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China Urbanization
Sources: The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook
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    In 1987 China had a total of twenty-nine provincial-level administrative units directly under the central government in Beijing. In addition to the twenty-one provinces (sheng), there were five autonomous regions (zizhiqu) for minority nationalities, and three special municipalities (shi)--the three largest cities, Shanghai, Beijing, and Tianjin. (The establishment of Hainan Island as a provincial-level unit separate from Guangdong Province was scheduled to take place in 1988.) A 1979 change in provincial-level administrative boundaries in the northeast region restored Nei Monggol Autonomous Region to its original size (it had been reduced by a third in 1969) at the expense of Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning provinces. Urban areas were further subdivided into lower-level administrative units beginning with municipalities and extending down to the neighborhood level (see Local Administration , ch. 10).

    The pace of urbanization in China from 1949 to 1982 was relatively slow because of both rapid growth of the rural population and tight restrictions on rural-urban migration for most of that period. According to the 1953 and 1982 censuses, the urban population as a percentage of total population increased from 13.3 to 20.6 percent during that period. From 1982 to 1986, however, the urban population increased dramatically to 37 percent of the total population. This large jump resulted from a combination of factors. One was the migration of large numbers of surplus agricultural workers, displaced by the agricultural responsibility system, from rural to urban areas (see Agricultural Policies , ch. 6). Another was a 1984 decision to broaden the criteria for classifying an area as a city or town. During 1984 the number of towns meeting the new urban criteria increased more than twofold, and the urban town population doubled. In the mid-1980s demographers expected the proportion of the population living in cities and towns to be around 50 percent by the turn of the century. This urban growth was expected to result primarily from the increase in the number of small- and medium-sized cities and towns rather than from an expansion of existing large cities.

    China's statistics regarding urban population sometimes can be misleading because of the various criteria used to calculate urban population. In the 1953 census, urban essentially referred to settlements with populations of more than 2,500, in which more than 50 percent of the labor force were involved in nonagricultural pursuits. The 1964 census raised the cut-off to 3,000 and the requirement for nonagricultural labor to 70 percent. The 1982 census used the 3,000/70 percent minimum but introduced criteria of 2,500 to 3,000 and 85 percent as well. Also, in calculating urban population, the 1982 census made a radical change by including the agricultural population residing within the city boundaries. This explains the dramatic jump in urban population from the 138.7 million reported for year-end 1981 to the 206.6 million counted by the 1982 census. In 1984 the urban guidelines were further loosened, allowing for lower minimum population totals and nonagricultural percentages. The criteria varied among provinciallevel units.

    Although China's urban population--382 million, or 37 percent of the total population in the mid-1980s--was relatively low by comparison with developed nations, the number of people living in urban areas in China was greater than the total population of any country in the world except India and the Soviet Union. The four Chinese cities with the largest populations in 1985 were Shanghai, with 7 million; Beijing, with 5.9 million; Tianjin, with 5.4 million; and Shenyang, with 4.2 million. The disproportionate distribution of population in large cities occurred as a result of the government's emphasis after 1949 on the development of large cities over smaller urban areas. In 1985 the 22 most populous cities in China had a total population of 47.5 million, or about 12 percent of China's total urban population. The number of cities with populations of at least 100,000 increased from 200 in 1976 to 342 in 1986 (see table 8, Appendix A).

    In 1987 China was committed to a three-part strategy to control urban growth: strictly limiting the size of big cities (those of 500,000 or more people); developing medium-sized cities (200,000 to 500,000); and encouraging the growth of small cities (100,000 to 200,000). The government also encouraged the development of small market and commune centers that were not then officially designated as urban places, hoping that they eventually would be transformed into towns and small cities. The big and medium-sized cities were viewed as centers of heavy and light industry, and small cities and towns were looked on as possible locations for handicraft and workshop activities, using labor provided mainly from rural overflow.

    Data as of July 1987

    NOTE: The information regarding China on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies and the CIA World Factbook. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of China Urbanization information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about China Urbanization should be addressed to the Library of Congress and the CIA.

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Revised 10-Nov-04
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