The rapid pace of development over the past few decades that has made China the world’s second largest economy has also caused another growth explosion–an unprecedented wave of urbanization.
Learn more about China’s 10 largest cities, according to United Nations 2010 metropolitan area estimates, in the slide show below. It should be noted that establishing population count for these cities is notoriously difficult, in part because so many people have migrated within the country.
“China [has moved] one percent of its population from villages to cities every year during the last 30 years, which amounts to a total of 390 million people, larger than the entire population of the U.S.,” Geng Xiao, co-founder of the Urban China Initiative and director of the Columbia Global Center for East Asia in Beijing, said in a email.
By 2025, China is on pace to have 219 cities with more than one million inhabitants and 24 cities with more than five million people, predicted a McKinsey Global Institute report.
“A city with a million people doesn’t necessarily count as a big city in China now,” said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a China expert and history professor at the University of California Irvine. “You can have a city twice the size of San Francisco and it’s seen as smallish.”
Top-tier cities Beijing and Shanghai continue to attract workers to their financial and industrial sectors, and their infrastructures received big boosts from hosting the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 World Expo, respectively. But other less well-known cities, notably Shenzhen, Chongqing and Dongguan are also seeing rapid growth and establishing themselves as manufacturing powers.
The Chinese government was long resistant to people moving within the country, Wasserstrom said, but has had to loosen those controls in order to foster the rapid growth he says has become addictive.
While moving to cities has raised the quality of life for many Chinese people, the large migration has also raised some big issues. Workers have been unable to access some social services, like education, in their new locations, said Kam Wing Chan, a professor in the Center of Studies in Demography and Ecology at the University of Washington. There are also high levels of pollution and environmental degradation in many of China’s booming cities.
One major economic concern that has arisen is a possible housing bubble building in some of the largest cities, Chan said.
“The tremendous speculation of urban housing in China over the last two or three years has pushed a lot of growth in these cities,” he said. About 20 percent of the newly built housing is still unoccupied, according to Chan.
However, one problem that has been largely avoided is the development of large urban slums, said Wasserstrom.
“The worst poverty in China is largely still rural, as opposed to that glaring urban poverty,” he said. “Part of allowing people to work in the cities is…to get some money flowing into the countryside.”
In order to keep up the pace of urbanization China is experiencing, the country would need to move more than 230 million more people to cities in the next 20 years, said Xaio, and all of them would be looking for jobs.
“The Chinese countryside is overburdened with a huge amount of population,” said Chan. “The only way to solve that is to generate jobs in the non-farm sector in these cities.”