China’s Urbanization Rate does not reflect Social Realities
According to official figures from the Bureau of Statistics, China’s urban population reached 690 million people at the end of 2011, at an estimated urbanization rate of 51.27% . For the first time in its history, China appears to be more urban than rural. While this may be a statistical fact, the situation is actually more complex.
Firstly, in China, the exact term for “urbanization” is no longer chengshi hua / 城市化 but chengzhen hua / 城镇化. The process of chengzhen hua can be translated as “bourgadization” (chengzhen / 城镇), in reference to small cities that have the same administrative level as “towns”. These two terminologies refer to two different logics of urban development: for a decade, urban policies were focused on the urbanization of small cities. But since 2000, many highly industrialized rural areas have been converted into towns (zhen 镇). In this way, while inhabitants often did not share the same rights registered urban dwellers enjoyed (social benefits related to education, health, etc.), their populations could be counted as urban.
Secondly, the current urbanization rate accounts for people working in the secondary and tertiary sectors, including peasant-workers (nongmingong). Yet the nongmingong also do not benefit from the same social benefits as formal urban residents. According to official statistics, there are more than 100 million nongmingong in China today.
The final trap is the split between the “permanent urban residents” (changzhurenkou / 常驻人口) and the urban hukou population (hujirenkou / 户籍人口). One can indeed wonder about the meaning of the numbers. On the one hand, from a social point of view, urban hukou holders are only part of the urban “permanent” population, but until today, were still the only group to enjoy the coveted social benefits of urban residency. On the other hand, statistically, from 2000 the politics of urbanization in small cities have led communities to artificially inflate the number of permanent residents not holding an urban hukou, their real numbers remaining very difficult to estimate.
Not only is China’s urbanization rate still too low by the new plan’s standards, but the process of urbanization itself also generates inequalities. While large cities can enjoy the benefits of the State at all levels – fiscal, social, financial, etc. – the countryside and small cities often have relatively few advantages in comparison. And the more the big cities expand, the more the salaries increase, and the more attractive these large metropolises become, further widening the gap between them and smaller cities.