A Second Look at China’s Urbanization

In the minds of any who have traveled or lived in China, the word “urbanization” conjures up familiar images: endless processions of taxis clogging narrow streets, construction cranes towering over centuries-old temples and city gates, peasant migrants swarming around crowded train and bus depots, and quaint hutongs giving way to towering skyscrapers, each one taller and more imposing than the next.

These pictures aptly symbolize the collision of modernization and tradition taking place in cities across China. Yet China’s rapid urbanization has another look as well.

Ten years ago Pudong was little more than farmland and low-rise housing across the river from China’s quintessential metropolis, Shanghai. Today Pudong is a showcase of China’s economic success and, with its new airport and state-of-the-art communications facilities, an important interface with the rest of the world.

Pudong is the crowning achievement of a unique urbanization strategy, described in this issue of ChinaSource, which creates new cities from the ground up in order to alleviate pressure on China’s existing cities and to spread the benefits of modernization more evenly among its population.

According to an urban planning official in Shanghai’s Pudong area, social change in these new cities takes place in three stages, all three of which have obvious implications for witness and service in urban China.

Urbanization itself is the process of creating the environment in which hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people will live and work. Rather than wait and see where these new cities spring up, we should be proactively seeking out opportunities to be involved in the urbanization process as it occurs.

Industrialization in China’s new cities is primarily high-tech. Entrepreneurial youth are learning the latest in cyber technology to create an increasingly connected world. Who will connect with them, and how?

Globalization, the last step in the process, is moving China toward greater economic integration with the outside world. In Pudong, joint ventures account for a large part of the area’s economic growth, one-third of these projects being financed by overseas Chinese. Cultural integration is also occurring, making the emerging generation of urbanites seem remarkably similar to those in cities around the world. This growing cultural similarity provides new bridges of communication and understanding, but with these come the materialistic mindset, moral ambiguity, and philosophical relativism commonly found in other urban centers.

This is the other face of China’s urbanization. Today’s village is becoming the city of tomorrow. How we look at urbanization now may well determine whether it will be “a city on a hill” or yet another arena where, in the words of missiologist Roger S. Greenway, “the fiercest battles for minds and hearts are waged on city streets.”[1]


  1. ^ Roger S. Greenway, “Introduction” in Harvie M. Conn, Ed., Planting and Growing Urban Churches (Grand Rapids: Baker Books) 1997, p. 17.
Image credit: Journal Entry (Joel Montes de Oca) by Chris Lott, on Flickr
Share to Social Media
Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio