How large are Chinese and Indian cities?

Reliable figures of cities’ population sizes are a great and useful by-product of comparative geographical analysis. We have identified which are now the major urban concentrations in the largest two countries of the world. Table 1 below provides the list of the population in top 30 Indian cities in 1981 and 2011 and top 30 Chinese cities in 1982 and 2010. In this table the last column on the right side enables comparing our results with figures that are given in official censuses of each country.

Table 1. Population of the 30 largest cities in India 1981 and 2011 and in China in 1982 and 2010Population 30 largest cities India ChinaSource: E. Swerts, 2013, for India : Indiacities database and Indian census; for ChinaCities database and Chinese Census


Towards mega-cities and megalopolises of a new kind

The multisecular Chinese and Indian urban development that intensified since the 1980’s fascinates the observers, largely because it has produced supersized cities, as Shanghai, Delhi and Beijing counting each around 20 million inhabitants. These cities are and will remain on the list of the 10 largest Urban Agglomerations in the World. They do not yet reach the size of formerly developed urban concentrations around Tokyo (38 millions in 2015 according to the United Nations, 43 according to or even New York (19 millions in 2015 according to the United Nations, 23 according to ) but due to their growth rate it is very likely that during the next decades, gigantic conurbations will organize around them: in China three megalopolises are already forming between Beijing and Tianjin, from Shanghai to Nanjing and between Guangzhou and Hong-Kong (including Shenzhen, Dongguan and Zhuhai) (figure 1). In India, the same could occur around Delhi and Kolkata, and from Mumbai to Pune (figure 2). In Kerala the deviations between our database and the census in tentative sizing the agglomerations of Kochi or Thiruvananthapuram reflects the very peculiar expansion of urbanization in that region, which tend to mix very dense urban and rural areas in a way slightly different from Indonesian or Chinese “desakota” (McGee, 1991).

Figure 1. The 30 Largest Cities in China in 201030 largest cities ChinaSource: Chinacities database, E. Swerts (2013)


Figure 2. The 30 Largest Cities in India in 201130 largest cities IndiaSource: Indiacities database, E. Swerts (2013)


Safer data for research as well

Gigantic efforts have been made by many authors for establishing safer figures on the size of urban agglomerations in a comparable way and avoiding big mistakes as in papers electing Chongqing as the largest “city” in the world. Chongqing was supposed to reach from 32 to 34 million of inhabitants 1 because of a confusion in translating the Chinese word for “municipality” that may indeed denote a “province” (in that case covering 82 300 km2, approximately the size of Austria!) whereas the population of the agglomeration, although already large enough, oscillate between 7 or 10 millions according to different sources.

Of course for comparing cities and assessing dynamic urbanization processes building data base where the size of cities is comparable in time and space is absolutely necessary and this step of the work was duly accomplished in GeoDiverCity’s work, for Europe (Rozenblat, 1992; Guerois et al. 2009), Former Soviet Union (Cottineau, 2014), India (Swerts, 2013), China (Swerts, 2013), United States (Bretagnolle et al., 2015), Brazil (Ignazzi, 2015) and South Africa (Baffi, 2016, Vacchiani-Marcuzzo, 2005). All these data bases will be made freely accessible in due time, including detailed information about their methodology and metadata. The methodology employed by Elfie Swerts for building the data bases on India and China is made explicit in the annex in the full post.

Elfie Swerts

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Singularities of urban systems in China and India

We show for the first time comparable and exhaustive maps of cities for the largest two countries of the world 1. Around year 2000 there represent the precise location of about 11 000 cities above 10 000 inhabitants in China and 7000 in India, regrouping respectively 690 and 380 million of urban citizens (figure 1 and 2).

Two subcontinents of megacities and small towns

A major singularity common to both urban systems when compared to the rest of the world is the combination of huge metropolises with a high density of numerous smaller towns. Each country has at least three megacities above 10 million inhabitants (Shanghai, Beijing, Guanzhou, Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata) and Shanghai and Delhi are even each above 20 million. No doubt that in the next decades more very large urban centers will emerge, many of the largest cities of the world will be found in Asia and even a handful of gigantic conurbations called “megalopolis”.

But the distinctive feature of these urban systems is their dense underlying pattern of small towns with population between 10 000 and 50 000 inhabitants, of which there are almost 9 000 in China and 5 400 in India. One third of the urban population of each country lives in these relatively small settlements (whereas the proportion is only 25% in Europe and 5% in the United States of America). These small settlements are disseminated in every region, according to a rather more regular spatial pattern in India compared to the asymmetry between sporadic Western and denser Eastern urbanization in China (due to environmental and historical factors).

Figure 1 Population sizes of urban agglomerations in China (year 2000)

Source : Swerts Chinacities, urban agglomerations above 10 000 inhabitants

Figure 2 Population sizes of urban agglomerations in India (year 2001)

Source : Swerts, Indiapolis and IndiaCensus, urban agglomerations above 10 000 inhabitants

Two different types of urban hierarchies

Even if both countries share with all other urban systems a strong differentiation of city sizes according to a Zipf’s distribution, China appears as an exception in the world. Although the share of urban population is higher in China (urbanization rate = 60% against 40% only in India) the index which measures the level of inequalities of city sizes in the system (that is the slope of the adjusted rank-size curve) is only 0.8 in China (against 0.9 in India) (figure 3). Moreover, while the general trend in India, in conformity with observations in other parts of the world is an increase of these urban size differences during the historical urbanization process, the slope has been decreasing during the last forty years in China. That can certainly be explained by the strength of urban and spatial planning policies in this country – even if an uncertainty remains about the identification of urban population because of the hukou system. It is also a demonstration that an evolution toward more and more hierarchy in urban systems is not as inescapable as it may appear from uncontrolled urban dynamics in most world countries.

Figure 3 Rank-size distributions of cities in China and India around 2000

Sources : China : Swerts, ChinaCities (2000), India : Swerts, Indiapolis (2001)

Elfie Swerts


  1.  Urban data bases have been built by Elfie Swerts from a variety of statistical and geographical sources according to a unified concept of urban agglomeration (continuously built up area).