The first image of functional specializations among Chinese urban agglomerations

Until now the industrial landscape of urban China was described only for the 647 “cities” as they were officially named (shi). Thanks to the ChinaCities data base built by Elfie Swerts using standardized delineation of urban agglomerations (that are thus comparable with other urban entities similarly defined in other regions in the world) it is now possible to provide a general view of employment profiles 1peculiarities within the whole Chinese urban system.

As in other countries in every part of the world, the major difference among cities’ roles in Chinese economy is between “central places” ensuring the provision of services to the local and surrounding population together with the politico-administrative territorial control, and the manufacturing centers producing material goods.

Central places (in blue on the map) are disseminated according to a rather regular pattern whose density follows roughly the density of population. Among them, the smallest towns (in dark blue color) are relatively more specialized in services with a low share of their employment in other sectors, whereas the largest (in light blue) also include other types of activity, namely manufacturing, construction and real estate that accompany their bursting growth.

On the contrary, cities that are specialized in manufacturing activities with an average proportion of almost two thirds of employment (in red) – a very high ratio for large cities that is today typical of developing countries- are remarkably concentrated along the Eastern coastline, from the Pearl River delta to the Yangtze estuary. Their spatial distribution is mainly explained by the location of the Special Economic Zones since 1978 that generated higher rates of urban growth (6 % per year between 1982 and 2000) compared to the other agglomerations of the urban system (4.5%). A few exceptions are located in more central parts of the country, along the north-south axis and in Ex Manchuria or in the Western desert areas. Most of them are very specialized mining towns with at least 40% of their employment in extractive activities or probably other mono-activity manufacturing centers (Yanbianchaoxianzu and Helong in Jilin province, Qitaihe in Heilongjiang, Tiefa in Liaoning)

This spatial pattern is not surprising, knowing the almost absolute dedication of Chinese manufacturing production to exported goods, but as the cities in question are very large for most of them (1 to 5 millions of inhabitants), this extreme spatial concentration raises interrogation about their further evolution when the internal Chinese market will develop. Which infrastructure and logistic reorganization will allow the re-equilibration of urban development and functional portfolio of Chinese cities in the next coming decades?

Elfie Swerts


  1.  Population figures are computed in the Chinacities data base; data about employment in 14 activity sectors are extracted from Chinese census at district level (Source: China data center, University of Michigan). The 14 sectors are following: Mining and Quarrying –  Production and Supply of Electric Power – Gas and Water – Geological Prospecting and Water Conservancy – Manufacturing –  Construction –  Transport, Storage, Postal and Telecommunication Services –  Wholesale & Retail Trade and Catering Services –  Finance and Insurance –  Real Estate –  Social Services – Health Care, Sports and Social Welfare –  Education, Culture and Arts, Radio, Film, Television – Scientific Research and Polytechnic Services – Governments Agencies, Party agencies and Social Organizations.