The rapid urbanization of China: from under 20% to over 50% of the population in cities in thirty years

Much change has occurred in China in recent years and here is one of the big ones: more than 50% of residents are living in cities, up from less than 20% in 1980.

FOR a nation whose culture and society have been shaped over millennia by its rice-, millet- and wheat-farming traditions, and whose ruling Communist Party rose to power in 1949 by mobilising a put-upon peasantry and encircling the cities, China has just passed a remarkable milestone. By the end of 2011, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, more than half of China’s 1.35 billion people were living in cities.

Demographers had seen this moment coming. The 2010 census showed the differential between town and country to be within a mere few tenths of a percentage point. And yet it is still a remarkable turnaround. In 1980 fewer than a fifth of Chinese lived in cities, a smaller urban proportion than in India or Indonesia. Over the next ten years the government remained wary of free movement, even as it made its peace with free enterprise. Touting a policy of “leaving the land but not the villages, entering the factories but not cities”, it sought industrialisation without urbanisation, only to discover that it could not have one without the other.

This is rapid change that affects a lot of social life. It reminds me of the era when sociology emerged in the 1800s where observers started noticing that the move from more rural to more urban life was affecting things like social relationships, social cohesion, governments, and more. Does China have a similar crop of observers thinking through all the effects this rapid urbanization might have?

The article is accompanied by a nice chart comparing China’s urbanization to other regions and countries: it is now ahead of India and South-East Asia though still lagging behind Brazil, the US, and Western Europe. The Census Bureau has tracked the changes in the US in this document (see the bottom of pg. 33): the US first had more than 50% of the population living in central cities and suburbs in 1950, up from 28% in 1910. From the period of this chart (1910 to 2000), the US has not had such rapid change in urbanization as China.

2 thoughts on “The rapid urbanization of China: from under 20% to over 50% of the population in cities in thirty years

  1. Pingback: Sociologist Saskia Sassen on a rapidly urbanizing Lagos | Legally Sociable

  2. Pingback: Tremendous amount of concrete used in China between 2011 and 2013 | Legally Sociable

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