New urban space in China : towns, rural labour and social inclusion

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Since the late 1970s internal migration has become a fundamental feature of economic and social change in the People’s Republic of China. So has rapid urbanization as the rural population moves to the cities and towns in search for work. In the process, new urban spaces have been created that not only provide the springboard for economic development but also present challenges for social coherence and stability. Considerable attention has been focussed on the impact of this migration on the larger cities and on the migrants to those cities; processes that inevitably highlight the difficulties of China’s socio-economic transformation. Nonetheless, the experiences of those cities represent but one of the country’s urban realities. In fact, the majority of China’s urban population live in a highly dispersed system formed by thousands of small cities and towns. Through the examination of a county in North China (Hongtong County, Shanxi Province) and its county town (Dahuishu Town) this study suggests that outside the larger cities there may be alternative accounts of urban social change and the integration of rural migrant workers. Empirical findings point to greater openness and flexibility in the incorporation of rural workers. Though shortcomings are still observed, there is also considerable governmental and social awareness of the problems brought by rural -urban migration and urbanization processes; a willingness to act and a capacity to promote and deliver greater social inclusion. Dahuaishu Town’s distinct development experience has allowed for the construction of a more inclusive social environment, one which provides all inhabitants, including rural workers with a platform towards advancing their economic and social well-being. Impossible as it is to be representative of town development throughout China, this study provides an example of and a guide to alternative development processes to those documented in large urban centres. Small town urban development in Hongtong County is not a resolved issue, but it suggests that China’s transformation may not necessarily result in dysfunctional and socially polarized urban environments.
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