China's Changing Cities

What's really happening with China's rapid urbanization?

What can happen to a city in fifteen years? In the article “The Transformation of Chinese Cities,” China's New Weekly magazine ranked many large Chinese cities as a follow up to its 1998 ranking “The Charms of Chinese Cities.” Sad to say, but most Chinese cities seem to have changed for the worse. Beijing was listed as “Most Magnificent City” in 1998 only to be called “Most Miserable City” in 2013. Shanghai won “Most Luxurious City” in 1998 but is “Most Arrogant City" today.

Although the rankings have an element of tongue in cheek, they also offer a meaningful glimpse into China’s big push for urbanization. As China's cities grow, urban dissatisfaction is unfortunately growing as well.

Weibo users from Beijing jokingly complain about the city’s heavy traffic. @艾YIRAN writes: “The furthest distance in the world is not between life and death but between you and me when we are both caught in traffic on the Fifth Ring Road.”  To reduce congestion, Beijing has implemented several rigorous automobile restrictions to limit car purchases and cut traffic, but congestion only seems to grow worse.

Skyrocketing housing prices are a second growing concern. “Ant tribes” and “snail dwellings” are common Chinese terms that vividly capture the living conditions of many young graduates who move to urban areas.

Rapid urbanization is also changing China’s countryside. A recent government report found that factory workers earned 49,688 RMB ($8,014) on average in 2011 while farmers earned only 21,905 RMB ($3,533). Motivated by higher salaries in manufacturing and construction, more and more young people are leaving rural villages for the city. According to the National Bureau of Statistics of China, there were over 250 million migrant workers as of 2011, with a full 30% working in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. 80% of migrant workers are under 50, meaning that villages are losing their most productive workers. Hundreds of rural villages are dying off as the young move out.

Weibo user @执着痴迷的军人控 writes: “With skyrocketing property prices, deteriorating air quality, and lagging traffic, people still want to live in Beijing, even if they have to share an apartment with dozens of people or squeeze themselves into basement. But why?”

Despite growing problems, Beijing still serves as China’s center for politics, culture, economics, technology, and education. The city is rich with highly educated college graduates, entrepreneurial opportunities, and cultural offerings. 

China’s grand plan to move 250 million rural residents into newly constructed cities is all over the web. Will these new cities be more livable? Will they take some of the pressure off of China's biggest cities? We’re hoping that over the next fifteen years, China's cities will experience a more beautiful transformation.