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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on January 9, 2013
I was taken aback by how good this book is, given how little coverage it has attracted. Tom Miller is a first-time writer and therefore unknown, and his publication is an expensive offering mainly of interest to deep-pocketed investors. But the book is excellent. It eschews the over-written 'one big idea' books written by shady management consultants and all-too-slick China 'expert' to focus on the specifics of urbanization - a vastly important theme and a brilliant prism through which to view all kinds of essential topics, like energy, wealth & poverty, the government (local and central), the lesser-known megapolises like Chonqing and Wuhan, etc. I must say (and I worked in China for 12 years) I was stunned by the subtlety and insight of Miller's analysis. This guy knows his stuff - and he writes like a journalist from The Economist - lucidly and entertainingly. I suspect this book will become the connoisseur's choice for books about modern China, and all those not misled by so much of the derivative rubbish so often hyped by the China media industry. This is in the great tradition of China books by British authors, up there with Mr China (Tim Clissold), The Party (admittedly the author Richard McGregor is Aussie but works for the FT!), China shakes the world by James Kynge,etc.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on January 16, 2013
Tom Miller has written what is, surprisingly, the first book in English on China's urbanization, and he has managed to produce a definitive, deep and entertaining account. The process of urbanization has been going on for more than three decades in China, and it's surprising that no one until now has taken a holistic approach to it until now. Personally, I'm glad we had to wait for Tom Miller to write this book. What could have been a dour subject becomes vivid and entertaining in Miller's hands. Don't expect a sycophantic China watcher - Tom Miller is an avid and honest observer who holds nothing back and devotes the first section to a description of life at the bottom of China's generally un-charming cities. But the book also shows Tom Miller as a deep thinker on urbanization. He explains why China's property bubble will not burst, and why the Chinese government needs to implement both land reform and hukou reform. For anyone with a serious interest in China, this is a must-read.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
HALL OF FAMEon March 7, 2013
China is urbanizing faster than expected - in 2011, for the first time, more than half its citizens (51%) lived in towns or cities; the U.K. and U.S. achieved this in 1851 and 1920 respectively. But China is proceeding at a mind-boggling rate - in 1980, fewer than 200 million people lived in urban areas, and this expanded by nearly 500 million over the next 30 years. The primary driving force is economic - migrant workers earn far more than those staying on the farm, and the productivity gains from moving those people into factories and onto building sites in the city produces enormous economic growth. By 20230, 1 billion Chinese will live in cities, and China will have at least 221 cities with 1+ million (Europe has 35 currently).

However, up to 250 million people in Chinese cities do not receive the full benefits of urban living. Most migrants arrive empty-handed, live in squalid conditions (about 15 square meters) renting for about $80/month and do the dirty work nobody else wants to do. They're denied health care, schooling for their children, and basic social security. The reason - city governments cannot provide migrants with those full benefits, help is needed from the central government. Providing life-long social security for each new urbanite would cost an estimated $16,000, or about 3.8% of 2010 GDP. Regardless, rebalancing the economy away from exports to increase consumer consumption will require removing these barriers.

Villages do a poor job of protecting individual farmers' rights. Farmers are often thrown off their land against their will and/or without proper compensation, creating the largest source of social instability across the country.

Fears that China is a massive real-estate bubble are overblown - most empty apartment blocks will fill up in time. But the cities remain ugly, congested, and polluted. Speedy construction trumps aesthetic niceties. Controlling prviate car ownership and building efficient mass public transit is essential.

Regardless, this direction will cut pollution, energy use, and water pollution. Built-up areas have more than tripled since 1980, but the urban population has grown by a much smaller 120% - thanks to incentives to utilize excess land to provide extra funding for cities and opportunities for corruption. Shifting towards more concentrated urbanization would offer greater reductions in pollution and energy use, while boosting per capita GDP via clustering and more higher-value-activities, as well as using up less arable land. McKinsey sees China's GDP multiplying 5X by 2025, partly through creating new urban facilities, attracting more investment, and utilizing those added workers in factories and offices.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on January 6, 2013
This is a tightly written analysis of China's urbanization policies. Much has been written about the economic consequences of China's urbanization but Miller's book fills a void in that he examines specific urbanization policies and their consequences. For example, he considers competing city planning models and explains how Beijing's policy preferences are creating sterile mega cities. Another section explains how local governments depend on land sales to balance their budgets. Another section outlines the policy dilemma regarding the urban residency permits and the imperative to move quickly to reform this policy. Strongly recommended.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on June 20, 2013
I read this book to get a better understanding on China's ghost town rehotric that I've been hearing in the media recently. This book answered a lot of those questions. I've found that most of those stories are unfounded.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on February 18, 2013
Urbanization is a huge trend that's transforming China. The unique Chinese cityscape is the result of many factors - economic, social, and (especially) political. This book demystifies what's going on.

The contents are well balanced between an introduction of general trends and case studies of particular cities or urban dwellers - these case studies make the general observations seem much more concrete and immediate.

The discussion on why Chinese cities are so ugly and unpleasant is especially good. Instead of just rolling out the usual expat complaints, the author explains the larger forces which have created such terrible urban models. That part alone is worth the price of the book.

My only major criticism would be that the book seems repetitive in places. The author goes on and on about hukou and the problems of migrants in several chapters - I felt that some sections seemed like a rehash of what he had written in earlier chapters.
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on December 26, 2013
It's almost impossible to overstate the impact that China's sweeping urbanization campaign is having on its people, its economy and its environment. While this push has indeed raised living standards and incomes for hundreds of millions or ordinary Chinese citizens, major barriers still remain in the shape of stalled hukou reforms, severe fiscal imbalances and an archaic land rights system that invites abuse by local governments and developers (to name just a few).

This lively and well-researched book offers an excellent overview of the process that's changing China, with plenty of anecdotes to highlight conditions on the ground in various localities. For newer students and observers of contemporary China, Mr Miller's book should be considered essential reading. More seasoned China watchers may not find much new here though - the arguments Miller makes about the need for hukou and rural land reforms, for instance, have already been well-trodden by Chinese and foreign commentators - but still, "Urban Billion" is worth a read for its synthesis of the facts and central dilemmas of an extremely complex phenomenon. As events continue to unfold in China, I hope that Mr Miller has the opportunity to update this book in future editions.
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on March 30, 2013
The author characterizes the unprecedented movement of 500 million people from rural to urban locations in the past 30 years and the anticipation of 300 million more in the next 20 years. He highlights the role that massive expenditures on urban infrastructure have played and the problems that remain to make that transition both economically and socially successful. Appropriate attention is given to the role of the hukou (household registration) system and property rights allocation. Although more clarity could be provided on China's leasehold structure versus the freehold structure that exists in the United States and elsewhere, the role of rights allocation deserves its central place in the book. At one point, the author opines that the urbanization strategy could be described as, "if you build it, make them come." I view this as an apt characterization. A worthwhile read for all those interested in China's transition from economic backwater to global economic force.
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on September 4, 2013
China's ghost towns are not a problem. Most of the new towns were built as planned according to the local demands. It will take some time to fill them in, but Chinese can wait as they did with Shanghai and other cities. That's the point of this book' which was very informative. However, I'm still wondering if they can wait this time too, with so much debt on their shoulders.
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on August 11, 2013
This is a short, readable introduction to rural-to-urban migration in China and how local governments and social safety net programs are funded. It's valuable information for anyone curious about some of the innards of Chinese governmental policy. It is somewhat repetitive, but not in a bad way. The repetition helps ensure the reader takes away the correct message.
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