A Note on City Size and Political Economy

Among the China superlatives that we have heard for the last two decades is the fantastic growth in city size - Pudong in Shanghai from fishing and farming villages to the world's most recognizable skyline; similarly for Shenzhen, Guangdong, and literally dozens of places most of us have never heard of. 



Source: Lujiazui 2016.jpg

The US has ten or eleven cities now with a population of at least one million; China has scores, and many of them growing from seemingly nothing.  China has about four times the population of the US, but far more than four times the number of larger-than-1,000,000 population cities - by 2018, well over a hundred.  100 cities bigger than Liverpool.  What gives?  We think we understand the concept of growing economies, and the concept of city growth; but how can these superlatives be so?   A couple of ideas, and some clarification on terms -


1.  urbanization is not only a global phenomenon, it is a modern economy phenomenon - farm-to-factory increased densities of cities a great deal in the Industrial Revolution, but the modern service-oriented economy demands (and allows for) even much greater densities of people, and, moreover, pulls people into the biggest and most diverse cities at a higher rate than in past decades.  There are scale effects – the biggest and most successful tend to get even bigger. (We will ignore the ancient forces that created megacities of a thousand or two thousand years ago – Kaifeng (largest city in the world early in the Song Dynasty, with a population of about 600,000) and Hangzhou, the largest city in the world in the late Song and Yuan dynasties, and into the early Ming,  and Rome, about a million population until the collapse;  and after the collapse of Rome, no place in western or northern Europe until London, about 1700)

List of Cities in China        List of Largest European Cities in History


There was a time in China when manufacturing was conducted each within its own walled danwei, and inside the urban area. Each danwei had its own housing, entertainment areas, and shopping.  Each danwei was the Chinese version of Pullman, the ideal city created by George Pullman in the 1880s)  Pullman, Chicago  This was the Maoist era when land had no value. In the opening and reform under Deng, land began to have realizable value.  In the last three decades, Chinese local governments have undertaken policies to encourage or force manufacturing to relocate to the outskirts, opening large swaths of urban land to development of housing and offices and shopping.  This is American suburbanization of industry conducted at pace and at a time when necessary manufacturing access to river transport had long past.  So, a frenzied catching up.  Think of the demand for oil, before and after invention of the internal combustion engine.  The oil just laid around for millions of years, before it suddenly achieved value.


2.  government fiscal policy matters - After Mao, Chinese cities became the focus of development.  "If we want development, we want cities to grow."  China supported cities and helped them grow.  "Stadtluft macht frei," the old saying about the medieval urban place, that "city air makes one free," was true in China in both senses - that of opportunity for the individual and relative independence of the place from domineering control by a greater unit of government.  In the US, cities were strangled by federal policy, administrative law, and political fragmentation.  The strangulation continues today - Chinese laugh at our inability to build tunnels under the Hudson, fix subways or airports, or let cities grow.  Among cities in China, as in the US, there is the rough and tumble of leader and administrative negotiation over infrastructure expansion and competition for location of business and facilities.  A difference is that in China, there is always a leader with enough power to say yes, and then all the pieces fall into place, and development can happen.  In the US, with heavily fragmented political power buttressed by rule of law, everyone has the power to say "no," and no one has the power to say "yes," and force implementation.  Delay is built in to American growth in a way that does not exist in China. The political fragmentation that starves American cities in favor of its suburbs doesn’t exist when the political boundaries of cities in China are so much greater than boundaries in America.


3.  definitions matter - This is the most important distinction between American and Chinese cities for understanding the proliferation of huge Chinese cities.   Briefly, counties in the US are generally larger than cities, and counties are contiguous across the US - one moves from one county into another.  In China, counties are subunits of cities and cities are contiguous - one moves from Hangzhou (city) to Jiaxing (city).  In the US, cities are generally quite small - Chicago is only 225 square miles (590 square kilometers) and New York is only 302 square miles (784 square kilometers). The surrounding suburban area dwarfs central city area.

Every city in China has a substantial rural area - even Beijing and Shanghai.   A city in China can have mountains and large lakes, in addition to farm land.  As you know, there are no mountains or farmland in New York or Chicago.  There are historical reasons for the large area of subprovincial and prefecture-level cities, but another reason for concentration of people and development is the historical government fear over food security.  By law, and enforced pretty fiercely, each province must maintain at least 84% of its land in rural, or let us say, non-urban development land.  This regulation is passed on to cities under the province's jurisdiction.  The Land Bureau in each city receives an allocation of land each year that can be converted to construction land; without the allocation from the central government and the province, no additional land conversion can take place.  Some of you know about the truly enormous fill-in-the-ocean projects in some Chinese cities - Dongtou County in Wenzhou is one example, but there are others.  This project calls for filling in hundreds of square miles of ocean, creating land for development.  Why?  Wenzhou is a fast growing city (despite the overbuilding of the last decade) and it is surrounded by hills and mountains that make expansion impossible.  So, a solution- create more land.

With unitary government - all power derives from Beijing - it is feasible, and relatively common, for cities to merge and become one administrative place, and for formerly rural counties to become districts of cities.  So areas of cities and population totals are a bit less reliable than those in the US, since change in areas and even definitions is more frequent.  I encountered problems establishing a population for Hangzhou, a place I know pretty well.  For example, Xiaoshan was a county-level city, an independent unit of government (sort of).  In 2001, it became a district of Hangzhou, and Xiaoshan as a separate city disappeared.  The population and the area of Hangzhou increased substantially. Similarly for the Yuhang district of Hangzhou - merged into Hangzhou in  2001, and Lin'an in 2017.  Population and area can grow substantially just by administrative fiat. 


4.  comparing apples with apples - What makes sense from a political science or administrative perspective is to compare roughly similar sized areas.  Hangzhou has a population of 8.7 million, about the same as New York, and three times that of Chicago.  But Hangzhou is 16,847 square kilometers; New York is 784; Chicago is 590.  What is roughly comparable in area with Hangzhou is the metropolitan planning area of Chicago, including seven or ten counties.  The seven counties of northeastern Illinois still have some farmland, and are about 10,387 square kilometers - that is Chicago plus all the land around its satellite cities - Waukegan, Elgin, Aurora, Joliet, Gary.   And still, Hangzhou is substantially larger, at 16,847 square kilometers.  The population of that larger Chicago planning area is 9.5 million for the seven counties.


5examples, using area and population -


Hangzhou is the capital of Zhejiang province, and one of the most economically developed cities in China.  Dalian, in Liaoning province, is a rarity in China - a city that is better known than its provincial capital, Shenyang. Dalian, too, is a growing city.  I pick these two places because I know them reasonably well, and they are certainly characteristic of the size relations in Chinese cities.  See the table below.  Data is from published sources, wiki and Chinese government estimates, but I make no claims to precision.  The urban population of Hangzhou (means what?) is said to be about 5.6 million in the 2010 Census; Shenyang, about 5.7 million, Shanghai 20.2, and Dalian, 3.9.  For “urban,” my own preference is to use the districts of a city, as inexact as that may be.  Some comparisons -


Place                           Area, km2                   Population, x 106       Population density, per km2


Liaoning Province          145,900                        43.9                         300                        

Zhejiang Province          101,800                        55.6                         550

Illinois State                  150,000                        12.8                          89.4

New York State              141,300                        19.9                        159


Note that Liaoning and Zhejiang are of roughly similar size as the States of Illinois and New York.   Here you see the roughly 4x greater population in China.  Zhejiang has significantly larger GDP than Liaoning; New York, more than Illinois



Shenyang                         12,980                         8.3   (2010)                  640

 - urban districts                     571                        3.8                            6,655



Dalian                               13,237                         6.7   (2010)                   532

 - urban districts                    550                          2.1  (2015 est.)          7,721



Hangzhou                        16,847                         9.4   (2017 estimate)     570

 - urban districts                   706                          3.7                              5,240


  List of Cities in China by Population and Built-up Area


Shanghai                           6,341                       24.0  (2017 est.)            3,800


note - these data define Shanghai as only urban, which is not the case from casual observation.  Better data would show Shanghai urban area as much more dense than indicated above.


New York                            784                         8.7                           10,400


Shanghai is close to twenty times the size of New York City in area, with about three times the population.



Cook County                      4,230                        5.2                              2,129

City of Chicago                      590                        2.7                              4,594

Chicago planning area       10,387                        9.5   seven counties


The “urban districts” of Hangzhou are reported at 706 km2, and 3.7 million people.  I know the Yuhang district quite well, and that is not included in the urban district data.  Yuhang is now quite densely built-up suburban, with the main offices for Alibaba and many other companies, and thousands of new apartments.  So, as always, data is only … data.

But one can see that the urban and suburban part of Hangzhou (districts) is much closer to the size of Chicago, and much closer in population.   The population densities of the urban districts of Shenyang, Dalian, Hangzhou, and even Shanghai are reasonably close to those for New York and Chicago.  Again, some liberal allowances are needed for interpretation of the data. 


6.  for decades, political career advancement was partly determined by GDP advancement - Chinese have always valued cities as seats of power, in a way that Americans have not.  Without exception - I think - the provincial capital is the largest city by population in any province. Political power is united with economic power. Compare with American state capitals.  After Deng, and opening up, the advancement of political careers depended in part upon achieving a target rate of GDP growth in the province, city, county, or district.   In addition to feeling modern economic pressures, leaders in China competed to grow their own economies, and growth was most easily defined by real estate growth.  So, the pressures to urbanize in a country with no history of suburban trains-to-downtown to permit office sector workers to live far from their jobs.  Concentration was important for GDP growth as well as for satisfying the needs of a modern economy.  (Don't get me started on short term v long term GDP growth, or the impact of excessive bad debts.  Careers are made or lost in five years). 


7.  GDP growth is easy when you have determined goals and the power to achieve them -  as a last note, I want to point out that the development goals in American urban planning and Chinese urban planning were at one point broadly similar -  to provide for more people, more GDP generated, more taxes paid locally.  There have always been local exceptions, and quality of life is more of a concern in planning now in the US than was the case thirty or forty years ago, and certainly more of a concern than is currently the case in China.  But let me leave you with an understanding of how easy it can be to achieve GDP growth, if one has the power to control land and location of people and businesses and the growth goal is quantifiable.


As you might know, the National Development and Reform Commission, the economic planning arm of the central government, establishes a target GDP growth for each year in the Five Year Plan.  Five Year Plans  That national growth rate is then allocated, with some give and take, to individual provinces, and from provinces to cities.  A mayor of a city understands what his targets are, and he has five years in which to perform, at which time he is judged on performance and suitability for advancement in governance.

With a target of X% growth per year, how can one accomplish such a task?  Quite simple, really.  Every piece of the built environment - housing, offices, factories, subways, expressways, universities, hospitals, airports, ports, even recreational facilities - has some estimated cost of construction.  While urban planning in China can be quite detailed and sophisticated, planning and implementation are distinct.  If one needs to achieve Y billions of yuan in growth, representing X% GDP growth, all one need do is add up the potential projects, create some new projects if needed, and get started on building.  Not so hard when you control all the land, the developers and contractors and lenders are mostly state owned businesses with goals similar to your own, and there is little to no power to oppose what is decreed.  Lead, follow, or get out of the way is a known sentiment in China. 


If you have made it to the end of this piece, I hope you have the idea that while China is densely populated, the densities are not so far from those in normal urban areas in the US.  Much of the city growth in China in the last three decades is the result of policies to encourage urbanization, city consolidation, and the ability of governments to focus development in ways absolutely unavailable in the US.  Nothing mysterious here – just a different set of policies and priorities.  I tell my Chinese friends that Hangzhou is like Chicago; and Shanghai is like New York, except that there are more Chinese in New York.  Always good for a laugh.