China Population Distribution & Urbanization

Stephen Chung

Executive Director

Zeppelin Real Estate Analysis Limited

June 2003 


Based on published data and information, out of the current 1.25B plus people, around 500M are categorized as urban population, representing approximately 40% of the total. It was also estimated that in the years to come, the urban population proportion is expected to reach a total of 60%, meaning some 240M people are to become urbanized in the process, not a small feat by any standards. Here we shall attempt to see what this may imply in terms of urbanization, especially with reference to existing cities, in addition to observing the population distribution:

A)     China has around 1.25B people and some 9,600,000 km2 [square kilometers, and 1 square mile has approximately 2.60 km2] of land = That is, an average of 130 people per km2 of land [or 338 people per square mile of land]. Yet, the distribution is quite uneven, and few provinces or municipalities have averages close to this national average. For instance, after Hong Kong and Macao Special Administrative Regions, Shanghai has the highest density of 2,700 people / km2 while a few remote regions have less than 20 people / km2. For readers from Hong Kong, if the above figures seem difficult to comprehend, China counting Hong Kong has a population that is 182 times that of Hong Kong, and a land area close to 8,800 times that of Hong Kong.

B)     If one categorizes China into Coastal, Central, and West / Fringe regions = The Coastal region (such as Guangdong, Fijian, Zhejiang provinces) will have around 450M people, the Central region (such as Hubei, Hunan provinces) will have another 430M people, and the West / Fringe region (such as Sichuan, Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang provinces) will have the remaining 370M people. The spread seems more or less even. However, if the related land area is taken into consideration, then the Coastal region has only around 10% i.e. 960,000 km2, the Central region has another 15% i.e. 1,440,000 km2, and the West / Fringe region has the remaining 75% of 7,200,000 km2. Put simply, 70% of the population reside on only 25% of the land. The development of the West / Fringe region is not entirely incomprehensible.

C)    China reportedly has some 630 cities = There are 11 cities with over 2m people, 23 with between 1M and 2M, 44 with between 500,000 and 1M, 159 with between 200,000 and 500,000, and 393 with less than 200,000 people, and the total urbanized population is listed as around 500M. Please note the latter figure may include both original and relocated residents, or towns-villages with proximity to urban centers. Using the 500M people figure, the average population for the 630 cities is around 800,000.

D)    Assuming the bulk of the anticipated urban population increase is to concentrate on these 630 or so cities = Then each city will gain an average of 370,000 residents, representing an average increase percentage of 46%. Naturally, (new) cities can be started from scratch though the cost is likely to be formidable too, thus building upon existing urban centers may be a more viable. Please note this is an average figure, and actual distribution is likely to deviate from it.

E)     Assuming the anticipated urban population increase is to concentrate on those cities currently with 200,000 or more people = There are some 237 cities with each currently averaging 1.60M people, and the average population increase for each will be around 1M, representing an increase of 60%.

F)     Assuming the anticipated urban population increase is to concentrate on those cities currently with 500,000 or more people = There are now some 78 cities with each having an average of 3.60M, and the average population increase will be 3M, representing an increase of 84%.

G)    Assuming the anticipated urban population increase is to concentrate on those cities currently with 1M or more people = There are around 34 cities with each average 7M people, and the average increase will also be 7M, representing an increase of 100%.

The above are not predictions but are simple calculations to see how much more existing urban centers may grow in size / population given certain assumptions. To sum it up, if the expected urban population increase is to focus on the existing cities, then urban growth can already be quite significant, with many expanding some 50%. If such focus is to further concentrate on the larger existing cities, then the growth potential is even greater with some cities having to expand 100%. As to whether this would occur, or lead to sustainable urban and real estate / asset price growth, other factors such as economic performance, workforce quality, education level, skills acquired, urban planning, population policy, and the like will also play a vital part. Simply having more people is not by itself a sufficient condition. 

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