When talking about China, people will easily think of some shining and prosperous first-tier cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou.
These metropolitan cities are surely parts of China, but they don’t represent the country as a whole. As the most populous nation in the world, China’s development is extremely unbalanced. According to official statistics, only 5 percent of Chinese people have their permanent residence in big and medium-sized cities (with a population of at least 500,000), while 95 percent of the population are still managed by county-level administrations.
To strengthen big cities and expedite their modernization process, the Central Government is now busy converting some counties into the districts of adjacent cities. Nevertheless, by the end of June 2019, China still had 1,879 county-level economies, including 1,335 counties and some other county-level cities.
Given the gigantic scale of the county-level administrations in China and their role of connecting the grass-roots people with the provincial authorities and even the Central Government, the stability of the county-level economy is of crucial importance to the sustainable development of the entire country.
The development of China’s county-level economy is also quite unbalanced. While many counties in the poor western and northern parts of China are relying on traditional agriculture and struggling hard to shake off poverty, some counties in the rich eastern and southern coastal areas have gradually emerged as boom towns manufacturing various goods for the world. For example, Zhuji, a county-level city in Zhejiang Province, is the major supplier of socks to the global market. Shaodong County in Hunan Province exports more than 5 billion lighters to the international market every year.
Different from bigger cities, which mainly rely on State-owned enterprises, infrastructure construction and large high-tech firms for their GDP growth, counties are mainly dependent on the development of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and self-employed industrial and commercial households. The function of these SMEs and self-employed households cannot be ignored. According to statistics, they contribute more than 50 percent of China’s tax, more than 60 percent of the country’s GDP, more than 70 percent of technological innovation and more than 80 percent of total employment.
To further strengthen county-level economies, it is important to develop different strategies based on their unique geographic location and regional resource advantages rather than blindly copying the developmental models of other places, which can result in a random pursuit of hot industries. In my point of view, despite the fact that some rich Chinese counties have been successfully integrating themselves into city clusters and regional linkages, many other counties in inner areas should still regard agriculture as their pillar industry and make great efforts to improve the quality of their agricultural produce in the future.
In order to meet the food and oil demands of more and more Chinese people, greater attention should be attached to the development of agriculture. The Central Government should also consider raising the prices of farm produce and quicken the modernization process of agriculture, so as to make sure that farmers can lead a decent life in the country.
As we know, the county-level economy is relatively small, less competitive and even vulnerable. To further alleviate the burden of SMEs and self-employed households, especially in the country’s poor regions and counties, governments at various levels should introduce more preferential policies to cut taxes, social insurance contribution and other fees for them.
Moreover, unlike big cities, which are at the forefront of information technology, many small counties may lack sensitivity to changes in market trends and still rely on traditional marketing channels in guiding their production and sales. Local governments should set up artificial intelligence and big data analysis platforms to help them quickly adapt to the new changes, uncertainties and headwinds.
(The author is the editor-in-chief of the Shenzhen Daily with a Ph.D. from the Journalism and Communication School of Wuhan University.)