For the past decade and a half, the frantic pace of urbanization has been the transformative engine driving this country's economy, as some 300-400 million people from dirt-poor farming regions made their way to relative prosperity in cities. Within the contours of that great migration, however, there is another one now about to take place — less visible, but arguably no less powerful. As China's major cities — there are now 49 with populations of one million or more, compared with nine in the U.S. in 2000 — become more crowded and more expensive, a phenomenon similar to the one that reshaped the U.S. in the aftermath of World War II has begun to take hold. That is the inevitable desire among a rapidly expanding middle class for a little bit more room to live, at a reasonable price; maybe a little patch of grass for children to play on, or a whiff of cleaner air as the country's cities become ever more polluted.
This is China's Short March. A wave of those who are newly affluent and firm in the belief that their best days, economically speaking, are ahead of them, is headed for the suburbs. In Shanghai alone, urban planners believe some 5 million people will move to what are called "satellite cities" in the next 10 years. To varying degrees, the same thing is happening all across China. This process — China's own suburban flight — is at the core of the next phase of this country's development, and will be for years to come.
The consequences of this suburbanization are enormous. Think of how the U.S. was transformed, economically and socially, in the years after World War II, when GIs returned home and formed families that then fanned out to the suburbs. The comparison is not exact, of course, but it's compelling enough. The effects of China's suburbanization are just beginning to ripple across Chinese society and the global economy. It's easy to understand the persistent strength in commodity prices — steel, copper, lumber, oil — when you realize that in Emerald Riverside construction crews used more than three tons of steel in the houses and nearly a quarter of a ton of copper wiring. There are 35 housing developments either just finished or still under construction in New Songjiang alone, a town in which 500,000 people will eventually live. And as Lu Hongjiang, a vice president of the New Songjiang Development & Construction company puts it, "we're only at the very beginning of this in China..."