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 9: Double dual transformation: understanding urbanization with Chinese characteristics

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


Considering its enormous scale and impact, China’s urbanization in the last three decades is an economic and social event of global significance as well as a monumental change for China’s own citizens. As China moves into the rank of developed and urbanized countries in the next twenty to thirty years its economic and social transformation will have an even more profound impact not only on the Chinese people, but the entire world. Before reform and opening up, China’s nationwide urbanization level increased by less than 8 percent from about 10 percent in 1949 to just under 18 percent in 1978 (NBSC-csy, 1984). During what we term the transition period after reform and opening up, it has increased by more than 37 percent to about 55 percent today (NBSC, 2015b). The transition period was remarkably different from Mao’s age. China is still at the stage of economic development Walt Whitman Rostow terms the “drive to maturity” (Rostow, 1956) and at the mid to late stage of accelerating urbanization according to the Davis and Northam S-shaped urbanization curves discussed in Chapter 1 (Davis, 1965; Northam, 1979). While we believe that China’s future urbanization will be slower than World Bank, UN and other experts predict, it is likely that China’s urbanization level will reach 75 percent within 30 years and China will be at the flat top of the S curve—essentially urbanized.

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