Since the beginning of China’s reform era in 1978, the country’s urban population has grown by 40%, with 813 million people now living in its cities. That number is predicted to reach one billion by 2030, continuing the unprecedented migration from rural to urban areas. Dr. Weiping Wu of Columbia University provides insight into the complicated process of China’s urbanization, from its hukou registration system to the ever-evolving definition of what constitutes a city, and contrasts the United States’ urban development with China’s.

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Speaker Bio

Weiping Wu is professor of urban planning at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and director of the M.S. Urban Planning program. She is also on the faculty of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and Columbia Population Research Center. Before joining Columbia in 2016, she was professor and chair in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University. Dr. Wu is a fellow of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations’ Public Intellectuals Program. Trained in architecture and urban planning, Dr. Wu has focused her research and teaching on understanding urban dynamics in developing countries – in general and China, in particular. She is an internationally acclaimed urban and planning scholar working on global urbanization with a specific expertise in issues of migration, housing, and infrastructure of Chinese cities. Her publications include eight books, as well as many articles in top international journals. Dr. Wu’s published works have gained an increasing public presence, particularly her recent book, The Chinese City (Routledge, 2012). It offers a critical understanding of China’s urbanization, exploring how the complexity of Chinese cities both conforms to and defies conventional urban theories and experiences of cities elsewhere around the world.


Margot Landman: I am Margot Landman, senior director for education programs at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. Joining me today is Dr. Weiping Wu, Professor of Urban Planning at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, and Director of the Urban Planning Master’s Degree Program at Columbia. She is also a fellow in the National Committee’s Public Intellectuals Program. Thank you for speaking with me today.

Weiping Wu: Thank you, Margot. It’s always a great pleasure to be a part of the National Committee and any of its activities.

Landman: Let’s start with some context. Please describe the history of Chinese urbanization since the establishment of the People’s Republic, and especially in the reform period.

Wu: In 1949, China was very much still an agrarian society, and even so right around 1979. So we’re looking at less than 10 percent of the population in urban areas in 1949. And between 1949 and 1979, not much urbanization actually took place, and particularly given the policy of growing industrial production, and particularly away from the coastal areas, the bigger cities also did not grow very much in terms of size. But 1979 and the reform period really unleashed a torrent of forces, and those forces included migration, industrialization, and globalization, of course, that’s also a push factor, and to some degree fiscal decentralization. So all of this has really together propelled urbanization in China.

Between 1980 and 2010, so that’s 30 years, the percentage of China’s population, who are considered urban, has increased from about 19 percent to about 51 percent. And today that percentage is around 54 percent, but there is a little bit of complexity in there as well. Those with urban hukou actually is a little bit less. It’s about 36 percent. But overall China right now is about the same level as the average of the rest of the world.

Landman: You mentioned the hukou. What exactly is the hukou, and what has changed in the policy towards the hukou since 1979 or 1980?

Wu: Right. So hukou, as you all know, is quite unique to China, although the former Soviet Union had something very similar to that. And it was called “Internal Passport”, which is meant to be for social control, to control the mobility of people from place to place. So hukou was institutionalized in China around 1958. And so within the hukou, you have people of agricultural population or non-agricultural, and then hukou also denotes where you’re registered, you know, the place of hukou.

So since 1979, particularly since 1983, hukou has become a little less important, although still important, less important in terms of food provision. So farmers were able to take care of their own food provision, so they were able to move away from home. But today hukou still is very much connected with the provision of education for kids going to public schools, and certain kinds of jobs in the state sector, as well as certain types of housing. So primarily hukou now is connected with the provision of social benefits and services.

Landman: Many aspects of Chinese urbanization are quite striking. But one thing that I think maybe doesn’t happen in other places is the urban village in Chinese cities, and the so-called new villages in the countryside. What are these villages, and what do they tell us about China’s urbanization?

Wu: Chinese urbanization, as I just mentioned, happened so quickly and rapidly, and you see two types of processes of urbanization. One is that people move. Millions of people move from countryside to the cities. And the second is places that become urbanized without moving, what we call “in situ urbanization.” And so urban villages are exactly this intersection of both processes.

Landman: And do they still have a rural hukou?

Wu: Yes. And they still have rural collective and land ownership. In fact, I brought one of your colleagues to Zhejiangcun in Fengtai District. That land is still collectively owned. The village, even though it doesn’t have any farmland, has control of the land. So they can rent the land. They can build workshops, and that location and many of these locations became really affordable and attractive options for housing for migrants.

The new villages in the countryside are much more recent, actually, in the last 10 to 15 years. These are also not too far from big cities, and these are a byproduct of provincial efforts to consolidate small plots of rural land into larger agricultural land that can be cultivated with higher productivity, basically, a more industrial scale. So what’s happening is the consolidation involves not only agricultural land, but also natural villages where villagers used to congregate. But they are scattered all over the place.

So they would move them together into one large plot, and the housing would be built very much like urban housing, high rise apartments, and they would be called some kind of neighborhood complex or residential complex. And then the farmers would be allocated… actually, they’re compensated by local governments by receiving two to three units of new apartments.

And the interesting part is that many of these villages live like urban residents, in this complex, but they still have agricultural hukou and still belong to the villages. They’re all good examples of the so-called incomplete urbanization, because if you look at it, either the lifestyle or land ownership types are now completely over to the urban side. And so, yeah, I’ve done work on both.

Landman: And only in China would these be called villages because they’re 30,000, 40,000, 50,000 people?

Wu: That is correct, yes. That speaks to the complexity of defining urban, and given the higher density and large population in China, it takes a lot more people to qualify as urban. But they’re also called villages because of the… I guess the heritage they carry with them, and then the elements of that heritage that remain to be functioning.

Landman: In your paper when you wrote about it, it seemed in the new villages, as you say, the rural villages, people still behave like rural people. Their day to day behavior is not necessarily what we might think of as the city life.

Wu: Yes, and particularly for people who were a little bit older when they moved, and also many of them don’t really have jobs. So their rural livelihood is a bygone era today. So twenty-some years ago, when this kind of transition happened, there used to be a policy of turning these people into urban hukou holders, and even allocating them jobs. And that really stopped more than 10 years ago.

So, they really are reminiscent about traditional ways of life, the way they celebrate weddings and even funerals. And so the social relations that they carry with them very much remained rural, and that really takes a longer time. So that is part of the complexity we see in China in terms of urbanization; its rapid pace. That very compact timeframe brings a lot of complexity to understanding the impact of urbanization on people in their daily life, in their livelihood.

It’s kind of interesting the 2013 new urbanization plan in China now talks about urbanization of people, not just urbanization of land, which was always how we see it as, you know, you turn a county into a city. You are urban, but the people are not necessarily urban in their ways of life.

Landman: That leads very nicely into my final question. In China since 1979, things have changed so fast and in such major ways. You look at the United States and we didn’t hit our more-than-half-urban population point until the early 20th century. So we’re established in 1776, 18th century, 19th century. We are basically agrarian. Gradually we become more urban. Whereas in China it’s just so fast. What do these differences in the process of urbanization tell us?

Wu: Margot, you are speaking of a kind of what we call the “S” curve that many countries go through. That is, a very low level of urbanization for a very long period of time, and then a take-off at this sharp curve. And the primary driving force of the take-off is industrialization. So if you think of the United States, and of 19th-century industrialization, and now we’re tapering off because there will always be roughly 20 or 30 percent of people who don’t want to live in urban areas. So the U.S. urbanization level now is about 80 percent, so it hasn’t gone on increasing for a long time. It’s sort of been steady since the Second World War.

And so for China, I think the later take-off stage has to do with how late industrialization happened. But I think there’s also some artificial element we know between 1949 and 1979. There was a lot of industrialization, but there was huge under-urbanization because of a policy framework that did not allow people to move and didn’t allow more resources to be invested particularly in the large cities. And so 1979, there was a rapid increase.

And as I mentioned, the torrent of forces really promoted this much faster pace. You couldn’t find any other country where industrialization, globalization, migration, and decentralization, particularly in terms of in China is fiscal decentralization, allowing local governments to have more autonomy in raising money, and all of which really sort of propelled this higher pace.

In a way, I think, you can sort of think about urbanization with Chinese characteristics to some extent that Chinese urbanization does resemble in many other places, in terms of the transition that migrants and rural peasants have to go through. But Chinese urbanization also has a lot of unique characteristics, and that which actually generates really good opportunities for scholars to think about newer theories, and particularly in terms of what we call state-led urbanization, a sort of very infrastructure-led, and very much a sort of developmentalist state at very important stages, guiding both development at individual city level as well as regionally.

In the Cultural Revolution days, it was the inner parts of the country received a lot more resources. Now it’s all going back to the coast. Think about special economic zones, think about coastal open cities. They were all very conscious policy steps that have led to the patterns that we see today.

Landman: Unfortunately, we’ve run out of time because I think we could keep going for quite a while. Thank you very much for talking with me today.

Wu: Thank you, Margot, for this opportunity.