Smart Cities Programme in China

Author: Viktor Eszterhai

The first projects related to the developments of smart cities in China (zhi hui cheng shi) appeared in the 2010s, and have made extraordinary progress in the past years. In January 2013, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (Zhufang he Chengxiang Jianshebu) formally announced the first list of national pilot Smart Cities. More than 300 cities have joined the pilot programmes ever since, and the implementation of 41 special pilot projects has also started. Tasks are assigned and their implementation is coordinated by various ministries (National Development and Reform Commission – Guójia Fazhan he Gaige Weiyuanhui, Ministry of Industry and Information Technology – Gongye he Xinxihuabu, Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development), and regional/city-level governments.

Currently, there is no statutory definition in China of what constitutes a Smart City. In past years, the government introduced a number of guidance notices –  first and foremost the urbanization plan for the 2014-2020 period –, creating a basis for development. According to plans, by 2020 the distinctive features of Smart Cities will have been determined based on the experience from the pilot programme. Hopefully, the developments after 2020 will be implemented in line with a concept formulated on the basis of considerable experience. It has been most commonly recognized by scholars, government officials and enterprises that Smart Cities operate under the basis of a ‘digital earth’, connecting the virtual, digital world with the real, physical world.

The key driver of the Smart City programme in China is mainly an extremely dynamic urbanization process. The Chinese governments views urbanization as a universally accepted road to social modernization. In 2013, the number of urban residents exceeded that of the rural population, and by 2020, the ratio of permanent urban residents to total population should reach about 60 percent, according to the plan. This accelerated urbanization has entailed a series of problems: developments have not been energetically, environmentally, and, in certain cases, financially sustainable. Therefore, the government of China is seeking solutions that rationalize dynamic urbanization, and would create cities that manage energy and resources more efficiently, are less crowded and provide high-quality services. China’s Smart Cities programme can fill a real market niche (some estimates anticipate a $28 billion smart city market by 2020).

Key areas include: smart and more efficient energy usage; smart water management and quality control; smart traffic control, which, in addition to maintaining a smooth traffic flow, focuses on improving the air quality; smart healthcare, to remedy the weaknesses of the social net in China. A further aim of the programme is to strengthen the technological companies that may facilitate the transformation of Chinese industry into high-tech production. The government’s pilot programmes greatly facilitate these companies – ZTE, Huawei, Tencent, Ruijie, Digital China, Chinasoft, China Mobile, China Telecom, China Unicom, International Sugon, Fiber Home, Tsignhua Tongfang, Inspur, Longmaster, etc. – to become key market players globally.

The Smart Cities programme in China is characterized by the fact that significant regional differences must be considered within the country.  Given the different economic and social situation of the specific regions, there is no template of a prototype city. Thus, pilot cities play an important role: on the basis of their experiences, it will be possible to develop a strategy that takes the differences between cities into proper consideration.

The Smart Cities programme, however, has also been criticized. Critics of smart cities are now concerned that the programme does not necessarily keep the real interests of the residents in view, and does not five real answers to the education-, health-, employment- and housing-related problems. It has also been highlighted that the programme is mainly about connecting smart devices and urban environments, which is in line with the interest of technological companies, but adds little real value to residents. There are voices, however, that consider the market principles are not observed properly, because they are too subordinated to political aspects (e.g. access to data). Others are concerned that due to the top-down nature of developments, residents do not have a say in decisions, and there are many others who question the competences of local governments. There are voices that consider governance too decentralized because the management of the programme is divided between the concerned ministries; in addition, the ministries are not necessarily aware of local demands. Furthermore, local governments still tend to evaluate investments on the basis of return only, and do not use a complex index.

Despite existing question marks, there may be a boom in the spread of smart cities in the next decade, owing to the above-described restraints and the intention of the Chinese government. Hopefully, the programme will significantly contribute to guiding urbanisation in China in a more reasonable and sustainable manner.

Author: Viktor Eszterhai

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