Focusing on total population—rather than the number of people actually residing in urban areas—obscures the extent of China's urbanization challenge.

In 1997, the Chinese Communist Party designated the southwestern city of Chongqing as China's fourth "municipality," carving an area about the size of South Carolina out of Sichuan province. The purpose of the change was to transfer administrative control of the city from the Sichuan provincial government to the capital, enabling Beijing to better oversee the development of the nearby Three Gorges Dam project. Overnight, the Chinese government had created a conurbation of 28 million residents, leading Time magazine (among others) to label Chongqing "the world's largest city."

There was just one problem: Chongqing "municipality" has a lot of land that isn't, well, municipal: In addition to the city itself, Chongqing now includes outlying suburbs, satellite cities, and ample countryside. If we were to consider just the city's urban core, then Chongqing's actual population is closer to 5 million—still huge, but not the biggest city in China, much less the world.

Andrew Stokols

What accounts for the confusion? The answer lies in China's peculiar administrative divisions. First, there are ordinary provinces (like Sichuan, Yunnan, and Shanxi) which, like American states, have a parallel government structure to the central government. Then, there are "ethnic autonomous regions" (like Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia) which function like provinces and aren't, by the way, remotely autonomous. And finally, there are the municipalities: Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, and Chongqing, large cities governed directly by the central government.  (Imagine if, in addition to Washington, D.C., that New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles were "districts" rather than cities within states). Then, finally, are the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macao, but that's a whole other story.

So when we say that a Chinese city has a certain population, it's worth remembering that, in the case of municipalities, the actual "city" part is much smaller.

Andrew Stokols

Then, there's then the question of the hukou, a "household registration" document that functions as an internal passport by tying an individual's eligibility for social services like education and health care to his or her city of origin. Over the past three decades, hundreds of millions of rural Chinese people migrated to the cities in search of work, and settled despite not being official residents. Until recently, China's census only counted residents with an urban hukou as part of the population, further skewing the data.

Andrew Stokols

The Chinese government has made urbanization a central part of its transition from an export and investment-based economy to one relying on consumption, which it views as a more sustainable growth model. But while Chinese cities are indeed growing—and fast—a closer look at population data shows just how complex a problem urbanization really is.

This story originally appeared on The Atlantic.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Design

    A History of the American Public Library

    A visual exploration of how a critical piece of social infrastructure came to be.

  2. Equity

    Berlin Builds an Arsenal of Ideas to Stage a Housing Revolution

    The proposals might seem radical—from banning huge corporate landlords to freezing rents for five years—but polls show the public is ready for something dramatic.

  3. a map of the Mayan Train route in Mexico
    Environment

    Mexico’s ‘Mayan Train’ Is Bound for Controversy

    President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s signature rail project would link cities and tourist sites in the Yucatan with rural areas and rainforests.

  4. A photo of a design maquette for the Obama Presidential Center planned for Jackson Park and designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates.
    Design

    Why the Case Against the Obama Presidential Center Is So Important

    A judge has ruled that a lawsuit brought by Chicago preservationists can proceed, dealing a blow to Barack Obama's plans to build his library in Jackson Park.

  5. Transportation

    With Trains Like Schwebebahn, No Wonder Germans Love Public Transit

    Infrastructure like this makes it clear why Germany continues to produce enthusiasm for public transit, generation after generation.