Originally Published 2011-06-06 00:00:00 Published on Jun 06, 2011
With its transition from a middle income to a developed country, China is facing several challenges. Inconsistent and changing categories of administrative divisions create problems in the governance of urban centres.
Urbanisation in China in the Light of the Latest Census
Metropolitan areas have been the drivers of growth in China. Nevertheless, the extent to which these areas can support the rapidly increasing urban population is questionable in the near future. Larger cities have grown beyond the boundaries of the "city proper" to encompass parts of suburban districts. Achieving acceptable standards of environment quality, provision of infrastructure needed by residents and firms, providing public services to all residents including migrants form major challenges for metropolitan regions. The urban population in China has been on a massive upward surge. It started increasing particularly since 1976. The policy of reform and opening up initiated by Deng Xiaoping led to greater mobility of people due to newly unleashed forces of marketisation. The processes of natural increase, migration and the change in the definition of 'urban' have been responsible for the increase.

The latest census of 2010 shows that the total population of China is 1.34 billion and the total urban population is 665.57 million. In the period between 2025- 2050, an urban increment of 1.7 billion people is projected globally, with India making a contribution of 352 million, and China making 186 million. By 2050, China is expected to still have the largest urban population which will be about one billion, and the urbanisation rate is expected to rise to 73.2 per cent. The proportion of urban population in China more than doubled in the period 1980- 2010, rising from 19 per cent to almost 50 per cent. This is expected to reach 59 per cent in 2025.

Annual urban growth rate was 3.5 per cent in 1991, but after Deng Xiaoping's tour of south China in 1992, which led to the setting up of Special Economic Zones, a rise in urban growth rate was witnessed. The urban growth rate was 4.8 per cent in 1992 and this reached 5.9 per cent in 1994.

The report on World Urbanization Prospects, 2010, stated that out of all cities across the globe, China alone has 25 per cent of the cities with at least half a million inhabitants in each city. Because of greater mobility, the number of cities increased from 467 in 1990 to 654 in 2009. During some years the number of cities declined, while in others the number of cities remained constant or increased. For example, there were 663 cities in 2000, and this reduced to 662 in 2001. This further declined by two cities in 2002, and remained constant in the next year. Similarly between 2005- 07 a decrease of five cities is noted1. The decline is attributable to the changing definition of 'urban' in China.

The criteria used by the State Council to officially define the establishment of cities and towns have undergone major changes at least five times. Basically, urban places with a clustered population of more than 1,00,000 can be established as "designated cities". Also, urban places with a population of less than 1,00,000 may acquire the same status provided there are important mining and industrial bases, seats of province level state government agencies, relatively large centers for distribution and collection of goods or cities in important areas such as border regions. Urban places with seats of county level or above state government agencies or with a clustered population of 3000 of which 70 per cent or more are from the non agricultural population may be established as "designated towns"2.

In terms of the population size during 2005, the number of cities with population of more than ten million was two. Cities with population between five to ten million were six. There were 61 cities with population between one to five million, and 90 with population between 50,000 to one million3. As of 2010, there were 52 cities with population of more than two million and 162 cities with a population of more than one million.

Shanghai's population, the largest in the country stands at 23.02 million, while that of the capital Beijing stands at 19.6 million. Guangzhou and Shenzhen in Guangdong province have populations of 15 million and 14 million respectively. The province registered the fastest increase in population in the past decade, and the rate of increase is about 37.5 per cent.

China's transition from a middle income to a developed country is just beginning. With respect to population and urbanisation, the country faces several challenges. Inconsistent and changing categories of administrative divisions create problems in the governance of urban centers. Also, adjustments are needed in the following realms:

Housing: In order to understand the problems of access to housing due to rapid urbanisation, the case of Shanghai is noteworthy. Shanghai is the largest city and the leading industrial centre in the country. The housing markets in the city account for more than 25 per cent of the country's total residential property value. House prices in some parts of the city are comparable with those in some of the most expensive cities of the world. Affordability to housing remains an issue of concern for inhabitants, as the prices of houses are about thirty to forty times the average family's annual income. Housing prices in Shanghai and Beijing doubled in less than four years before the global financial crisis and climbed steeply again in 2010, even though the central government ordered tightenings on the market. The city is already characterised by low scale high density housing. Rapid urbanisation has led to large scale commercial activities in almost every street, further leading to problems of traffic congestion and pollution.

Migration: Estimates of the migrant population range from 140 million to over 200 million in the country. Close to 70 per cent of the estimated 130 to 150 million rural migrants work in informal sector activities. Rural migrants rely on wages earned in goods production for cash remittances.In 2005, rural migrants remitted over US$ 30 million from urban export processing areas to their inland rural homes. This contributed about 18- 50 per cent of the total rural income.4 However, migrants are the first ones to be laid off in the events of crises. Migrants lack access to public facilities such as education and health due to their registration in their places of origin. This type of segregation in urban areas of rural migrants leads to a rural- urban divide and is detrimental to furthering harmonious development.

Household Registration: The place where a person is registered is of extreme significance in China as it decides the entitlements a person has. Also, the household responsibility system causes impediments to the movements of labour which is essential in the process of urbanisation. Surplus rural labour cannot be transferred to the non agricultural sectors in the urban society due to the existence of such a system. More changes are required in this realm in order to further the process of urbanization.

Access to health care: From 1979 Shanghai became the first city in the country to enter the aging society, with more than 20 per cent people, i.e. around 2.8 million people over 60 years old5. Currently, the city has nearly 3000 hospitals and clinics. Nevertheless, the location of public hospitals restricts access, leading to an uneven distribution of medical resources, and a need for better coverage is felt.

Some areas to which attention has been given in recent times are wage increases, improving access to housing, housing prices and relaxing policies on household registration. Nevertheless the impact of recent policy initiatives has to be carefully measured and monitored if the nation has to cope up with the rapidly increasing levels of urbanisation.

(The author is a Junior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

1 China Statistical Yearbooks, National Bureau of Statistics, CIA World Fact book, World Bank statistics.
2 Kam Wing Chan and Ying Hu, "Urbanization in China in the 1990s: New Definition, Different Series and Revised Trends", The China Review, Vol. 3, No.2, Fall 2003, pp 49-71.
3 Lamia Kamal- Chaoui, Edward Leman and Zhang Rufei, "Urban Trends and Policy in China", 2009, OECD Regional Development Working Papers 2009/1.
4 Sara Hsu, Shiyin Jiang, and Halcott Heyward, "The Global Crisis' Impact Upon China's Rural Migrants", Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, Vol. 39, No.2, 2010, pp 167- 185.
5 "Current Situation and Future Development of Healthcare in Shanghai", Shanghai Flash, Issue No.1, March 2009.

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