China charts the route to urbanization with a focus on county towns

By Kong Dechen

The General Office of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the General Office of the State Council recently released guidelines on advancing urbanization with a focus on county towns, setting out clear targets and specific tasks for the construction of urbanization.

County towns are an important component of China’s urban system. Official data indicated that by the end of 2021, the county towns of 1,472 counties in China had a combined permanent resident population of around 160 million and the urban areas of 394 county-level cities had approximately 90 million permanent residents, accounting for nearly 30 percent of the resident population in China’s urban areas when combined.

Meanwhile, the number of counties and county-level cities made up about 65 percent of the country’s county-level administrative regions.

“Promoting the construction of county towns can help accommodate rural migrants as local residents in cities and towns and improve the spatial layout of urbanization for the coordinated development of cities of different sizes and small towns,” said an official with China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC).

There are a vast number of county towns in China, each of which has various forms and development paths. The development of many county towns is still confronted with certain constraints. Such problems as unsophisticated industrial platforms, incomplete supporting facilities, and aging public facilities have reduced county towns’ carrying capacity and attractiveness.

According to the guidelines, China will clarify the functions of county towns across the country, divide them into five categories according to their characteristics, and determine different development paths for them.

The guidelines stated that efforts will be made to speed up the development of county towns surrounding large cities, actively cultivate county towns featuring professional functions, help county towns in main producing areas of agricultural products enjoy rational development, develop county towns in key ecological function areas in an orderly manner, and guide transformation and development of county towns that are losing population.

The document also set out 25 tasks concerning five aspects of the development of county towns, including cultivating characteristic industries, improving the municipal facility system, strengthening the supply of public services, raising the quality of the living environment, and promoting the connection and complementarity among functions of county towns, townships, and villages.

Industries serve as the foundation for the construction and development of county towns. China is going to enhance county towns’ capacity to support the development of industries, nurture characteristics, and achieve staggering development, pointed out the guidelines.

The country will focus on developing industries with significant comparative advantages and a large capacity for driving the development of agriculture and rural areas as well as for employment in county towns, and coordinate the cultivation of local industries and receiving industrial relocation, according to the guidelines.

Meanwhile, county towns should also improve the functions of industrial platforms and guide the cluster development of local industries; improve commercial distribution networks, develop logistics centers and specialized markets, and build distribution and transfer centers for industrial and agricultural products; and improve consumption-related infrastructure, enhance vocational skills training, and help migrant workers from rural areas, especially those facing difficulties, elevate their skills, quality, and ability to maintain stable employment, the document stressed.

Efforts will also be made to raise county towns’ carrying capacity and attractiveness, including upgrading municipal facilities, improving public transportation facilities, smoothening channels for better connection and communication with other regions, and advancing digital transformation, according to the document.

The guidelines also demanded deepening institutional innovation to provide a policy guarantee for the construction of county towns. For example, county towns are asked to remove all limits on household registration and establish diversified and sustainable investment and financing mechanisms.

They should formulate reasonable investment and financing plans according to the nature and benefits of projects, noted the document.

Local governments can increase investment in public welfare projects and provide support for eligible projects with the central government budget and their special-purpose bonds, said the document.

The document also encouraged increasing medium and long-term loans and expressed support for the issuance of special corporate bonds by qualified enterprises for new urbanization in county towns.

According to the guidelines, China will achieve important progress in urbanization with a focus on county towns by 2025; and, through a period of efforts after that, it will basically build modern county towns with distinctive characteristics, vitality, livable environment, and sound employment conditions across the country.

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