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Unpacking China’s Cities

The unprecedented wave of urbanization that has reshaped China since the 1990s often brings to mind Beijing’s glitzy malls and massive construction projects, or the crowded factory communities surrounding Shanghai or Shenzhen.

While these common images do convey some of the current reality, they do not begin to express the complexity of China’s urban landscape. As this new Brookings study shows, all Chinese cities are not created equal: “While China’s cities are at the frontier of global growth, many of them are still little known to the world. And in a country this large, there is no one ‘city type.’”

To illustrate the differences between China’s megacities, the study looks at employment and per capita GDP over time. The result is a five-part typology, with the “giants” of Beijing and Shanghai at one of the spectrum and the rustbelt cities of northeast China at the other. In between are “anchor” cities that serve as transportation and technology hubs, “service” cities, and “industry” cities.

Examining the data more closely, several trends emerge that help fill out the contours of China’s urbanization and provide a sense of what the cities will look like in the future.

Interior Migration

Over the past decade migration to Beijing and Shanghai has been in decline, with smaller interior cities becoming more attractive. The high cost of living in the largest cities contributes to this shift, along with government incentives that promote the development of industries in the interior and population caps in Beijing and Shanghai.

Service Sector Growth

As China moves from being the world’s factory floor to focusing on industries higher up the value chain, the service sector continues to grow. The “service” cities in the Brookings study have exhibited the highest growth in employment since 2006. Many of these cities had been industrial hubs but have managed to retool as centers of financial services and e-commerce.

Closing the Gap

While all cities may not be created equal, the wealth gap between China’s mega metropolises and smaller cities is gradually closing. As the study points out, “While Beijing and Shanghai still get most of the headlines, they no longer serve as the main engines of national economic growth .”  Since 2000, GDP per capita in 101 cities rose twice as fast as in the two “giants.”

China’s urbanization today is less about the largest cities that often make the headlines, and more about a host of smaller, yet faster growing, metropolises that will be home to the majority of Chinese in the coming decades. While only 50 Chinese cities figured into the world’s top 300 largest metropolitan economies in 2014, today more than a third of these economies are found in China. This proportion may be expected to increase as more Chinese cities emerge as major population centers and hubs of economic growth.

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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

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