China’s urbanisation developments cause mass movement of people

China is in the midst of the largest urbanisation effort in human history. This is being carried out in a variety of different ways

Chenggong, a mostly uninhabited satellite city located south of Kunming, China. Rural to urban migration has been a constant in all industrialising economies, but never before to the scale seen in China today 

For thousands of years, the vast majority of Chinese people lived in rural areas. While the emperors held their seats in powerful cities, the ordinary people toiled in the countryside. Rural China was also instrumental in the official story of how the Chinese Communist Party assumed power, with Chairman Mao’s strategy being to build up strength in the countryside before surrounding the cities. Now, however, it is the cities that are increasingly surrounding the countryside.

Chinese urbanisation has triggered the biggest movement of people in history. Rural to urban migration has been a constant in all industrialising economies – from the forced enclosures of early modern Britain, to the creation of slums rimming Latin American cities in the 20th century – but never has such a large wave of humanity departed the countryside for the city as in China in recent years. When China’s Communist Party leaders assumed power in 1949, only 12 percent of the population lived in urban areas. Since the gradual liberalisation of internal migration and economic growth since the 1980s, just under half of China’s billion-plus population has become urbanised.

300 million more Chinese citizens are expected to join them by 2030 – a figure which will require nearly 1.5 million people, roughly the population of Estonia, to become urbanised every month. Chinese urbanisation, however, is not as straightforward as simple rural to urban movements: while old cities are absorbing China’s newly urbanised population, and new cities are springing up, China is seeing urban growth in other, less conventional ways. There are many aspects of China’s urbanisation to consider when trying understanding the astronomical figures.

Nation reclassification
A large part of the urbanisation that China is experiencing is not coming from any migration at all. Of the hundred of millions of Chinese people that have become urbanised in the past few decades, many have become so through the reclassification of Chinese land. Of the projected 300 million new Chinese urban dwellers, 40 percent are expected to become so without having to leave the area in which they live.

Never has such a large wave of humanity departed the countryside for the city as in China in recent years

As Wade Shepard, in his book Ghost Cities of China, noted, this method of urban development in China is known as ‘chengzenhua’, or townification. This, Shepard wrote, is the “transformation of an existing town or village into a small urban centre. It is not urbanisation in the sense of the creation of a city, but the legal reclassification of an area once classed as rural into urban”.

According to The China Story, chengzenhua urbanisation consists of four major components, as sanctioned by the state: “Converting collective land ownership to state ownership; converting the rural household registrations of villagers into urban registrations; reassigning social services provided by village collectives to selected municipal bureaus; and redeveloping villages according to the urban spatial planning regime.”

While this sort of urbanisation is much less intense than that associated with images of concrete tower blocks being erected at breakneck speeds, it is – and will be – much more widespread and in many ways is more experimental and radical. “Rather than migrating to the cities, the cities will literally come to them”, Shepard observed. “This is perhaps one of the largest social experiments that has been played out in human history.”

Cities within cities
Another unusual aspect of Chinese urbanisation is the creation of what amount sub-cities, within the boundaries of existing cities. These new outskirts cities are often larger than many major cities in the West.

For instance, Zhengdong New District is an urban area the size of San Francisco. By 2020, Shepard noted, it will be home to five million people. Founded at the start of the century, and kicked off with $25bn of state funding in 2003, Zhengdong New District seems to have all the hallmarks of an emerging city. Yet a city, in the traditional sense, it is not. Rather, it is an appendage of an even larger city, Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province.

Zhengzhou is a city of 11 million people and is growing by nearly 10 percent every year, largely as a result of China’s great rural to urban migration. The city itself is old, although it has gone through a number of transformations over the centuries. As this historic city is stretched to its limits, new urban areas such as Zhengdong New District offer an opportunity to relieve some of the pressures of constant expansion. According to Shepard, such new areas on the outskirts of historic cities are acting “as modern, better functioning, car-friendly complements of existing cities”.

Shepard added: “Municipalities all across China are doubling down and building newer versions of themselves.” For instance, Shanghai has developed Pudong, home to five million inhabitants, in a similar fashion, while Tianjin has its Binhai New Area and Changsha has its new eco-city Meixi Lake City. In China, a “twin city paradigm” is emerging, according to James Von Klemperer, designer of Meixi Lake City.

As noted, the increased strain on old cities is seeing these new zones spring up on municipal outskirts. However, it would be a mistake to think of these areas as the sites of migration for new populations pouring in from the countryside. Rather, it is the wealthy citizens in the old historic centres who are moving out to the new urban developments, leaving the crowded centres of historic cities to incoming migrants.

Land grab
China itself isn’t exactly lacking in land, but, as Shephard noted, “along with manufacturing new cities, China is also manufacturing the land that some of them are built on”. For instance, the city of Gansu Province in north-west China, home to over three million people, is sandwiched on narrow 50km strip of land, between the Yellow River and a mountain range. According to News China Magazine, this has caused trouble for its expansion: “It has been suffering from a severe shortage of usable land for years. The city’s airport, for example, had to be built 75km from the downtown area.”

“At present, only 1.3 square kilometres of land is available each year for urban construction in Lanzhou, the smallest area of any city throughout the country. Given the current pace of urbanisation, Lanzhou will have no land for construction within five years”, Li Changjiang, Vice-Director of the Lanzhou Land Resources Bureau, told News China Magazine. As a result, the city has been engaged in a number of plans aimed at levelling and reclaiming land from the surrounding mountains. At the same time, Chinese urbanisation is reclaiming land from the sea. One example among many is Nanhui New City, a new urban area being built within Pudong that is planned to be complete by 2020 and is already home to over half a million people. Built at the tip of the peninsula between the Yangtze and Qiantang rivers, a large part of this new urban development was reclaimed from the sea.

Future towns
Many of China’s new urban builds have been mistakenly labelled ‘ghost cities’, due to the relatively small number of people currently populating them. Reporters from various news outlets have ventured into recently built urban districts or cities, filming eerie footage of seemingly abandoned and uninhabited neighbourhoods. Gazing upon the formidable tower blocks and lonely, wide streets, with scarcely a person in sight, the conclusion is often that China’s urbanisation efforts are in serious trouble.

Yet, in reality, these new cities are not ghost cities: they are yet to be inhabited. These new urban centres are expected to eventually be filled up with new dwellers, looking for city-style homes and lifestyles. Construction on many of these only began in the 2000s; just a decade ago they did not exist. Most of those currently unoccupied were always expected to be so at this moment in time. Most outlines for the construction of new areas put the timeline for completion at 19 to 22 years, noted Shepard. As a result, many are only at mid-development level. As Shepard wrote: “All of the new cities, towns and districts that have been heralded as ghost cities in the international media are just that: new.”

China is in the midst of an extraordinary transition in many ways. Since the 1980s, the country has racked up a number of impressive achievements: the largest amount of people raised out of poverty, unprecedented levels of economic growth, and the largest movement of people from countryside to city – and on the back of all this, it is undertaking the greatest urbanisation project in human history. By 2020, one in eight people in the world will live in a Chinese city.