Atlantic Cities

China's Uneasy Transition to an Urban Majority

China's Uneasy Transition to an Urban Majority
Reuters

In 2008, the world’s city-dwelling population officially passed the 50 percent mark. In 2011, so did China.

A recent article from The Guardian looks into the rapid urbanization of China, and including the fact that the country’s census earlier this year found 49.7 percent of its population living in urban areas. That’s about 666 million people.

China’s cities will be home to more than a billion people within the next 20 years, according to a 2009 estimate from the McKinsey Global Institute. By that time, China is expected to have 221 cities with a population above 1 million.

Cities such as Guiyang are at the heart of the government's strategy. It is the capital of south-western Guizhou, China's poorest province, where just 34% of the population is urban. It already has 3 million inhabitants and is challenging terrain for expansion: "This is Guizhou – you open the door, you have to climb a mountain," says one resident. But its boundaries are expanding north, south, east and west. There are cranes everywhere and scores of developments thrusting into the skyline, their names – Dreamland, Sky Acropolis – as lofty as their dimensions.

China's current five-year plan (for the years 2011-2015) predicts the national rate of urbanization to reach 51.5 percent, and even that may prove to be a low estimate. The plan also calls for the creation of 45 million jobs in urban areas.

But the shift of Chinese workers from rural to urban areas is not a smooth or equitable process. Hukou, the long-held household registration system meant to limit the migration of families, hasn’t kept rural Chinese from moving to take advantage of opportunities in rapidly growing cities. But it has kept them from obtaining the rights and privileges of urban dwellers. This is a cycle of poverty that seems unlikely to break soon. And as China’s cities continue to urbanize and their populations continue to grow, the problems caused by this urban-rural stratification are likely to grow right along with them.

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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