How Long Will China Value Growth Over Quality of Life?
One price of China’s impressive drive to prosperity — achieved through the rapid modernization of its industries and massive urbanization of its populace — can be identified by the simple act of breathing, especially in the nation’s largest metropolises.
Highly urbanized centers offer high-quality services such as public transportation systems and hospitals, as well as employment opportunities, that are particularly attractive to growing China’s 60-plus demographic. But because of cities’ heavily polluted air, urban living also poses a serious health threat for these older residents. An illustrative example of this is Beijing, which ranked 27th (falling from 13th a year earlier) in the Milken Institute’s “2016 Best-Performing Cities China” (2016 BPC China) report. According to the Beijing civil affairs authority, 23.4% of Beijing’s registered population is over 60.
Urban centers like Beijing are symbols of modern living, but despite careful planning from the central and local governments, they are also epicenters of pollution. They tend to congregate an already overrepresented senior age demographic in a place with highly polluted air. China’s government taken some steps to resolve the dilemma, but they need to address this problem head-on.
The problem is that in recent decades the capital has had a huge inflow of people and virtually no outflow. This has enabled rapid economic growth but also has exacerbated the problem of congestion in the city. As part of China’s 13th Five-Year Plan, the government set an aggressive goal of increasing the urbanization rate from the current 55 percent to 60 percent by year 2020. To do this, China employs large-scale urban clustering in areas such as the Jing-Jin-Ji Megalopolis, Yangtze River Economic Belt and Pearl River Delta Economic Zone detailed in 2016 BPC China. Perhaps the best example of this is Jing-Jin-Ji, whose structure is designed to reduce congestion in its centers, Beijing and Tianjin, by radiating growth outward to smaller cities in Hebei province. While this sounds good in theory, in practice the government has merely pushed heavy industry to surrounding areas without providing the satellite cities with the high-quality services or diverse employment opportunities of the capital city. As a result, there are no incentives for people, especially older residents, to move out of Beijing.
Beijing is notorious for being one of China’s worst cities in terms of air quality. This became a topic of international concern when Beijing was under consideration to host the 2008 Summer Olympics. After locking in the Olympic bid, China made serious efforts to reduce pollution largely through the relocation, as mentioned, of heavy-polluting industries into surrounding areas. But air pollution in Beijing has continued to increase. This is because the number of cars on the city’s streets has grown too fast, but there is another reason. Although Beijing is moving away from the use of coal within its own boundaries, its air quality still is affected by coal-burning industries that have moved out. A recent empirical study published in the Journal of Environmental Management says that Beijing is significantly affected by emissions from surrounding cities hundreds of miles away. If Beijing won’t touch coal-burning factories with a 10-foot-pole, perhaps it should try a longer pole.
The aging population in the capital city is a particular concern because older residents are exposed to unhealthy levels of pollution during their more vulnerable years. As the Milken Institute’s Best Cities for Successful Aging recognizes, governments and researchers around the world are looking for ways to keep the elderly healthy, active and engaged in their communities. This type of purposeful aging relies on the availability of services and opportunities —health care, convenient transportation and employment — that are found in urban settings like Beijing. However, people cannot be active and engaged if they are not healthy, and staying healthy is a difficult thing while breathing in unhealthy levels of particulate matter daily. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) 20.9 percent of all urban deaths are related to CVD and outdoor air pollution has a causal relationship with many cardiovascular disease and related afflictions. A recent study from Berkeley Earth estimates that through these pollution correlated diseases, air pollution contributes to 1.6 million deaths per year in China. The impact is especially severe on older residents, who are more vulnerable to problems such as CVD even when air quality is not an issue.
Older citizens’ quality of life depends on their wellness and the ability to be involved in the community. If pollution is not reduced to a healthy level, the aging populations in urban settings such as Beijing are unlikely to achieve this desired lifestyle. Moreover, without providing satellite cities with quality public services to draw people out of overcrowded city centers, China’s growth is not sustainable and populations remain vulnerable.