By Jonathan Landreth -
CONSTRUCTION worker Xie Feng arrived in Beijing three months ago from the tropical southern Chinese island of Hainan and is finding life in the city cold and lonely.
"Look at me. It's 26 degrees back home and I don't have enough clothes to stay warm here," said the 26-year-old, who has only a thin jacket to protect him from the harsh January cold of China's capital.
"Beijing is not a friendly place to live in. I have no friends here, but I have no choice. There's nothing to be done. I have to make money."
Xie is one of tens of millions who have migrated to China's cities from rural areas in search of higher earnings and a better quality of life over the past three decades, transforming the face of the nation at breakneck speed.
China announced in the past week that the number of people living in its cities had exceeded the rural population for the first time in 2011, a historic shift that experts warned would put a strain on society and the environment.
Urban dwellers now represent 51.27 per cent of the nearly 1.35 billion in China, which was for centuries a mainly agrarian nation but has witnessed a huge population shift as people seek to benefit from rapid economic growth.
A significant portion of those moving to cities are migrant workers — rural residents seeking work in urban areas — who have helped fuel growth in the world's second-largest economy.
But experts say the speed of China's urbanisation is storing up huge social problems for the world's most populous country as its cities become ever more polluted and congested.
"China is the fastest urbanising country the world has ever known," said Paul James, director of the Global Cities research institute at RMIT University in Melbourne.
"Basic things like roads and rail systems are opening up whole areas once considered provincial, while the state is building cities in remote places like Inner Mongolia.
"But the cities being built are uncomfortable. The speed of development may be economically sustainable, but it is not culturally or ecologically sustainable."
Migrants are often treated as second-class citizens in the towns or cities they go to because they are still registered as rural residents and have little or no access to social security or education for their children.
A national census published in April last year showed China counted more than 221 million migrants, and a government report released months later predicted that more than 100 million farmers would move to cities by 2020.
Kam Wing Chan, professor of political and economic geography at the University of Washington, believes China urgently needs to reform its controversial hukou, or residence registration system.
"These people have aspirations to live in the city but then realise when they get there that they can't afford it, so they won't stay," he said.
"They can't access the big cities' pension system or good jobs or local schools for their kids."
Construction worker Pei Yanlu, 34, has been working in Beijing for 10 years, living far from his wife and children in a dimly lit and dusty shipping container that has been turned into a dormitory.
"Life would be better if she could join me here," said Pei, who earns about 6,000 yuan ($950) a month plus overtime and sends money home to his family in the eastern province of Shandong.
Despite the difficulties, China's one-party government has said it will continue to encourage urbanisation.
Vice-Premier Li Keqiang — tipped to be China's next premier — said this month the country needed to promote urbanisation to boost domestic demand, which the government sees as a key driver of growth as the global economy slows.
"China is in love with the modern, commodity culture is so exciting to people right now. But they have given up a huge amount," said James, predicting a "cultural backlash" if the economy slows dramatically.
"Things could go along fine if the economy is stable," agreed Chan. "But if the economy gets tough, China could face greater social instability."