ISS project to study economics, politics of China urbanization

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Melissa Osgood

One in 10 people on Earth live in China’s cities. Over the past decade, nearly 200 million people in China have moved from rural to urban regions, and 8 million more are expected to relocate every year between now and 2050. Just what this means for China and the world has the attention of the Institute for the Social Sciences’ newest collaborative project, China’s Cities: Divisions and Plans.

“Our lens into China’s cities is focusing on the economic, political and social phenomena at play in China’s urbanization,” says Jeremy Wallace, project leader and associate professor of government.

Joined by Jessica Weiss, also in government; Shanjun Li, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management; Panle Barwick, economics; and Eli Friedman, international and comparative labor, the interdisciplinary team is examining the factors that divide migrants and native city dwellers, including access to social services, crime, environmental policies and health consequences.

“When migrants move to cities, they face economic as well as cultural and discriminatory barriers that make the move and integration even harder [than in other countries],” Wallace says.

Using surveys, ethnographies and interviews, the team intends to get a better understanding of the issues and attitudes at play in China’s lesser-known cities, such as Zibo and Shenzhen, similar in size to Philadelphia and Chicago, respectively, but practically unknown to anyone outside China. Using interviews, Wallace, Friedman and Weiss will explore attitudes toward social inclusion and exclusion in urban China and their connections with nationalism.

The project also will examine whether environmental policies in China’s cities are effective in curbing pollution and the impact that regulations are having on firms’ behavior and economic policies.

“This is an important project. I’ve long been interested in new global patterns of migration, especially to new immigrant destinations that promote cultural and economic integration or put up new barriers. It will be interesting to see if some of the same issues elsewhere in the world are also at play in China’s burgeoning cities,” says Daniel T. Lichter, the Robert S. Harrison Director of the Institute for the Social Sciences.

Fluent in Chinese, team members’ individual research projects already focus on China. But they also intend to tackle the challenges inherent in using China’s data, known to be inconsistent due to differing geographic definitions, mismatched unit comparisons and different word spellings, among other problems. Under the leadership of Barwick, Li and Wallace, the project expects to improve researchers’ capacity to integrate a variety of big data analytics for combined analyses.

“We need to make sure the data we have are accurate and speak to one another,” Wallace says. The team hopes to merge their data into a set that can be used multiple times.

The China’s Cities: Divisions and Plans collaborative project runs from 2016-19. The first year will primarily involve planning research, including intensive fieldwork, survey experiments and interviews, as well as integrating big datasets. The second year will be devoted to more research and writing, and the findings will begin to be disseminated in the final year.

ISS’ collaborative projects span three years and are intended to promote interdisciplinary research collaborations among social scientists across the university. The next collaborative project search will begin during fall 2017 for a 2018-21 term.

Lori Sonken is the staff writer at the Institute for the Social Sciences.


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