Urban Planning + Design + Research


Writing on a variety of topics related to cities, urban theory, sustainable development, China, urbanism.

Hukou Reform and China's "City States"

Following my recent posts on China's recently announced "reforms" to the hukou, or household registration system, I think its necessary to look at it in the context of urban population in China, a topic I've written about before here.
According to the news conference held last week, China will loosen restrictions on rural residents obtaining legal status in cities "under 1 million in population" and allow a similar process with some more restrictions in cities  between 1 and 3 million, and 3 and 5 million. In cities over 5 million, termed "megacities" China will continue to restrict population growth to prevent slums, and perhaps more importantly, a dramatic surge in fiscal demands on local governments that would have to provide social services for new migrants, something that most cities and their urban residents have naturally opposed.
While this announcement was lacking on specifics, that's precisely what China's policy announcements are meant to be. The real details will be worked out over the years in specific cities and counties. But it's also necessary to have an idea of the size of China's urban population before we begin to analyze the proposed changes.
City Regions
The following map shows China divided by its cities. In China, city or 市, actually is an administrative classification more comparable to counties in the U.S. or England. It is the next level below province. Cities in their official boundaries actually include a lot of rural land. In fact, most land in China falls within the jurisdiction of a city. So by this measure, China is just one federation of city states.
How Urban is China?_Cities in China
The map above (click to enlarge) shows that all the cities in turquoise have a population over 10 million, while the cities in beige have a population of over 5 million. By this measure, nearly every "city" in China is over 5 million people. This is total population, not urban population. So, Beijing has a total population of around 20 million, while it's urban population is a little over half that. If you read the hukou reform plans and their reference to cities of 5 million, that is actually referring to "urban population" or 市区人口, not total population. IF it had been referring to total population, then every one of the areas highlighted in beige in the map above would be considered megacities, and would therefore be more or less restricted to new migrants. That's why its so important to know what population is meant when a Chinese city's population is discussed: total population or urban population.
The figure below shows more what this discrepancy means for China's 4 provincial-level cities: Beijing, Chongqing, Shanghai, Tianjin. By this measure, Chongqing may have the greatest total population, but Shanghai clearly has the largest urban population.
Wall and Market_City Bubble Comparison 4.36.37 PM
Hukou reform: a local affair
If restrictions on obtaining hukou  in large cities continues, as it looks to for the near future, the reforms announced will mostly apply to cities even smaller than the ones listed: the county seats and other towns with populations under 1 million. Some of these are still quite large, regional centers. China will be focusing on moving peasants and remaining "agricultural population" from the farms and mountains down to the cities closest to them. And in fact, this is just what is happening with China's various rural relocation policies including "ecological migration," "new socialist countryside" and "convert farmland to forest". All of these programs, in existence for 10 years or more, are aimed at moving farmers to new housing, sometimes off of their land completely.
Hukou reform then, will be, at least for the foreseeable future, primarily aimed at reducing the differences between urban and rural residents WITHIN existing municipal jurisdictions. While many outside observers have said that this means China is merely continuing its unique form of segregation, this is a very practical approach aimed at reducing stress on the already huge cities like Shanghai and Beijing.
The city of Chengdu, the capital of southwestern Sichuan province, has already embarked on its pilot program of reforms aimed at reducing the gap between urban and rural household benefits. These policies have included implementing land-exchange programs for peasants to transfer and sell their rural land rights to receive urban status, and classification of landless peasants as unemployed, which would allow them to receive urban welfare.
Viewed alongside the pilot reforms of Chengdu and also Chongqing, its clear that China is not abandoning its system of household registration, but rather transforming it from one that separates urban from rural, to one that now will only separate based on location or urban jurisdiction. China will continue to be a collection of many different city-states and regions.