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China faces social, financial risks in urbanization push

People arrive at a city bus station in the town of Zhoukou, Henan Province for a trip to work in a shoes factory at coastal industrial area
People arrive at a city bus station in the town of Zhoukou, Henan Province for a trip to work in a shoes factory at coastal industrial area

BEIJING (Reuters) - China's urbanization drive could fuel social unrest over land disputes and pose financial risks if money is thrown around recklessly, a senior communist party official and a leading economist said on Thursday.

Shifting people from the countryside to cities is a policy priority for China's new leaders as they seek to sustain economic growth that last year slowed to a 13-year low of 7.8 percent. The government hopes 60 percent of China's population of almost 1.4 billion will be urban residents by 2020.

The urban population jumped to above 700 million from less than 200 million in the previous three decades, but that explosion has triggered sometimes violent clashes over expropriation of farmland for development as well as water shortages, pollution and other problems.

"These are severe challenges as we are trying to sustain the urbanization process," said Chen Xiwen, head of the Office of Central Rural Work Leading Group, the top body which guides China's farm policy. "Many people have worries and such worries are understandable," he told a news conference on the sidelines of China's annual parliament session.

The government must protect farmers from losing their land in the process as local governments have been relying heavily on land sales to finance local investment, Chen said. "If the urbanization process becomes a process of depriving and harming farmers' interests, it cannot be sustained and society cannot maintain stability."

SPENDING BINGE

Li Yining, an influential economist at Peking University, warned that China's banks could be dragged into another spending binge that could spark a financial crisis.

"When we talk about urbanization, it seems the whole country is going into mass action to spend heavily ... this could trigger a financial crisis," he told the news conference.

China plans to issue guidelines on urbanization in the first half of this year, the head of the National Development and Reform Commission, the main economic planning agency, said on Wednesday. The commission sees the urbanization rate rising to 53.37 percent this year from 52.57 percent in 2012.

Chinese leaders have pledged to steadily reform the rigid household registration, or hukou, system that could help turn millions of rural workers from savers into consumers.

The hukou system has split China's population along urban-rural lines, preventing millions of Chinese who are registered as rural residents from settling in cities and enjoying basic urban welfare and services.

(Reporting by Kevin Yao; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

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