The Chinese Urban System: Political Evolution and Economic Transition

  • Elfie SwertsEmail author
  • Liao Liao
Part of the Advances in Geographical and Environmental Sciences book series (AGES)


The huge Chinese urban development supports the growing importance of China in the world urbanization, politics, and economy. In this context, our goal is to evaluate whether the Chinese urbanization process reveals some universal dynamic or if the 40 years of strong political control singles out the Chinese urban system. Our analysis of the Chinese urban system is based on an original data corpus, which describes the demographic and economic characteristic of the 9476 cities with more than 10,000 inhabitants in China. It allows to draw up a first picture of the demographic evolution of the Chinese city system from 1982 to 2010 and of the resulting functional specialization of Chinese urban agglomerations in 2011. It shows that the Chinese urban system follows universal dynamic trends but is quite influenced by the administrative system which defines the powers of cities. The Chinese urbanization is both characterized by the development of huge megalopolises and the strong growth of some small and medium cities. This can be partly linked with the political decentralization that gave to cities, including the small ones, the role of “engine producing modernity.” The evolution of the administrative system and economic specialization also influences the urban development. Thus, the cities in the Eastern coast have been steadily developed during the past decades mainly because of the advantage of SEZ policies and the development of manufacturing activities. But with a more recent development of the SEZ in the Central and Western part of China, and the diversification of the Chinese economy, the strongest potential for demographic and economic growth could be expanded from the Eastern coast to all over the country.


Urban system China Cities’ trajectories Decentralization Economic specialization 


  1. Anderson G, Ge Y (2005) The size distribution of Chinese cities. Reg Sci Urban Econ 35(6):756–776CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Aubert C (1996) Chine: Petites Villes ou Grandes Cites ? Les Relations Villes- Campagnes, ou les Voies Detournees de l’Urbanisation. QuellesVilles Pour Quel Developpement. Sachs, I. Paris PUFGoogle Scholar
  3. Blayo Y (1997) Des politiques demographiques en Chine. Paris, PUF, INED, 423pGoogle Scholar
  4. Bretagnolle A, Giraud T, Mathian H (2008) La mesure de l’urbanisation aux Etats-Unis, des premiers comptoirs coloniaux aux Metropolitan Areas (1790–2000). Cybergeo: Eur J GeogrGoogle Scholar
  5. Cai F, Park A, Zhao Y (2008) The Chinese labor market in the reform era. In: Brandt L, Rawski TG (eds) China’s great economic transformation. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge/New York, pp 167–214CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Chan KW (1996) Post-Mao China: a two-class urban society in the making. Int J Urban Reg Res 20(1):134–150CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Chan KW, Zhang L (1999) The hukou system and rural-urban migration in China: processes and changes. China Q 160:818–855CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Chan C-KR, Zhao XB (2002) The relationship between administrative hierarchy position and city size development in China. GeoJournal 56(2):97–112CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Chen Z, Jin Y, Lu M (2008) Economic opening and industrial agglomeration in China. In: Fujita MH, Hamaguchi N (eds) Regional integration in East Asia: perspectives of spatial and neoclassical economics. Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, pp 13–42. 276pGoogle Scholar
  10. Cheng T, Selden M (1994) The origins and social consequences of China’s hukou system. The China Quarterly 139:644–668CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Christaller W (1933) Die zentralen Orte in Suddeutschland. Jena, G. FischerGoogle Scholar
  12. Cura R, Cottineau C, Swerts E, Antonio Ignazzi C, Bretagnolle A, Vacchiani-Marcuzzo C, Pumain D (2017) The old and the new: qualifying city systems in the world with classical models and new data. Geogr Anal 49(4):363–386CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Fu S, Dong X, Chai G (2010) Industry specialization, diversification, churning, and unemployment in Chinese cities. China Econ Rev 21(4):508–520CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Gangopadhyay K, Basu B (2009) City size distributions for India and China. Physica A: Stat Mech Appl 388(13):2682–2688CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Gentelle P, Pelletier P (1994) Chine Japon Corée. Géographie Universelle, vol 5. Belin-Reclus, Brunet, p 480Google Scholar
  16. Gibrat R (1931) Les inégalités économiques. Librairie du Recueil Sirey, ParisGoogle Scholar
  17. Gipouloux F (2006) Attractivité, concurrence et complémentarité: la place ambiguë des villes côtières chinoises dans la dynamique économique du corridor maritime de l’Asie de l’Est. Outre-Terre 2:149–160CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Gottschang TR (1987) Economic change, disasters, and migration: the historical case of Manchuria. Econ Dev Cult Chang 35(3):461–490CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Liang XY, Li ZG, Tang SK, Zhao LJ (2007) A study on the spatial distribution of Chinese hi-tech industries: spatial econometrics analysis based on province-level industrial output value. Stud Sci Sci 3(011):453–460Google Scholar
  20. Liao L (2015) Déconcentration et transferts des compétences économiques en Chine, 1992–2010. Université d’Aix-Marseille, thèse de doctoratGoogle Scholar
  21. Lin GC, Ho SP (2005) The state, land system, and land development processes in contemporary China. Ann Assoc Am Geogr 95(2):411–436CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Liu Z (2005) Institution and inequality: the Hukou system in China. J Comp Econ 33(1):133–157CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Losch A (1940) Die raumliche Ordnung der Wirtschaft. Jena, G. FischerGoogle Scholar
  24. Ma Laurence JC, MaCui G (1987) Administrative changes and urban population in China. Ann Assoc Am Geogr 77(3):373–395CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Ma LJC (2005) Urban administrative restructuring, changing scale relations and local economic development in China. Polit Geogr 24:477–497CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Ma X, Timberlake MF (2008) Identifying China’s leading world city: a network approach. GeoJournal 71(1):19–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Moriconi-Ebrard F (1993) L’Urbanisation du Monde depuis 1950. Anthropos, Paris. 372 pGoogle Scholar
  28. National Bureau of Statistics of China (2010) China statistical yearbook, China Statistics PressGoogle Scholar
  29. National Bureau of Statistics of China (2013)
  30. Pumain D (1982) La dynamique des villes. Economica, Paris. 231 pGoogle Scholar
  31. Pumain D., Paulus F., & Vacchiani-Marcuzzo C. (2009). Innovation cycles and urban dynamics. In Lane D, Pumain D. van der Leeu S. West G. (ed.). Complexity perspectives in innovation and social change. Springer, Berlin. 237–260CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Pumain D, Swerts E, Cottineau C, Vacchiani-Marcuzzo C, Ignazzi A, Bretagnolle A, Delisle F, Cura R, Lizzi L, Baffi S (2015) Multilevel comparison of large urban systems. Cybergeo: Eur J Geogr 706. URL:
  33. Rawski TG (1989) Economic growth in prewar China. University of California Press, BerkeleyGoogle Scholar
  34. Schaffar A (2009) On Zipf’s law: testing over China’s and India’s city-size distribution. 49th European Congress of the regional science association International. Lodz, Territorial cohesion of Europe and Integrative planningGoogle Scholar
  35. Song S, Zhang KH (2002) Urbanization and city size distribution in China. Urban Stud 39(12):2317–2327CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Swerts E, Pumain D (2013) Approche statistique de la cohésion territoriale: le système de villes en Inde. L'Espace géographique 42(1):77–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Swerts E, Pumain D (2015) 从国际比较角度看中国城市化近来的趋. In: Shenjing He (ed) International conference on China’s Urban transformation and restructuring. Sun Yat Tsen, GuangzhouGoogle Scholar
  38. Wu F (2016) Emerging Chinese cities: implications for global Urban studies. Prof Geogr 68(2):338–348CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Wu Q, Cheng J, Liu D, Han L, Yang Y (2015) Kunming: a regional international Mega City in Southwest China. In: Singh RB (ed) Urban development challenges, risks and resilience in Asian mega cities. Advanced geography environment science. Springer, New York, pp 323–347Google Scholar
  40. Xu Z (2005) Economie d’agglomération: taille, densité des villes chinoises. Economie du développement et de la transition – Journée de l’AFSE. Clermont-Ferrand, CERDI: 21Google Scholar
  41. Xu Z (2008) Urbanisation et croissance des villes en Chine. Faculté des Sciences Economiques et de Gestion, Université d’Auvergne Clermont 1: 247Google Scholar
  42. Yang H, Ouyang X (1988) Chinese constitutional history. Press of education in Anhui, Hefei, p 382Google Scholar
  43. Yong L, Lili C (2005) The experimental analysis of development trend of concentration and centralization of manufacturing of China. Stat Res 8:004Google Scholar
  44. Zhang TS, Liang JS, Song JP (2005) Study on the concentration and dispersion of China’s manufacturing at provincial level. Econ Geogr 3:315–319Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Lausanne, Institute of Geography and SustainabilityLausanneSwitzerland
  2. 2.University of Aix-MarseilleAix en ProvenceFrance

Personalised recommendations