The rising stars of urban growth in China

The unbridled and three-dimensional development of Chinese cities is spectacular. It has been initially concentrated in the coastal area, since the economic reorientation of the Chinese economy and its productive system has at first been based on export-oriented manufacturing. The coastal cities, more open to the World than the central and western ones, have provided leverages for this development. Their driving role has been strongly reinforced by the creation of the Special Economic Zones (SEZ) since the 1980’s, firstly implanted in this area. However, the recent evolution of the Chinese economy and society could shift the scheme of an economic development based on coastal cities, and the current highest growth could be very different from the cities growth economic potential. A typology of the demographic trajectories of Chinese cities from 1982 to 2010 (Swerts & Liao, 2016) including all cities above 10 000 inhabitants according to an harmonized definition (Swerts, 2013) highlighted that cities whose demographic weight increases in the Chinese system are not only located in the East coast, but also in Central and Western China (figure 1). In terms of size categories, the most dynamic Chinese cities were both million plus cities and small cities (from 10,000 to 100,000 inhabitants).

The fastest growing small towns are mostly located at short distances of about 200 km around the largest metropolises. The increasing weight of some small towns and the stability of some large cities, as well as the current development of the Central and Western cities, could partly result from the strong emergence of an internal market, the increasing role of the tertiary sector in the Chinese economy and the more frequent creation of SEZ in Central and Western part of the country since the 1990’s. On the other hand, while the development of Chinese cities is highly linked to the evolution of the administrative system (Ma, 2005; Lin, 2005), the Chinese government has decreed successive decentralization reforms. These reforms could have fostered the economic development of the prefecture level cities and of the district level cities, the smallest ones.

Fig. 1. Trajectories of the Chinese cities from 1982 to 2010 (ChinaCities database, Swerts, 2013)Trajectories Chinese Cities 1982-2010

These changes could also generate long-term transformations of the functional organization of the Chinese urban system: including the expansion of the tertiary sector and the diversification of the cities’ economy and a strongest development of industrial activities out of the Eastern coast. The cities of the central and western part of China are mostly cities whose economy is diversified, some of them with an overrepresentation of manufacturing activities, and others that are mostly cities of less than 100,000 inhabitants, with an overrepresentation of tertiary activities (figure 2). Nowadays, the economic profile of the most dynamic cities is very diversified. The strongest potential for economic growth could thus shift from the Eastern coast to all over the country, although a strong growth still remains a characteristic of industrial coastal cities, in particular those in the Yangzi river delta, the Pearl River Delta and the area around Beijing.

Fig. 2. Functional specialization of Chinese Cities in 2000 (ChinaCities databases, Swerts, 2013)Functional spcecialisation Chinese Cities

International newspapers recently pointed out nine cities that reflect the strong potential of development of western and central cities, including a few non-metro cities. These cities are Chongqing (7.3 millions of inhabitants), Chengdu (6.4 million), Zhengzhou (4.1 million), Guiyang (2.4 million), Huainan (1.4 million), Xiangyyang (1.1 million), Suqian (274,594), Hengyang (165,824) and Zhuozhou (152,709). They are all cases illustrating the spatial deconcentration of the Chinese economic development (Fig. 2 &, as all are located in the Central and Western part of China (Fig 3).

Fig.3. Chinese rising stars?Chinese Rising Stars

These cities are very different in size, from some 150,000 inhabitants to more than 7 millions. This diversity is representative of the dynamics primed in China since the 1980’s. Some of these cities are province capitals, as Chengdu and Zhengzhou – and the Province level city Chongqing. The others cities are located between 50 and 250 km from their Province capitals. Zhuozhou excepted, all of them are prefecture level cities. In average, the Chinese cities annual growth rate between 1982 and 2010 is 3.3 % while the annual growth rate of these cities vary from 2% (Guiyang) to more than 5% (Chongqing or Suqian).

Tabl.1Chinese Rising Stars Table

These nine cities all have a diversified economy with an overrepresentation of the innovative tertiary sector, Huaibei and Hengyang excepted. In Huaibei, 40% of the employed population (source ChinaCities) is engaged in manufacturing activities, whereas 22% of the employed population of Hengyang is engaged in manufacturing, and 23% in building industry. This last city’s economy may be not so sustainable. From an investor point of view, urban growth rates over 4 or 5% or even 10% are attractive, but it is well known that rapid urban growth always occur with high fluctuations in space and time. Knowledge about deliberate national policies may help to secure predictions but more detailed information about the evolution of economic profiles on comparative basis also may enlighten further perspectives.

Elfie Swerts

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.