On Chinese urbanization – 城市化 vs. 城镇化

Bill Bishop sparked an interesting conversation with something that he caught and passed along in his Sinocism email from earlier this week.

 李克强论城镇化|李克强|城镇化_21世纪网 – should we be paying more attention to fact that li keqiang uses 城镇化 and not 城市化 for “urbanization”?

Following a brief discussion on Twitter, it seems clear that this is an open question in his mind. Li’s choice of words might not actually matter. As someone finishing a book on the nature and politics of Chinese urbanization, I’ll share my perspective.

What is the difference between these two terms? Urbanization of cities (城市化) implies growth of China’s large cities, particularly the famous megacities, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou…. Urbanization of towns (城镇化) implies growth of the small and medium sized cities that proliferate throughout the Chinese coast and interior. For much of the past 30 years, the regime has focused on constraining the growth of large cities while pushing for urbanization in the countryside or small cities.

I argue that this preference for many smaller cities rather than a small number of cities on a mega-scale has fundamentally political roots. Large cities represent areas of concern for dictators. They tend to be impenetrable and can explode into protests at a moment’s notice.  From the founding of the PRC, the CCP regime has evinced a strong concern for urban stability. For non-democratic regimes since WWII, large cities are more likely to be the locations of protests and, even more ominously from a regime perspective, regimes facing large cities survive for shorter periods of time.

The shape of urbanization shapes the politics of dictatorships. Having lots of people live in cities or towns — that is, be urbanized — usually is associated with high levels of economic development. Contrary to the general wisdom emanating from modernization theory, economic development does not bring down dictatorial regimes. On the other hand, having lots of people in one city — that is, to have high levels of what I call urban concentration — is dangerous. As I show in a paper forthcoming from the Journal of Politics:

Is urban concentration hazardous to authoritarian regime survival? For the 237 regimes with urban concentration levels above the mean level in the data, the mean duration is 8.6 years and the annual regime death rate is 9.2%. For the 198 regimes characterized by low levels of urban concentration, the incidence rate is only 5.6% and the mean duration is 12.4 years. Regimes with capital cities that dominate the urban landscape fail nearly four years sooner and face sixty percent greater death rates.

Li Keqiang very well may move the regime away from the pro-small city policies that the regime has been pushing for the decades of the reform era. It is possible that other prerogatives compel such a decision. Certainly, on environmental terms, there exists a possibility of efficient land use in large cities compared to many smaller ones (even if Beijing viewed from space increasingly looks like an amoeba determined to spread ever-outward). The decision of which path to take may be a more consequential one that it appears.

3 responses to “On Chinese urbanization – 城市化 vs. 城镇化”

  1. I’m glad we are now talking about this distinction . . . It is absolutely crucial to understanding “urbanization” policies in China and a whole range of crucial related issues — housing, healthcare, education, etcetera. I was just speaking last week with a prominent columnist and signer of the recent ICCPR open letter and explaining that the hazards of translation by talking about these two terms. Both, I said, would generally be rendered as “urbanization.” He was appalled. “But if they are both translated this way,” he said, “all understanding of debates and policies is lost!”

  2. […] many crammed together so closely to each other and the seats of economic and political power. This debate can be summarized by two different Chinese phrases that translate to the English “urbanize”: […]

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