Urbanisation In China – A Billion Urban Residents

British Embassy Beijing

November 2013


China is experiencing the largest movement of people in human history. In the past 60 years, China’s urbanisation rate has climbed from 11% to 53%. But it is set to accelerate further, with massive social, environment and economic implications. China is increasingly looking to the EU model of urbanisation and to UK experience as it navigates the transition. We must continue to capitalise on that to help the Chinese urbanise sustainably, and create opportunities for UK companies.



China’s urbanisation has climbed from 11% in 1949 to 53% today. The same transition took more than 150 years in Europe.  Yet the rate of Chinese urbanisation is set to increase still further.  Between now and 2030, China’s urban population is expected to grow by 350 million – the equivalent of a city the size of Cardiff every week. Of the ten cities predicted by the World Bank to grow the fastest between 2011 and 2025, four are in China.


The social, environmental and economic implications of this transition are genuinely startling. 


At the last count, there were more than 200m rural migrants, nearly a third of the urban population. The hukou (household registration) system – which restricts access to public services for migrants – is ripe for reform.  But it will require fiscal changes if local government is to get the necessary resources.  And as the population of rural migrants grows, so do the costs of reform.


Meanwhile, air pollution in China’s biggest cities, caused by a combination of coal-fired power and traffic, has reached critical levels. A recent UNDP report suggests air pollution may now be the main cause of death in China, shortening lives by 5 years on average in northern China.  Energy use is much higher in urban areas, unlike in Europe.  A model of urbanisation which locks China into a high energy and carbon way of life risks negating global efforts to tackle climate change.


Economically, investment expenditure on urbanisation is phenomenal and growing.  A recent McKinsey report put urban fixed investment in 2007 at 6.4 trillion RMB (£650 billion) and predicts that this will rise to 24 trillion RMB (£2.5 trillion) by 2025. This includes both the costs of private development and the infrastructure and public services that underpin it.


Local government has often raised money for such infrastructure by selling off land on the outskirts of the city. This worsens urban sprawl, congestion and pollution still further, and reduces agricultural land with implications for food supply.


China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) – its central super-ministry – published a report in June with a frank discussion of these challenges.  Later this year, possibly at the 3rd Plenum on 10 November, the “National Urbanisation Plan” may set out more details of planned development.  Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is known to be taking a strong personal interest.


One silver lining is that China is increasingly turning to the EU and the UK. They have said in terms that they want future Chinese urbanisation to be European style, i.e. compact and green. UK urban planning experience is widely cited here – garden cities and new towns in particular.


Already UK businesses like Arup, Atkins and Mott MacDonald are winning contracts here, supported by UKTI. British architects are also in demand.  We are also world-leaders in related consultancy and financing services. Building on the platform provided by the UK-China Sustainable Cities Initiative, the new China Built Environment High Value Opportunity (HVO) project is looking to identify a few big projects.


The recent Ministerial Dialogue between NDRC and Lord Green also promised more UK-China cooperation on training in urban planning. 


The EU-China sustainable urbanisation partnership signed in 2012 by Li Keqiang and Barroso has its next key staging post at a Forum and Expo alongside the EU-China Summit in November.  There will be high-level UK attendance, including the Chief Planner and the Mayor of Bristol, and a Green is Great branded stand at the Expo.  All this raises the UK profile on urbanisation ahead of what might be the biggest building boom in modern history.


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Countries: China
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