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MERICS China Monitor

Cramped living space: China’s megacities

At first glance the map is hardly surprising: the 42 cities where more than two million people live are located almost exclusively in the economically prosperous coastal provinces. Once the additional 42 cities with between one and two million inhabitants are factored in, the map starts to look a bit more cramped. 

But it is something else that is the real surprise: in the world’s most populous country, the proportion of the overall population living in cities has grown since the beginning of the policy of reform and opening up in 1978 from about only 17 percent to around 52 percent in 2012.

In this respect, the map reflects two central aspects of Chinese urbanisation policy:

Firstly, only half of the city dwellers (27.6% of the overall population) are actually registered in the place where they live, yet it is only these registered residents who are officially recorded as living in the city, as was recently confirmed by a study conducted at the renowned Tsinghua University in Beijing. The reason for this is the Chinese system of registration (the hukou system), which combines registering in an urban district with certain conditions (such as income level).  
Today, the main aim of the hukou system is to keep farmers bound to their rural residences, that is to say their plots of land, in order to ensure continued agricultural practice and thus an adequate supply of food. In the absence of a rural pension insurance system, the farmers’ leased land also serves as provision for old age. At the same time, the system seeks to protect urban resources from being overburdened (for example, through ghettoisation). The Chinese government has already virtually abolished the hukou system for smaller towns. However, the idea of abolishing the system for all cities is hugely controversial.

Secondly, China’s urbanisation strategy has long promoted the development of megacities. As the map shows, the overwhelming majority of registered city dwellers live in cities with populations of more than a million. Recently, the Chinese government intensified its efforts to urbanise rural areas, including in central and western China. According to official statistics, China had around 2,160 small and medium-sized cities by the end of 2009. In the Chinese context, “small” means between 100,000 and 500,000 inhabitants.

  • Stiftung Mercator