Recently, my favorite remote sensing site (Earth Snapshot) released the below image taken at night over eastern, coastal China (People’s Republic of). Its a striking visualization of the extent of urbanization in the PRC, not to mention the almost continual stretch of development along one side of the island of Taiwan, which hosts the Republic of China. The upper (northern) urban areas are Shanghai and Hangzhou, the former being the largest city in China. The southern area is the former British dependency of Hong Kong.
Despite the size of the PRC’s urban areas, only a little more than half of the country’s 1.3 billion persons resides in cities, compared to rural areas, based on 2013 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Bloomberg news reported in January 2012 (based on 2011 data) that China’s population had just flipped from being primarily rural to urban. While a worthy news even in of itself, it is particularly significant considering that rural dwellers represented 81% of the population in 1979. Further, the growth in urban areas has really come since 1979 – as Bloomberg points out, the proportion of rural-urban proportion decreased about 9 percentages points between 1949 and 1979. Of course, Mao Zedong was in control of the People’s Republic of China during practically all of this time. It was he who undertook the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, both programs emphasized the rural character of the country at the expense of the nascent urbanity.
One wonders to what extent these programs were “rewards” for the rural population’s support of Mao during the Chinese Civil War. Other academics have pointed out, that Mao’s initial communist rebellion failed because he attempted to fully replicate the Russian model in the sense that it began in the cities. After Mao’s initial failure he shifted his strategy to the countryside.
Now most mainland Chinese live in the cities, where they earn three times more than their rural counterparts, but rural incomes have grown faster than urban ones. The challenge now, as Bloomberg correctly points out, is properly managing this quickly expanding urban population. An explosion in the urban population necessarily requires a commensurate increase in the infrastructure and services that this population requires: food, water, shelter, education, employment, and other things. While the PRC has reaped the benefits of a quickly expanding urban population (in terms of income generation for the state), it remains to be seen what will happen when the economy slows.