C. Cindy FAN

New construction spurred by urban population growth. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN.

Because of its agrarian nature and socialist control over cities, until the 1980s China’s level of urbanization remained low. Since then, rapid rural-urban migration and aggressive reclassification have quickly transformed China into an increasingly urban society. Urbanization, now seen as a tool for economic development, has given rise to problems of inequality, social stratification, environmental degradation, and loss of arable land.

Urbanization is defined as the increase in the proportion of the overall population living in cities. It refers also to the social and economic changes that occur as a society becomes more urbanized. In the twenty-first century, China is being transformed from a predominantly rural economy to one that is predominantly urban.

The Level and Speed of Urbanization

For most of its history, China has been an agrarian society. Its earliest cities, created during the Shang dynasty (1766–1045 BCE), served mainly administrative, political, and ceremonial purposes. From those early days to recent decades, for thousands of years, the vast majority of China’s population was primarily rural; the urbanization level was extremely low.

At the time of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) first national census in 1953, only 13 percent of its population lived in urban areas, which was considerably lower than the world’s average (about 30 percent) and lower than the levels in most Asian developing countries, including India, Thailand, and the Philippines. Between the 1950s and early 1980s, China’s level of urbanization increased, albeit at a slow speed. (See table 1.) Urbanization accelerated from the 1980s onward and gained an average of more than one percentage point annually between 1990 and 2007, a rate faster than that of most Western industrialized economies at their respective stages of urbanization. In 2007, 44.9 percent—just shy of 600 million—of China’s population lived in urban areas. It is projected that by 2030, China’s level of urbanization will reach 60 percent, surpassing the world’s average.

TABLE 1 China’s Level of Urbanization in Selected Years

1953 13
1982 21
1990 26
2000 36
2007 45
2030 (United Nations’ projection) 60
NOTE: Except for the year 2030, all data are from China’s National Bureau of Statistics.

The Process and Measurement of Urbanization

Urbanization results from one or more of the following processes: migration, natural population increase in urban areas, and reclassification. As is true of most other countries, China’s urbanization is mainly due to the internal movement of people from rural areas to urban areas. Natural population increase in urban areas leads to urban growth, but in most countries, including China, population growth is slower in urban areas than it is in rural areas and is not an important factor in urbanization. Reclassification refers to an administrative change whereby a formerly rural area is redefined as urban, thus accomplishing “in-situ” urbanization. This is usually a result of rapid population growth, increased population density, intensification of urban activities, annexation by an adjacent city, or a combination of the above. Since the 1980s, many previously rural places in China have been reclassified as urban areas.

The measurement of urbanization in China is complex and hotly debated. For example, it is difficult to accurately estimate rural-urban migration, and reclassification often incorporates a large number of rural people into a newly defined urban area. These issues obscure the documentation of urban areas and urban population, a task delegated primarily to China’s National Bureau of Statistics. In the 1982 census, the urban population was defined as the total population found within the administrative boundaries of cities and towns. During the 1980s, however, the criteria for establishing cities and towns were significantly relaxed, and as a result, the number of cities and towns increased dramatically. Counting all the population in cities and towns as urban would have resulted in a grossly inflated level of urbanization. Therefore, in the 1990 census, a new and more restrictive set of criteria, focusing on population within cities’ urban districts and towns’ residents’ committees, was used. The 2000 census employed additional criteria of population density, population size, and the extent of built-up areas. Most scholars consider the definition used in the 2000 census more realistic and desirable than those in previous censuses. However, definitional changes from one census to the next have complicated comparison of urbanization levels over time.

Researchers have warned against taking Chinese urban statistics at face value. A common mistake is to neglect the role of reclassification when interpreting the number and population size of cities. The number of Chinese cities increased from 193 in 1978 to 655 in 2007. This rapid increase reflects not only rural-urban migration and urban natural growth but also aggressive efforts by rural and town governments to seek reclassification into cities, as reclassification would increase their autonomy and access to resources. At the same time, large cities have actively pursued annexation of adjacent counties and cities so that the latter’s land could be put to revenue-generating uses. The city of Guangzhou in southern China, for example, incorporated Huadu County and the city of Panyu in 2000 and as a result more than doubled the amount of land under its jurisdiction. Chongqing became a municipality in 1996, and during that process incorporated a large span of rural areas. The total population of Chongqing in 2006 was close to 32 million, which has led some to consider it the largest city in the world, but in fact two-thirds of its population was rural.

While reclassification leads to an inflated picture of urbanization, the opposite occurs when only the resident population is considered and migrants are ignored. For cities that have received a large number of migrant workers, the difference can be enormous. For example, the number of permanent residents in Shenzhen in 2005 was less than two million, but if all migrants were included, then the city’s total population would have been more than 11 million.

Socialist Control

During the Maoist period (1949–1976), China followed a socialist model of development, one that emphasized industrialization, defined cities as sites of production rather than consumption, and discouraged rural-urban migration. Although rural-urban migration did exist—especially during the 1950s when rural collectivization, poverty, and crop failures pushed peasants to seek opportunities and survival in cities—the hukou (household registration) regulations that were promulgated in 1958 severely limited rural people’s ability to survive in urban areas and became a powerful tool for curbing rura
l-urban migration. The hukou system, which entailed state subsidies for urban dwellers, was also intended to accelerate city-based industrialization. Extending these subsidies to rural people would have bankrupted the state coffer, and thus controlling rural-urban migration became a necessity. Paradoxically, the state limited the growth of cities—interpreted by some as anti-urbanism—but its policy, in essence, privileged urban people and disadvantaged rural people.

The PRC inherited a spatial pattern of urban and industrial development that favored the eastern, coastal region. Not only did coastal cities enjoy geographical advantages such as good accessibility, but many had benefited in terms of trade and industrial development from their experience as treaty ports from the mid-nineteenth century onward. Policies and programs during the Maoist period, however, sought to undermine urban growth, especially the growth of cities in the eastern region. For example, the majority of state industrial investment during the First Five-Year Plan (1953–1957) went to the inland region. Convinced that the coastal area would be vulnerable if China were attacked, the state launched the Third Front program (1965–1971), which involved moving factories and industrial workers from the coastal regions to remote and mountainous areas inland. Finally, justified on ideological grounds, the rustication movement during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) sent millions of urban youths, cadres, and intellectuals “up to the mountains and down to the countryside” to learn from the peasants. Some stayed in those remote locations for decades before finally returning to their urban homes.

Until the late 1970s, therefore, the pace of urbanization was kept slow and the size of cities was strictly controlled. The urban hierarchy—defined as the array of cities from largest to smallest—of China was rather flat, unlike most industrializing Third World countries, where one or two large cities (e.g., Jakarta, Mexico City) dominated the urban system. China’s development under Mao was therefore quite unique and has been aptly described as “industrialization without urbanization,” “industrialization with controlled urbanization” and “underurbanization,” in contrast with the “overurbanization” found in many developing countries, where massive rural-urban migration has given rise to acute problems of urban slums and unemployment.

Renewed Urbanization and Urbanism

Even after the economic reforms of 1978, China continued to adhere to a policy of controlling the size of large cities, moderately developing medium-sized cities, and actively promoting the growth of small cities and towns, a policy inherited from the Maoist period. What is new in the first decade of the twenty-first century is that the Chinese state now sees urbanization as a powerful tool to modernize the nation and accelerate economic growth. But in order to avoid problems of overurbanization, the state pursues a strategy of steady, not speedy, urbanization. For example, the Eleventh Five-Year Plan (2006–2010) has as its target for increase of urbanization only 0.8 of a percentage point annually.

Chinese urbanization during the reform period has been pursued via two tracks: city-based urbanization and “urbanization from below.” City-based urbanization depends on the rationale that large cities and agglomerations are more efficient than smaller places. Thus cities, especially large cities, are repositioned as the nation’s economic nodes. Special economic zones such as Shenzhen have been transformed from rural places or small cities into full-fledged, globalizing urban centers. Large investment is pumped into “city-building” projects; often foreign elite architects are invited to design landmark districts and buildings, such as the Pudong New District and the “bird’s nest” Olympic stadium, in order to transform Shanghai, Beijing, and other large cities into truly international metropolitan centers.

The economic bases of these cities, meanwhile, are shifting from industries to services. Western-style malls, promenades, and business districts have mushroomed across Chinese cities, a clear indication of rapidly increasing urban consumption. The internal structure of cities has changed as well. While the center of Beijing, with Tiananmen Square and other monuments and structures, still symbolizes a political and historical hub of power, the rest of the city is rapidly expanding outward and vertically. Work-unit (danwei) compounds used to be where most urbanites lived, but today new high-rise condominium buildings and gated complexes are proliferating in the city and its fringes, thanks to the housing reform of the late 1980s that boosted the housing market and promoted home ownership. Rapid urban transformation, however, has jeopardized historical and cultural landscapes such as Beijing’s hutongs, the narrow alleys between traditional courtyard residences, and the associated neighborhoods.

“Urbanization from below” describes urban development that is driven by industrialization of small cities and towns and often based on local entrepreneurship and resources rather than state investment or initiatives. Related concepts such as “rural urbanization” and desakota (combining the Indonesian terms desa for village and kota for town) have been used to describe the juxtaposition of agricultural and industrial activities in rural spaces and on urban margins. The Pearl River Delta in south China, for example, is characterized by a large number of industrial enterprises in small and medium-sized cities, towns, and even villages, that are supported by foreign investment, social networks with overseas Chinese, and a large influx of rural migrants. By connecting to the world market and global commodity chains, some rural places in China are industrializing and urbanizing rapidly and as a result enjoying remarkable economic growth.


The recent path of urbanization in China has given rise to new challenges of national and global significance. China’s rural-urban income gap has widened since the economic reforms and is larger than that in most other developing countries. In 2005, real rural income per capita was only 39 percent of real urban income per capita. Inequality within urban areas has increased as well, with the urban poor comprising mainly laid-off workers (from state-owned enterprises), the elderly, and the disabled. Social stratification has intensified, and residential segregation and heterogeneity is increasingly seen in Chinese cities. Migrant enclaves, for example, can be found not far from secluded complexes of mansions for the newly rich. Social, economic, and rural-urban polarization is a major reason for the surge in protests across China in recent years.

Increase in urban consumption, in conjunction with a growing middle class, is exerting severe pressure on China’s energy supply and urban infrastructure. Ownership of passenger vehicles more than doubled between 2001 and 2005, and in 2006 China surpassed the United States as the leading emitter of carbon dioxide. Water scarcity, waste management, and urban transport are among the pressing problems facing Chinese cities. Finally, urban sprawl is taking place at the expense of rural land and the environment. Loss of arable land is most serious at urban margins and in rural areas that are urbanizing. These are also the places where the border between urban and rural jurisdictions tends to be blurry and where environmental regulations may not be strictly enforced, thus permitting sustained pollution. Addressing the challenges of urbanization in China, therefore, requires commitments not only from urban governments but also from authorities at various levels from the countryside to the city and from the local to the national.

Further Reading

Chan, Kam Wing. (1994). Cities with invisible walls: Reinterpreting urbanization in post-1949 China. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.

Chan, Kam Wing, & Hu Ying. (2003). Urbanization in China in the 1990s: New definition, different series, and revised trends. China Review, 3(2), 48–71.

Friedmann, J. (2005). China’s urban transition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Goodkind, D., & West, L. A. (2002). China’s floating population: Definitions, data and recent findings. Urban Studies, 39(12), 2237–2250.

Lin, G. C. S. (1997). Red capitalism in South China: Growth and development of the Pearl River Delta. Vancouver, Canada: University of British Columbia Press.

Logan, J. (Ed.). (2008). Urban China in transition. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Ma, Laurence J. C. (2002). Urban transformation in China, 1949-2000: A review and research agenda. Environment and Planning A, 34(9), 1545–1569.

Ma, Laurence J. C., & Wu, Fulong. (Eds.). (2005). Restructuring the Chinese city: Changing society, economy and space. London and New York: Routledge.

McGee, T. G., Lin George C. S., Martin, A., Wang, Mark Y. L., & Wu, Jiaping. (2007). China’s urban space: Development under market socialism. London and New York: Routledge.

Pannell, C. W. (2002). China’s continuing urban transition. Environment and Planning A, 34(9), 1571–1589.

Wu Fulong. (Ed.). (2007). China’s emerging cities. London and New York: Routledge.

Wu Fulong, Xu, Jiang, & Yeh, Anthony Gar-On. (2007). Urban development in post-reform China: State, market, and space. London and New York: Routledge.

Yusuf, S., & Saich, T. (Eds.). (2008). China urbanizes: Consequences, strategies, and policies. Washington, DC: The World Bank.

Zhou, Yixing, & Ma, Laurence J. C. (2005). China’s urban population statistics: A critical evaluation. Eurasian Geography and Economics, 46(4), 272–89.

Source: Fan, C. Cindy. (2009). Urbanization. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2369–2374. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

“Fully engage in the movement to increase production and to practice economy to set off a new upsurge in industrial production” propaganda poster from 1965, created by artist Yang Wenxiu. During the Maoist period, cities were defined more by production than consumption. COLLECTION STEFAN LANDSBERGER.

City of Shanghai at night, 2003. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN.

The relatively few pedestrians on this urban street in China belie statistics that indicate just how rapidly the country’s populace is making the change from rural to city life. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN.

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