34 Growing urban China – at what cost?

Brooke Wilmsen, La Trobe University, Australia

China is the world’s largest urban nation with in excess of 700 million urbanites (World Bank, 2014). Its urban trajectory is unprecedented with some 250 million people expected to migrate to cities over the next two decades (World Bank, 2014). In 2011, the proportion of China’s urban population overtook its rural population for the first time in history (Gong, Liang et al. 2012). This dramatic rate of urbanisation is no accident; the Chinese Government is actively pursuing the expansion of its urban areas in an effort to maintain its extraordinary rates of economic growth.

China is transforming from an export-led growth economy to a consumption-driven economy and to do this it needs consumers. According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, people in urban areas consume more than five times as much as their rural counterparts (Zheng, 2013). So China’s primary producers will become its new consumers. The aim is for urbanites to find more stable and higher paid employment in cities to increase their capacity to spend. This chapter asks if rapid urbanisation is the key to stable economic growth over the coming decades, what are the costs?

Growing urban China

Rural to urban migration has fuelled the dramatic rates of urbanisation seen in China. Recent estimates suggest that by 2010 over 220 million rural people had migrated to cities (that is, for more than 6 months) (National Bureau of Statistics of China in (Akay, Giulietti et al., 2014)). What’s more, rural to urban migration accounted for 56% of urban population growth between 2000 and 2010 (World Bank, 2014, p.88). For the majority of such migrants, relocation is a response to perceived opportunities in urban areas relative to those in the village. In this there is freedom – an element of choice in whether to stay in their rural homes or gamble on an urban life.

There is also a lesser-known driver of urbanisation in China. Large swathes of land are being enclosed by cities. Some 35% of urban population growth between 2000 and 2010 was due to the reclassification of rural areas to urban (World Bank, 2014, p.88). Unlike rural to urban migration, the incorporation of rural residents into an urban area is not self-determined. Instead, a privileged few make key decisions that lead to the reclassification of the village as urban. The decision makers are those who stand to gain most from the transfer of land from rural to urban status – normally powerful land developers and local government. In the process, ruralites are forced to become urbanites.

Forced urbanisation

Forced urbanisation is forbidden in China (Bai, Shi et al., 2014). Even so, Li (2011, p.2) claims that, over the past 20 years, urban sprawl has devoured some four million hectares of land, including the farmland of some 50 million farmers. Between 2001 and 2010, 1.23 million hectares was acquired which affected 26.5 million farmers (McDowell and Morrell, 2010).

However, there are also less obvious routes to forcibly advancing urbanisation. For example, the displacement of people to make way for the construction of development projects, such as dams, can involve reorganising what is rural into what is urban. Rural people can be concentrated together and relocated into high-rise buildings to free up land for such constructions in the name of development. In China this is becoming a common response in areas where farmland is limited and it is difficult to provide enough replacement farmland to support rural resettlement. With the next revision of the Land Administration Law it is likely that rural to urban resettlement will become general practice.

Add to this the purchase of farmland. One of the announcements made at the Third Plenary of the 18th Chinese Community Party Central Committee in 2013 was that rural people can now sell their rural construction land (see Wilmsen (forthcoming)). The gradual release of rural land into the marketplace will presumably expedite urbanisation by enabling land dispossession under the fog of a market transaction. Rural people become easy fodder for developers expanding cities – the terms of such transactions are negotiated across asymmetrical relationships of power that maximise the gains to developers.

Questioning sustainability

China’s plan for rapid urbanisation is a threat to its environment and the health of its people. Large parts of northern China are already suffering from acute water shortages so plans to increase people concentrated in cities will only add to the stresses on the already struggling system. The air quality in urban China and water pollution already contributes to diseases in urban and rural areas (Gong, Liang et al., 2012). Add to this China’s congested motorways, inefficient energy use and the inequalities already facing rural-urban migrants (for example disparities in access to health-care, vaccination coverage and accidents and injuries (Gong, Liang et al., 2012)) and the urban project is easily problematised.

Rural lives and livelihoods are already affected by China’s rapid urbanisation. Rural to urban migration encourages the creation of mono-functional agricultural systems and decreases rural food self-sufficiency and diversification amongst ruralites (Siciliano, 2012). Moreover, the exodus of the young and educated to cities leaves the older residents to do the farming. As urbanisation is expedited and in many cases forced, the long-term sustainability of the rural environment and village life is uncertain.

An opportunity to plan for sustainable urbanisation

Notwithstanding the criticisms and concerns about the term “sustainable urbanisation” (itself an oxymoron), the risks outlined above can also be opportunities. Although urbanisation is rapid, the long-term view of the Chinese government allows time to plan. In growing its medium sizes cities, China can prevent the kinds of problems already plaguing its mega-cities. It can support low carbon living, provide increased green space, reduce transport needs and use natural resources more efficiently. The State Council can set about building the required regulatory and institutional frameworks so that the administration is held accountable.

China has an opportunity to work more openly and inclusively with its residents to balance their preferences, environmental costs and the needs of future generations in its forward plans. It can reduce barriers to migration (such as the household registration system) so that people can freely respond to opportunities in cities. In this way, forced urbanisation can be avoided and people can determine their own futures. To this end, there is hope. In its National New Type Urbanisation Plan released in March 2014, China mentioned that in setting government targets is would emphasise the principle of sustainability and people centred approaches (Bai, Shi et al., 2014). However, for those who dream of an urban life or to remain in the village, until the detail is released it is a case of wait and see.


Akay, A., C. Giulietti, J. D. Robalino and K. F. Zimmermann (2014). “Remittances and well-being among rural-to-urban migrants in China.” Review of Economics of the Household 12(3): 517-546.

Bai, X., P. Shi and Y. Liu (2014). “Society: Realizing China’s urban dream.” Nature 509(7499): 158-160.

Gong, P., S. Liang, E. J. Carlton, Q. Jiang, J. Wu, L. Wang and J. V. Remais (2012). “Urbanisation and health in China.” The Lancet 379(9818): 843-852.

Li, X. (2011). “Farmland grabs by urban sprawl and their impacts on peasants’ livelihood in China: an overview.”   Retrieved 7 April, 2014, from https://www.motherjones.com/files/li_xiubin.pdf.

McDowell, C. and G. Morrell (2010). Non-Conflict Displacement: Challenges for the 21st Century. Oxford, Berghahn Books.

Siciliano, G. (2012). “Urbanization strategies, rural development and land use changes in China: A multiple-level integrated assessment.” Land Use Policy 29(1): 165-178.

World Bank (2014). Urban China: Toward efficient, inclusive and sustainable urbanisation. Beijing, World Bank and The Development Research Center of the State Council, The People’s Republic of China.

Wilmsen, B. (forthcoming). “Reshaping rural China through land acquisition and land reforms.” Journal of Contemporary China.

Zheng, L. (2013). “China Rural-Income Gains Aid Shift Toward Consumption.”   Retrieved 30 March, 2015, from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-01-29/china-rural-income-gains-aid-shift-toward-consumption.

Author Biography

Brooke Wilmsen is a Research Fellow in the Department of Social Inquiry at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia. She is predominantly interested in the issues of displacement and settlement and works in a variety of contexts. She is currently undertaking a longitudinal study of those displaced by the Three Gorges Dam in China funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award.

Contact email: b.wilmsen@latrobe.edu.au

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