with modern infrastructure and massive buildings. As these countries continue to expand in population and economic strength, the size and complexity of their urban centers will undoubtedly continue to expand as well. The sights and sounds of construction here in Riyadh provide ample evidence to this fact.

IMG_0664Most of Riyadh is new, having been transformed into this massive city in only a few decades. This has coincided with a massive growth in population, from around only 150,000 people living in the city in the 1960s to the over 5 million inhabitants it has today. As a result, most of the buildings visible in the Riyadh skyline today are new, and their futuristic architectural designs and modern building materials demonstrate that. Many of these buildings will become commercial centers, reflecting the growing strength of the Saudi economy. Others will become towering residential buildings, needed for Riyadh’s burgeoning population and growing size.

IMG_0663Riyadh is one of Saudi Arabia’s fastest growing cities and its population is expected to grow even further, with some estimates calling for up to 8 million people living in the city in the 2030s. Today, Riyadh’s infrastructure is unable to handle the huge amounts of vehicles needed to transport such a large population. Traffic jams are common, a reality we experienced firsthand when stuck for nearly an hour in traffic as we made our way from the airport to the hotel. To solve this problem, Riyadh will soon begin yet another construction project: a massive public transportation system that will include buses and a new subway. According to its designers and advocates, who we talked to when visiting King Saud University, this new transportation system will significantly ease the amount of traffic on Riyadh’s roads once completed. As someone who has often had to suffer from long commutes and busy traffic, I’m sure that Riyadh’s population will be appreciative of this new infrastructure.

IMG_0673[1]A brochure showing off the planned Riyadh public transportation system.

Saudi Arabia’s building boom makes apparent to anyone who experiences it that the Kingdom is in the process of a major transformation. This land of desert is becoming a land of cities and urban sprawl, showing that Saudi Arabia is quickly entering a new period of modernity. Whether Riyadh’s rapid pace of construction and ambitious building plans will continue cannot be predicted, but it is clear right now that the Saudis’ have high hopes for their capital city. For an observer of the Saudi skyline, the cranes and scaffolding show that the Saudi economy is booming and that the Kingdom is on its way up, both figuratively and literally.


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