China's Shifting Population Growth Patterns


As demographers have projected for some time, China's population growth is slowing. The nation gained population at a rate of 0.49% between 2010 and 2013, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics. This is a reduction from the rate of 0.57% between 2000 and 2010. Further growth rate declines are expected until the 2030s when the total population, according to United Nations projections, will actually begin to decline.

Right now the biggest slowdown is taking place in regions with the greatest and densest urbanization such as in the province of Guangdong, home of the Pearl River Delta and the Yangtze Delta, anchored by Shanghai. At the same time, the northern plains economic region of Beijing-Tianjin continues its growth, but following a more decentralized pattern that sees more growth away from Beijing.

Guangdong and the Pearl River Delta

Guangdong is unique in being home to two of the world's megacities (urban areas over 10 million population), Guangzhou-Foshan and Shenzhen. No other sub-national jurisdiction (province or state) in the world has more than one. The province, anchored along the Pearl River Delta, has been the heart of China's three decade long economic advance. Between Guangzhou-Foshan and Shenzhen, the Dongguan urban area has 8 million residents. Across the Pearl River, Jiangmen, Zhongshan and Zhuhai all have more than one million residents. If the China's adjacent special economic regions of Hong Kong and Macau are included, the area's population reaches 55 million, nearly one-half more than Tokyo, with nearly the same land area. However, with little day-to-day work trip commuting between, they do not, at least as of yet, represent a single labor market (metropolitan area).

This slowdown comes after years of spectacular growth. Between 1990 and 2000, the province added more than 40 million new residents, more people than live in California. On average, the the population rose 2.1 million every year, an annual rate of 2.6 percent. Just between 2009 and 2010 the increase was 3.1 million. However, over the three years between 2010 and 2013 Guangdong added only 700,000 each year, for an annual growth rate of 0.66 percent., 

Shanghai and the Yangtze Delta

Shanghai, a city province that contains nearly all of the Shanghai mega-city, also experienced a huge drop in its population growth rate (Parts of Shanghai's continuously built-up area are now stretching into neighboring Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces). Between 2000 and 2010, Shanghai grew at an annual rate of 3.65% and added nearly 7 million new residents. Over the last three years, the annual rate of population growth has dropped by more than half, to 1.67% as only 1.1 million new residents have been added. Shanghai was estimated to have a population of 24,150,000 at the end of 2013.

Shanghai is at the core of the larger Yangtze River Delta, home to nearly 160 million residents crowded into an area the size of Oregon. The Yangtze Delta includes the provinces of Zhejiang, Shanghai and Jiangsu and stretches from Ningbo, through Hangzhou, Shanghai, Suzhou, Changzhou, and Zhenjiang to Nanjing. Like Guangdong, the Yangtze Delta experienced a substantial drop in its rate of population growth. Between 2000 and 2010, the Yangtze Delta added approximately 20 million new residents, or 1.4 percent annually. This dropped to only 2 million between 2010 and 2013, dropping the annual growth rate  to 0.5%.

Beijing, Tianjin and the Northern China Plain

All the population of the Beijing mega-city is contained within the municipal province of Beijing. With its adjacent megacity of Tianjin (also a municipal province) the two provinces combined have a population of 35 million. When combined with the surrounding province of Hebei (capital Shijiazhuang), the population of this Northern China Plain megalopolis is nearing 110 million. Unlike China's other two major economic regions, the North China Plain is sustaining its population growth. Between 2000 and 2010, the annual population growth rate was 1.47 percent. Over the past three years, it was 1.46 percent.

Beijing was estimated to have a population of 21,150,000 at the end of 2013.Yet, there has been a substantial slowdown in growth but not as marked as that of Shanghai. Between 2000 and 2010, Beijing added more than 6 million residents, growing at an annual rate of 3.70 percent. Another 1.5 million residents were added between 2010 and 2013, but the growth rate dropped to 2.67 percent.

The trajectory of growth has now shifted to Tianjin. Tianjin is by far the fastest growing provincial level jurisdiction in China. Between 2010 and 2013, Tianjin grew at an annual rate of 4.49 percent, and added 1.7 million new residents. This is more in total numbers than either Beijing or Shanghai, which are both larger. Among the provincial level jurisdictions, only Guangdong, seven times as large, added more residents. Tianjin is estimated to have a population of 14,720,000.

Tianjin appears to be an opportunity corridor for growth. Tianjin is located approximately 90 miles (145 kilometers) from Beijing and is the principal seaport in the area. High speed trains between Tianjin and Beijing operate about 100 times each way daily, completing the trip in 35 minutes. Tianjin is a natural safety valve for the continuing growth of the North China Plain megalopolis.

Hebei continued its stronger than national growth. In the 2000s, Hebei added 5.2 million residents, and added another 1.4 million over the past three years.

This shift of growth from Beijing to surrounding areas could indicate some success in the policy initiatives of the national and Beijing governments to control Beijing's rapid population growth and shift it to more peripheral areas. More decentralization initiatives are due, such as the planned seventh ring road, which will traverse most of its distance in surrounding Tianjin and Hebei.

The Dongbei Rust Belt

Population growth continues to elude China's historic Rust Belt, the Dongbei ("East North," also called Manchuria). This area, consisting of Lioaning, Jilin and Heliongjiang provinces, with major cities Shenyang, Harbin and Dalian grew by only 200,000 residents, an annual rate of 0.06 percent. This is down from 0.26 percent in the 2000s, which was less than one-half the national growth rate. The Dongbei has nearly 110 million residents.

Other Areas

At the same time, population in the interior province of Hubei (capital Wuhan) has been propelled from 0.14 percent annually between 2000 and 2010 to a near national rate of 0.41 percent since 2010. Adjacent interior province Hunan (capital Changsha) recovered from a 0.01 percent annual growth rate in the 2000s to 0.62 in the last three years. Next to Hunan, city province Chongqing recovered from a lethargic 0.12 percent growth rate between 2000 and 2010, to an impressive 0.99 percent over the last three years. These cases may also be another indication of the success of government policies to encourage growth away from the East Coast.

Outside of Tianjin, only four regions of China are growing at a greater than one percent annual rate. Three are to the west, including Tibet (1.31 percent), Xinjiang (1.21 percent) and Ningxia (1.12 percent). All are experiencing slower growth than before. To the south, Hainan, the island province, is also growing at just above one percent), about the same rate as in the 2000s.

Floating Population: Slower Growth

China's large floating population, --- internal migrants who have moved to the cities to provide the work force for much of the manufacturing and construction boom --- continued to grow, but at a somewhat slower rate. The floating population grew 8 million annually between 2010 and 2013, down from 15 million annually between 2005 and 2010. Of course, that is still a big number. With reform of the internal passport system ("hukou" system) promised, there may be an important incentive for many to remain in the cities, where economic aspirations may be more likely to be met.

China's Changing Growth Patterns

China is going through an important transition from nearly speed-of-light economic expansion to much slower growth that is, nonetheless the envy of just about every other major economy. Nonetheless, these changes are already bringing spatial changes.

Photo: Dalian (Liaoning), in the Dongbei (by author)

Wendell Cox is 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 etMetiers, a national university in Paris and is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Opportunity Urbanism.