Understanding China's Urbanization

Understanding China's Urbanization

The Great Demographic, Spatial, Economic, and Social Transformation

Li Zhang, Richard LeGates and Min Zhao

China’s urbanization is one of the great earth-changing phenomena of recent times. The way in which China continues to urbanize will have a critical impact on the world economy, global climate change, international relations and a host of other critical issues. Understanding and responding to China’s urbanization is of paramount importance to everyone. This book represents a unique exploration of the demographic, spatial, economic and social aspects of China’s urban transformation.

Chapter 3: Governments, administrative divisions, and urban policies

Li Zhang, Richard LeGates and Min Zhao

Subjects: asian studies, asian development, asian geography, asian urban and regional studies, development studies, asian development, migration, economics and finance, urban economics, geography, asian geography, cities and urban geography, human geography, politics and public policy, migration, urban and regional studies, migration, urban economics, urban studies, planning


Every country needs to establish an administrative structure to both carry out national policies and make local decisions. The administrative structure itself has a large impact on urbanization. In large and rapidly changing countries like China, both the relationships among the central government, sub-national governments like provinces or provincial-level municipalities, and different levels of local government, and the boundaries and authority among different administrative divisions are complex and changing. Which level of government has authority to make key decisions and has access to revenue is highly political. The centralized top-down system of governance characteristic of China under Mao has evolved into a more decentralized system with a hierarchy of governments that is difficult to understand—especially for Westerners unfamiliar with reality on the ground. It is difficult even for scholars who understand the structure to do cross sectional or longitudinal analysis, because the structure permits great variation so that a category may mean quite different things in different places or from one year to the next. Higher levels of government often establish ambiguous policies that lower levels interpret in different ways, and some statistics are unavailable, unreliable, inconsistent, or collected in ways that make analysis difficult or impossible.

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