Declining Population Growth in China’s Largest Municipalities: 2010-2014


After three decades of breakneck urban growth, there are indications of a significant slowdown in the largest cities of China. This is indicated by a review of 2014 population estimates in the annual statistical reports filed individually by municipalities with the National Bureau of Statistics.

For context, municipalities in China, which are also translated as “cities” in English are nothing like cities as is commonly understood in English. In China, municipalities are large geographic areas that have their own governments, but also control rural lands often far beyond the urban area. Indeed, in China, counties are subdivisions of cities, while in Anglo heritage nations, cities are within counties, with the notable exception of the city of New York or in a few, like San Francisco, are identical with counties. Some cities, like Kansas City and Atlanta stretch into adjacent counties, though occupy only part of their main county.

This article examines municipality population growth trends, from 2010 to 2014 and comparing to the 2000 to 2010 period. The analysis focuses on 21 municipalities, which include 20 of the 25 largest built-up urban areas in the nation areas of continuous development. The 21st municipality is Foshan, which shares its built-up urban area with Guangzhou. The statistical reports the other five municipalities did not provide sufficient data to be included in this analysis (Table).

Back in 1980, as Deng Xiaoping’s reforms were beginning to take effect, China was approximately 20 percent urban. By 2010, 55 percent of Chinese citizens lived in urban areas, a near tripling of the urban share. A large share of this growth was the so-called “floating population,” which was made up largely of rural residents who moved to the urban areas to take jobs in the export oriented factories and the massive building and infrastructure construction sites.

The Roaring 2000s

In the 2000s, the largest Chinese municipalities experienced some of the most rapid growth in world history. Shanghai and Beijing added between 6 and 7 million residents. Both had annual growth rates of between 3% and 4%. During the same period, the U.S. annual growth rate was about 1.0 percent.

But even these growth rates were not the highest in the country. Xiamen, in Fujian grow at an annual rate of 5.6%, while Suzhou (in Jiangsu, adjacent to Shanghai on the west) and Shenzhen (in Guangdong, just north of Hong Kong) expanded their population at rates between 4% and 5%.

The Slowing 2010s

The last four years have been very different. Overall, these 21 municipalities added population at a rate of 2.2% annually between 2000 and 2010. Between 2010 and 2014, the annual growth has been reduced by nearly half, to 1.2%. This is a far greater rate than that of the national population increase, which is gradually moving from modest growth to eventual decline. The 2010 to 2014 annual national population growth rate was 0.50 percent, a 12 percent reduction from the 0.57 percent 2000 to 2010 annual rate, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. The cause of the larger decline in these municipalities thus seems likely to be the result of reduced domestic migration from more rural areas.

Nearly all --- 19 of the 21 municipalities --- are experiencing slower growth in this decade than in the last. Only one, Tianjin, is experiencing the growth similar to the fast-growing municipalities of the last decade. Between 2010 and 2014, Tianjin grew 4.1%, annually, a considerable increase over its 2.8% rate from between 2000 and 2010. During this decade, Tianjin added approximately 560,000 residents annually, the largest increase among the 21 municipalities. This fits well with national priorities, since the high densities of Beijing and related consequences have led to a plan to decentralize the population of nearby Beijing (100 miles or 160 kilometers away), encouraging the movement of residents, businesses and government agencies to Tianjin as well as to the municipalities of Tangshan (location of the great 1976 earthquake), and Langfang (midway between Beijing and Tianjin) and Baoding in the province of Hubei. The newly integrated area would be called Jin-Jing-Ji.

Chongqing has begun to grow, after having lost 1.7 million residents in the last decade. . But Chongqing itself is uncharacteristic and the most “uncitied” of Chinese municipalities. Chongqing is a largely rural province, governed directly from Beijing (like Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin). The principal built-up urban area, Chongqing, has a population of less than 7.5 million, or one-quarter of the municipality population. Chongqing has grown 0.9 percent annually since 2010 and is adding 267,000 residents per year. The population losses of the last decade occurred principally in the rural areas, as the Chongqing metropolitan area added more than three million residents, according to United Nations data.

Strong growth continues in Beijing, but at a much reduced rate. The annual population growth rate in Beijing has dropped 38%, to 2.3% annually. Beijing is adding 475,000 residents annually, second only to nearby Tianjin.

Shanghai’s growth has fallen even further, to 60% below the 2000 (1.3%). Shanghai is adding 310,000 residents annually. Other municipalities in the Yangtze Delta region are not doing as well. Suzhou’s annual growth has dropped more than 90% to 0.3%. Hangzhou and Nanjing have seen their growth drop more than 70 percent, with Hangzhou growing 0.5 percent annually and Nanjing 0.7 percent.

The Pearl River Delta, in Guangdong, was at the heart of China’s three decade economic miracle, with its export driven growth. All four of the Pearl River Delta’s largest municipalities have seen their population growth rates dropped by 70% or more. Shenzhen grew 4.0% in the 2000’s and grows barely 1.0% today. Guangzhou has fallen from 2.5% in the 2000 to 0.7%. Foshan, which grew 3.0% in the 2000’s, now grows only 0.5%. Dongguan has fallen from a growth rate of 2.5% in the 2002 0.4% over the past four years, the slowest among the Pearl River Delta giants.

Some other municipalities have grown nearly as quickly as before. Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan, grew rapidly during the 2000’s, at 2.6%, and has maintained a growth rate of 2.1%. With the third fastest growth rate, after Tianjin and Beijing, Zhengzhou is adding 186,000 residents annually, Quanzhou (Fujian), one of the best world examples of “in situ” urbanization is growing at 85% of its previous rate, though only 0.9% annually. Wuhan (Hubei), a long-time central China manufacturing center has been similarly successful in retaining its growth, and now has an annual growth rate of 1.4%.

Without complete information on all of China’s largest municipalities, it is difficult to assess the extent to which (if any) urban growth has slowed. Certainly, the national government remains committed to strong urban growth. On the other hand, with China’s slowing economic growth rates, there may be less reason to leave the countryside for the city.

2014 Population & Comparison of 2000-10 and 2010-4 Growth Rates
Municipalities of China Corresponding to Largest Built-Up Urban Areas
Annual Population Growth % Annual Population Growth
Municipality Population: 2014 2000-2010 2010-2014 2000-2010 2010-2014
Beijing            21,516,000 3.8% 2.3%      604,300      476,000
Chengdu            14,428,000 2.4% 0.7%      293,900        95,000
Chongqing            29,914,000 -0.6% 0.9%     (166,700)      267,000
Dongguan              8,343,000 2.5% 0.4%      177,400        30,750
Foshan              7,351,000 3.0% 0.5%      185,600        39,250
Guangzhou            13,081,000 2.5% 0.7%      275,900        95,000
Hangzhou              8,892,000 2.4% 0.5%      182,100        48,000
Jinan              7,067,000 1.4% 0.9%        89,200        63,250
Nanjing              8,216,000 2.7% 0.7%      187,900        52,750
Qingdao              9,046,000 1.5% 0.9%      122,100        82,750
Quanzhou              8,440,000 1.1% 0.9%        84,600        77,750
Shanghai            24,257,000 3.4% 1.3%      661,100      309,500
Shenyang              8,287,000 1.2% 0.6%        90,200        45,250
Shenzhen            10,790,000 4.0% 1.0%      334,900      108,000
Suzhou            10,604,000 4.4% 0.3%      366,800        36,000
Taiyuan              4,299,000 2.3% 0.6%        85,800        24,250
Tianjin            15,168,000 2.8% 4.1%      308,900      557,500
Wuhan            10,338,000 1.6% 1.4%      147,200      138,250
Xiamen              3,810,000 5.6% 1.9%      147,800        69,750
Xi'an              8,628,000 1.5% 0.5%      119,300        40,000
Zhenghou              9,371,000 2.6% 2.1%      197,000      186,000
Total          241,846,000 2.2% 1.2%   4,495,300   2,842,000
Calculated from annual municipality reports to the National Bureau of Statistics and NBS data
Comparable data not available for 5 municipalities corresponding to the 25 largest built-up urban areas
Built-up urban areas from Demographia World Urban Areas


Photograph: Still fast growing Zhengzhou (by author)

Wendell Cox is Chair, Housing Affordability and Municipal Policy for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (Canada), is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism (US), a member of the Board of Advisors of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University (California) and principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm. He is co-author of the "Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey" and author of "Demographia World Urban Areas" and "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life." He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. He served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.