Changsha, Hunan (China): Over the past 30 years, China has eradicated more poverty than any nation in the world’s history. The reforms instituted by Deng Xiaopeng have not only created a large, new middle class in China, but have also produced some of the largest and architecturally most impressive urban areas in the world. There is still poverty in China, but the most extreme poverty is in the rural areas. The expansive shanty-town poverty found in Manila, Jakarta, Mexico City, Sao Paulo or Mumbai is absent in the large Chinese urban areas.
While China as a nation is growing slowly, the same cannot be said of its urban areas. Perhaps the greatest migration in human history is underway, as rural residents move to the urban areas. United Nations population projections indicate that China will add 310 million people to its urban areas over the next 25 years, a figure equal to the population of the United States.
Gross Domestic Product in Chinese Cities: China has seen its incomes and gross domestic product increase markedly. Urban economic growth has been even greater than that of the country as a whole. This article contains the latest available information on gross domestic product for the largest prefectural and provincial level cities in China, derived from annual yearbooks (see Table). It needs to be understood that “cities” are much different in China than anywhere else.
The Differing Definitions of “City”: The most commonly used definition of a city in China is more akin to a large metropolitan region in the United States or Europe. Some cities, like Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin and Chongqing are the equivalent of provinces, while other cities are “prefectural level,” administering large areas within provinces (Note 1). Each of these “cities” is comprised by smaller jurisdictions that go by at least 8 names, including city districts and “county level cities,” which are cities within the city, but not the main urban areas. Much of the land area in county level cities and even inside some city districts is rural rather than urban. As a result, analysts who should know better often make downright silly comparisons between Chinese cities and other cities in the world, simply because they do not understand the differing meaning of the term. Nearly all of China, urban and rural is broken into prefectural or provincial cities, just as nearly all of the United States is divided into counties.
The large rural areas within the cities reduce the overall GDP per capita because incomes are generally so much lower outside the urban areas.
Geographical Distribution of Wealth: China purposefully began its most significant reforms on the east coast, which is where much of the wealth of the nation is concentrated. All 25 of the most affluent metropolitan regions are on the east coast and 14 of the richest 20 metropolitan regions in China (measured by GDP per capita) are in the two river delta mega-regions, the Pearl and the Yangtze.
The Pearl River Delta: China’s richest area is the Pearl River Delta, home of formerly British administered Hong Kong, Deng Xiaopeng’s megacity Shenzhen and historic Guangzhou (Canton). The area is one of the world’s great mega-regions, with a population of more than 50 million, in 8 virtually adjacent urban areas, tied together by a modern freeway system. Altogether the Pearl River Delta urban areas have more people than the world’s largest single urban area, Tokyo, and an overall higher density.
Hong Kong, which remains outside the normal provincial governance structure, had the highest GDP per capita in the nation at $42,200 (purchasing power parity) in 2007, slightly more than 90 percent of the United States. Hong Kong and formerly Portuguese Macau have both achieved first world economic status, though Macau does not make the 1,000,000 urban area population threshold for inclusion on the present list.
Shenzhen, on Hong Kong’s northern border ranks 4th in the nation at $22,100 and Guangzhou 5th, at $19,900. Two other Pearl River Delta metropolitan regions, Foshan, Zhuhai, have GDPs per capita greater than $15,000, which by some accounts qualifies them for entry into the high income world. The remaining large Pearl River Delta metropolitan regions, Dongguan, Zhongshan and Jiangmin each have GDPs per capita exceeding $10,000.
The Yangtze River Delta: The Yangtze River Delta is another great mega-region, with more than 30 million people. It, however, covers much more land area than the Pearl River Delta and has much greater expanses of rural territory. The Yangtze River Delta metropolitan region of Suzhou, the city of canals, and neighbor of Shanghai, has the highest GDP per capita outside Hong Kong, at $25,500. One county level city within Suzhou, Kunshan has a GDP per capita of more than $28,000 (Note 2). Suzhou’s neighbor on the way to Nanjing, Wuxi, is next at $23,300. Shanghai, China’s largest metropolis, ranks 6th in GDP per capita at $18,400. Other Yangtze Delta metropolitan regions have GDPs per capita between $10,000 and $15,000, including Nanjing, Hangzhou, Changzhou and Ningbo.
The Beijing Metropolitan Region: China’s third mega-region is around Beijing, the national capital. Altogether, this region has nearly 25 million people, but like the Yangtze River Delta, the Beijing megaregion has large swaths of rural territory. Beijing itself has a GDP per capita of $16,200, while Tianjin and Tangshan (site of the 1976 earthquake, one of history’s worst, which killed at least 250,000 people) have GDPs per capita of between $10,000 and $15,000.
Outside the Megaregions: While the wealth is concentrated in the three large megaregions, prosperity has come to other metropolitan regions as well. One of Deng Xiaopeng’s original special economic zones, along with Shenzhen, was Xiamen, which is the richest metropolitan region outside the three large megaregions.
Prosperity Comes to the West: The interior metropolitan regions are now well on their way to sharing the prosperity of the east. Changsha, from where I write, is now served by the nation’s “interstate” highway system in all directions. At the end of 2008, this system had expanded to 37,000 miles. Eventually, 53,000 miles are planned, which would make it longer than the present 46,000 mile US interstate system. This national expressway system is a pivotal factor in bringing prosperity to the interior. Now, trucks can reach Pacific Coast ports such as Guangzhou, Fuzhou or Hangzhou in six to nine hours of driving. This makes it possible for manufacturing businesses to locate in Changsha, Xi’an or Wuhan and a number of other metropolitan regions that are well inland.
This should be of inestimable help as the nation seeks to decentralize its urban growth to the interior urban areas. Changsha, itself, has moved strongly into middle income status, with a GDP per capita closing in on $10,000. Moreover, local officials are planning for a near doubling of the current 2.5 million population in the next two decades. At least three major new towns under construction on the urban periphery and another will be built where the borders of three prefectural cities meet: Changsha, Zhuzhou and Xiangtan which is the birthplace of Chairman Mao Zedong (about 50 miles from Changsha, just off the Shangrui Expressway).
Chongqing (formerly known in the west as Chungking), one of the four provincial level municipalities, has low GDP per capita of less than $5,000. However, this figure is skewed low by the fact that the urban area itself accounts for approximately one-sixth of the provincial city’s population, with the bulk of the population in the far lower income rural areas. Chongqing provides the ultimate evidence that cities in China are like nowhere else in the world. The “city” of Chongqing has a population of more than 30 million, in a land area the size of Austria or Indiana. The actual urban area, however, covers less area than the Indianapolis urban area and only 1.5 times the area of the Vienna urban area.
Toward a High Income Nation: The urban areas of China still have poverty, but the commercial and residential development (both high rise and detached “villas”) make it clear that a great many people are doing “very well.”
China is moving hard toward high-income world status. I specifically avoid the term “first world,” because metropolitan China already feels first world, regardless of its income status. However, should current growth rates continue relative to the high income world, metropolitan regions such as Suzhou and others could move into the list of the world’s 100 most affluent metropolitan areas within a decade. It cannot happen too soon.
Note 1 : This includes sub-provincial level cities, which have jurisdiction over virtual prefectures within provinces, however have more administrative independence than prefectural level cities.
Note 2: GDP per capita data is not widely available for divisions within prefecture and provincial level cities
|China Metropolitan (City) Regions Gross Domestic Product: 2007|
|Provincial, Sub-Provincial & Prefectural Level Cities|
|Purchasing Power Parity (US$)|
|RANKED BY GDP/CAPITA||GDP/Capita|
|Rank||Metropolitan (City) Regions||¥ (RMB)||US$ PPP|
|Sources: Annual statistical reports, generally from http://www.chinaknowledge.com|
|GDP PPP calculated from 2007 International Monetary Fund data|
|Caution: In some cases, GDP per capita may exclude temporary residents|
|Includes all provincial, prefectural level and sub-provincial level cities and special economic regions on the mainland with a core urban area of more than 1,000,000 population (see http://www.demographia.com/db-worldua.pdf).|
|Note: Cities in China are substantially different in definition than in other nations. See: http://www.demographia.com/db-define.pdf.|
|Provincial abbreviations at db-china-abbr.pdf|
Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris. He was born in Los Angeles and was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission by Mayor Tom Bradley. He is the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.”