Last year marked the first time in China’s history when the urban population exceeded the rural population, according to the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics. In 1949, 10 percent of China’s population lived in cities. Today, it’s 51 percent. According to The New York Times, the statistics bureau reported 690.79 million urban dwellers compared to 656.56 million rural residents at the end of 2011. That’s a rise of 3 percent in urban population and a decrease of 2.2 percent in rural population in comparison to the previous year.
This new urban population, The New York Times reminds us, is a ready labor force for the factories that power China’s export-based economy, and living in the city presents an opportunity for higher wages and a better quality of life. Urbanization is important to the Chinese economy because it raises living standards and encourages consumption. However, a rapidly rising urban population without development at an equal speed also risks fueling an urban underclass of migrants and jobless. If CNN’s photo special on concentrated living for the poor in China is an indication at all, then rapid urbanization might not be the economic boost China was hoping for.
Current statistics aside, future urban growth in China is even more jaw-dropping. According to the Los Angeles Times, over the next 15 years, 320 million Chinese residents will leave small villages and rural counties and migrate to cities. “It’s the equivalent to everyone in the United States packing their belongings and changing addresses,” the article explains.
“China has nearly one-fifth of the world’s population and only 7 percent of the world’s arable land,” explains Tim Miller, author of Urban Billion. “It makes no sense for China to follow a U.S. model. It has to go with concentrated living because it doesn’t have the available land for people to have their own house and their own yard.”
“A lot of my friends come to Beijing and say it looks like a city in the Midwest because everything is so spread out and big. Cities are sprawling in China, particularly in Beijing, which has been built around a car economy. Beijing is an example of how not to do things.”
Similar to western development patterns, Chinese cities are also built around a car culture. The government is working to make public transportation more attractive, but with sprawling developing car ownership will be inevitable. In fact, growth in car ownership in China has no end in sight. In 2008, there were 50 million car owners in China. This number grew to 63 million in 2009 and, according to predictions, 75 million by the end of 2010.
“Between 2000 and 2010, the number of cars and motorcycles in China increased twentyfold,” explains the Guardian. “In the next 20 years it is forecast to more than double again, which means there will be more cars in China in 2030 than there were in the entire world in 2000.”