Slower Municipality Growth in China: 2010-2019


China, which many see as the exemplar of rapid urban growth, is accelerating its own shift towards greater dispersion.

During the 2000s, the largest municipalities (formerly called prefectures) of China grew very quickly. Much of this was a result of an increasing “floating population,” people who moved to the cities from rural areas for employment, especially in factories producing goods for export and in construction. Between 2000 and 2010, according to the China Statistical Yearbook: 2019, the floating population grew from 121 million to 221 million. Since that time, however, the rate has fallen sharply, with a decline from 253 million in 2014 to 241 million in 2018.

This slowing growth is evident at the municipal (prefecture) level. Data taken from the annual “National Economic and Social Development Statistical Communiqués,” published by the municipalities shows that the rapid growth that propelled Shanghai and Beijing to populations 20 million or more by the 2010 Census has come to an end. At the same time, in the Pearl River (Zhujiang) Delta, some municipalities continue strong growth, and growth is stronger generally in the interior.

Shanghai, long China’s largest urban area (Note), and a directly administered provincial level jurisdiction, grew at an annual rate of 3.4% during the 2000s, starting out the decade with 16.4 million residents and reaching 23.0 million by 2010, It continued strong growth until the middle of the present decade. By 2014, Shanghai had reached nearly 24.3 million residents. However, the municipality had determined to limit future population growth and by 2019 remained under 24.3 million, having added only 24,000 residents, and growing only 0.1% over the next five years.

Shanghai is the core of the Yangtze Delta urbanization, which includes a number of other larger municipalities that have had similarly slow growth, such as in Suzhou, Nanjing, Changzhou and Wuxi (all in Jiangsi).

An important exception to the Yangtze Delta’s slower growth rates has been Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang, and home to the tech giant Alibaba. Hangzhou is located about 110 miles (180 kilometers) from Shanghai and experienced only a slight drop of its growth rate from 2.4% in the 2000s to 2.0% in the 2010s. Hangzhou grew from 8.7 million in 2010 to 10.4 million in 2019.

Like Shanghai, Beijing, the national capital and a directly administered provincial level jurisdiction, also has experienced slower growth. Between 2000 and 2010, Beijing grew from 13.6 to 19.6 million, for an annual population growth rate of 3.8%. Strong growth continued until 2014, when the population reached 21.5 million. Growth stopped as the municipality sought to limit population growth and the central government adopted a plan. By 2019, the population had grown only 26,000 from 2014, a five-year rate of 0.1%.

Tianjin, adjacent to Beijing, had stronger growth, but like Shanghai and Beijing, has experienced a significant slowdown in the last few years. During the 2000s, Tianjin’s population expanded at an annual rate of 2.8%, from 9.8 million to 12.9 million, continuing with strong growth until 2014. However, since that time, Tianjin has grown at a rate of only 0.6% annually. Even so, Tianjin has added 450,000 residents since 2014, far more than Shanghai and Beijing.

Within the last five years, a new planning initiative has begun, to integrate a number of municipalities, including Beijing and Tianjin and much of the province of Hebei, into “Jing Jin Ji.” One of the purposes is to disperse the growing population away from these two large municipalities.

At the southern extremity of Jing Jin Ji, Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei, is like Beijing and Tianjin. Shijiazhuang is also growing slowly, having reached 10.4 million in 2019, up from 10.2 million in 2010. The 0.2% annual growth rate is well below the 1.0% rate reached in the 2000s.

Chongqing is the nation’s largest municipality, and is also a central government province. Chongqing covers nearly as much land area as Austria (31,800 square miles or 82,300 square kilometers) and most of it is rural. The principal urban area of Chongqing is much smaller, covering only 600 square miles (1,500 square kilometers), less than two percent of the municipality, with 7.7 million residents. After having lost population during the 2000s, Chongqing has started gaining again, reaching 31.2 million in 2019, up from 28.8 million in 2010, for a 0.9% annual increase rate.

The Pearl River Delta, in the province of Guangdong, has been China’s manufacturing hub for decades. Even with the slowing of floating population growth, some, but not all, of the municipalities have continued strong population growth.

Guangzhou, in the Pearl River Delta, continues to experience a rising population, but at a somewhat slower rate. During the 2000s, Guangzhou added 2.5% to its population on an annual basis. Since 2010, Guangzhou has grown from 12.7 million to 15.9 million, for a 2.1% annual rate. Guangzhou continues to be the largest municipality in the Pearl River Delta.

Shenzhen, nearby Guangzhou, is the second largest municipality in the Pearl River Delta. Shenzhen’s population expanded by 4.0% annually during the 2000s. Since 2010, the growth has been slower, but still at a strong 2.9%. Shenzhen has grown from 10.4 million to 13.4 million over the last nine years.

Dongguan, which sits between Guangzhou and Shenzhen in the Pearl River Delta has followed a slower growth pattern, like Shanghai and Beijing. After a strong growth early 2000s, Dongguan’s annual growth rate has dropped to 0.3% since 2010 and now stands at 8.5 million.

Another Pearl River Delta municipality, Foshan, continues to grow strongly. Located across the Pearl River from Guangzhou, and with a subway integrated, Foshan has grown from 7.2 million to 8.2 million between 2010 and 2019. The annual growth rate of 1.4% is slower, however, than that of the 2000s, when Foshan grew 3.0% annually.

The big story is to the west. Four key interior municipalities continue to expand rapidly, although at a lower rate.

Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, has grown from 14.0 million in 2010 to 16.5 million in 2019, for a 1.9% expansion in population. This is down from the 2.4% rate achieved in the 2000s.

Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan reached 10.4 million, up from 8.7 million in 2010. The recent 2.0% rate is down somewhat from that of the 2000s (2.6%).

Xi’an, capital of Shaanxi and eastern terminus of the historic “Silk Road” reached 10.5 million residents, up from 8.5 million in 2010. Xi’an is growing faster than in the 2000s, at an annual rate of 2.1%, compared to the prior rate of 1.5%.

Changsha, capital of Hunan, also increased its growth rate, from 1.4% annually to 2.0%, as it grew from 7.0 million to 8.4 million.

According to the latest United Nations projections, China’s population growth will end between 2030 and 2035, followed by a decline by one-quarter by 2100. Rural migration to the largest cities is expected to continue, but not enough to prevent slowing growth, and even a decline, due to low birth rates and government policies favoring more dispersion.

Note: Urban areas (built-up urban areas) are continuously developed urbanization that is not defined by jurisdictional boundaries within a nation. With a few exceptions (such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou-Foshan), all urban areas of China are contained within a single municipality. See: Demographia World Urban Areas.

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy firm located in the St. Louis metropolitan area. He is a founding senior fellow at the Urban Reform Institute, Houston and a member of the Advisory Board of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University in Orange, California. He has served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris. His principal interests are economics, poverty alleviation, demographics, urban policy and transport. He is co-author of the annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey and author of Demographia World Urban Areas.

Mayor Tom Bradley appointed him to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (1977-1985) and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich appointed him to the Amtrak Reform Council, to complete the unexpired term of New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman (1999-2002). He is author of War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life and Toward More Prosperous Cities: A Framing Essay on Urban Areas, Transport, Planning and the Dimensions of Sustainability.

Photograph: Zhujiang New Town (the new central business district), Guangzhou, by Wendell Cox