The Consequences of Urbanization in China

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This essay will examine urbanization in China by starting with a brief background of urbanization in Asia, specifically comparing it with Western countries. Then, we will focus on three specific issues - air pollution, public transit and “left-behind” children and elderly people - that have accompanied urbanization to examine the challenges, threats, opportunities and innovations that have arisen.

Urbanization in Asia

The urbanization process has been relatively rapid since 1950 in some less developed regions of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern and Western Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. Among these, Eastern Asia has experienced the most striking urbanization increase, especially during the last 20 years (“The speed of urbanization”, 2018). In the next three decades, it is estimated that Asia will contribute over 60 percent of the increase in the world’s urban population, with an expected total urban population of over 2.6 billion by 2030, particularly in population giants like China and India (“Urbanization takes on new dimensions”, 2001). With such rapid population growth, these regions or countries will face many challenges, including the need for economic opportunities for urban dwellers, improved transportation infrastructure and housing, social services and benefits, comfortable living conditions, and effective systems of governance and management (“Urbanization takes on new dimensions”, 2001). Although to some extent, the challenges of urbanization that countries face are the same everywhere, there are several distinctive features in Asia due to its massive populations.

The first issue is the speed at which urbanization has happened.(“Urbanization takes on new dimensions”, 2001). Statistically, the share of the urban population in Eastern Asia has more than tripled in the past 65 years, rising from 18 to 60 percent of the world’s urban population between 1950 and 2015. A similar change in the more developed regions took about 80 years, between 1875 and 1955 (“The speed of urbanization”, 2018). That is to say, for some cities in the developed countries in the West, such as London, Toronto and New York, urbanization has been a gradual progress that took a longer period so that cities had enough time to adjust. In contrast, in developing Asian cities, intense urbanization is taking place within a few short decades, requiring governments to respond in a very limited time (“Urbanization takes on new dimensions”, 2001).

The second issue with urbanization in Asia the size of the cities and the rise of “megacities.” According to the UN’s World Urbanization Prospects, 16 out of 24 the world’s megacities will be located in Asia. These cities continue to grow, sprawling into suburban areas. The urban structure becomes a city core at the centre surrounded by secondary cities; this pattern has also shown up in North American cities (“Urbanization takes on new dimensions”, 2001). A continuously growing urban sprawl will be a problem if governments cannot control it. The third issue is the problem of uneven globalization across cities and regions. Some cities like Seoul and Shanghai have successfully integrated into the global economy and have become leading international cites, while other cities, that are heavily dependent on domestic economies, experience a much slower rate of development. These cities face greater challenges in terms of poverty and opportunity creation (“Urbanization takes on new dimensions”, 2001).

The Case of China

Now we take a closer look at the case of urbanization in China, which has been viewed as unique; it is neither identical with the developed economies nor following the same path as developing countries (Chen, Liu, & Tao, 2013). In the past 30 years, China's economy has grown explosively, which is a key factor pushing the urbanization process forward. In 1950, only 13% of people in China lived in cities. However, after 60 years, this number has grown to 45%. Today, 25 of the world’s largest 100 cities are in China. Urbanization reshapes both the physical environment and the cultural fabric of China (Seto, 2016). For example, there is the issue of pollution and huge urban demands on the environment, as well as opportunities and innovations for more efficient energy use.

As mentioned earlier, some challenges are globally identical, such as the problem of pollution. However, it has greater impacts on developing countries like China as their economic development often relies on industrial output. China obviously had tradeoffs between the economic boom and the environment. Years ago, images of Chinese cities in haze or under heavy smog captured whole world's’ attentions. According to a report done by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection in 2014, only 8 of 74 monitored cities met air quality standards (Hernandez & Andres, 2015). Such serious air pollution is associated with intense usage of coal energy, whereas coal is used to generate electricity, power industrialization, and heat homes. It’s clear that coal energy did create socio-economic benefits for millions of people but it has also led to environmental degradation and polluted city environments. Inevitably, there have been significant social consequences.

The most significant consequence is the risk to health. China’s annual PM2.5 (PM2.5 refers to atmospheric particulate matter (PM) that have a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers, which is about 3% the diameter of a human hair; often included in air quality reports) levels are consistently five times higher on average than the advised WHO limit of 10 micrograms per cubic meter. According to the WHO, “PM2.5 can penetrate the lung barrier and enter the blood system. They can increase the risk of heart and respiratory diseases in sensitive individuals, and even trigger lung cancer” (“How air pollution is destroying our health”, n.d.). More than that, in 2007, there were about 133 million workdays lost due to health problems resulting from air pollution. This number was equivalent to 1.34 percent of real GDP and lowered total household disposable income by $90 billion (“Is air quality in China a social problem?”, 2018). In 2007, air pollution was an urgent issue.

Under such hazardous living conditions, Chinese media started covering these issues and many Chinese citizens started expressing their frustrations and concerns through online social networks. In February 2015, an air-pollution documentary called “Under the Dome” went viral on the Internet with more than 200 million views. It was created by a Chinese reporter called Chai Jing. This work was the result of years of reports of interviews with environmental officials, industrial business managers, and health officials in China. To a certain degree, this documentary reveals the most accurate problems facing China’s air pollution management (Hernandez & Andres, 2015). “Under the Dome” caused a huge social sensation and the video was removed and has been banned ever since. However, it became a force for some real action to be taken in order to change this situation.

In November 2016, China released the Thirteenth Five-Year Plan, which outlined some significant environmental objectives including a continuing effort to reduce PM2.5 in China’s ten worst-affected cities like Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei by 18 percent; and to reduce coal production by 140 million tons by 2020 (“Is air quality in China a social problem? ”, 2018). Moreover, more than 30 cities committed to reducing PM2.5 particles by 15 to 40 percent over the winter of 2017 through paying industries to upgrade their equipment, restricting the use of older vehicles, and substituting coal with other renewable energy forms (“Is air quality in China a social problem?”, 2018). In 2017, a key action for curbing emissions was that China closed 40 percent of all its factories. The result was positive; the heavily polluted city of Linfen saw a 50 percent reduction in PM2.5 levels.

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Meanwhile, according to the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region had a 25 percent decline in PM2.5 levels during the winter period of 2017-2018. In addition to that, at the beginning months of 2017, Chinese government promised to invest $367 billion in renewable power generation such as solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear energy by 2020 (“Is air quality in China a social problem?”, 2018). In conclusion, although China has made some progress up to date, it is still struggling in some areas as their air pollution metrics performance is experiencing ups and downs. Air pollution regulation is not the work of one day and China needs a consistent effort for changing the circumstances since urbanization is an ongoing process and environmental pollution will still be a primary social concern.

Urbanization not only brought environmental concerns to Chinese society, but also resulted in tremendous pressure on the urban infrastructure - public transit, for example. The huge flow of immigrants coming from second-tier cities or rural regions pouring into central cities like Beijing or Shanghai for better employment opportunities has added more demands and pressures on the transit system. Also, due to the motorization of urban residents resulting from higher income, more people own private automobiles. Beginning in 1990, the total number of motor vehicles in China has increased from 5.54 million in 1990 to 105.78 million in 2011 (Zhong, Sun, & Lu, 2012). Almost all middle-sized and large cities in China have been facing a similar problem - traffic congestion. For solving the problem, the initial approach taken in the 1990s and early 2000s was to expand the road system and invest in transportation infrastructure. However, many scholars have pointed out that public transportation is the most effective way to deal with traffic problems in big cities (Zhong, Sun, & Lu, 2012).

Finally, the shift has changed away from huge investments on roadway-system improvement to public transport systems and services like urban metro rail systems and bus rapid systems (BRT). Take the BRT system as an example, which costs one-tenth of metro rail, are designed with centre lanes so that buses can move smoothly from station to station without competing with private vehicles. The first BRT line in China was put into operation in Beijing in 2005 (Zhong, Sun, & Lu, 2012). After that, other main Chinese cities like Guangzhou, Hangzhou, and Jinan, have developed more BRT lines as important parts of their transit systems. The largest BRT system in China, Guangzhou BRT, has 42 lines and carries 130,000 passengers per day (Zhong, Sun, & Lu, 2012). In total, this BRT systems move over 4.3 million people every day — compared to less than 500,000 in the U.S. (Project, 2016).

Additionally, the introduction of a high-speed railway (HSR) system has provided people with another transit option from one city to another. Since 2008, China has put into operation over 25,000 kilometers (km) of high-speed railway (HSR) lines, far more than the total high-speed lines operating in the rest of the world. The HSR system is good for travelling distances that are too far for city buses or metro lines, but too close for air travel. However, from a long term perspective, fiscal unviability, with many lines seemingly incapable of paying the interest on their debt, is a huge concern. Deeper inspection reveals that the majority of China’s high-speed rail is reliant on debt financing. According to Zhao Jian, professor of Beijing Jiaotong University, “China Railways has always depended on financial subsidies and continues to raise new debt to pay off old debt. [This] will inevitably lead to a railway debt crisis.”(Davies, 2019).

Moreover, for slowing down the increase of private vehicles in large cities, local governments issued different policies. As early as 1994, Shanghai was the first city to limit overall car ownership through using a bid-auction mechanism for vehicle registration. Followed by Beijing, in 2010, they adopted a new license plate “lottery” system to restrict the number of new car purchases. On the other hand, the adoption of strategies like increasing parking fees and lowering public transit fares are also effective for encouraging people to choose public transportation instead of buying private cars (Zhong, Sun, & Lu, 2012).

A unique result of China’s rapid urbanization is the phenomenon of city workers leaving children and aging parents behind in rural villages while they earn a living in urban centres. When young couples choose to be rural-to-urban migrants for higher wages in cities, they have no choice but to leave the rest of their family behind, otherwise they will not be able to afford the high cost of living with a family in the city. Therefore, there is an increasing trend of rural children left behind: this number increased from 22 million in 2004 to 58 million in 2010. Aging parents left behind have reached 40 million. In some cases, only the males in the family move to urban centres and their spouses are left behind as well; this number was more than 47 million in 2013 (Yang, 2013). In other words, these three groups now account for more than 22% of China's total rural population and have become a social concern as the situation has created societal unrest and some psychological development problems for the children left behind (Yang, 2013). To be more specific, the situation that many rural households have been facing is that aging parents have to raise their grandchildren.

They are often physically and economically burdened because they need to farm in the absence of their children, they must look after their grandchildren, and they must cover all living expenses until their children settle down in cities and send money back. In some extreme cases, their children never return nor send any money back. According to the study, some left-behind elderly are unable to support themselves due to physical constraints or they are unsupported by their children for various reasons. As a result, these left-behind elderly live in miserable conditions or in extreme poverty. (He & Ye, 2013). Undoubtedly, grandparenting puts a heavy burden on the left-behind elderly because they are also at the age where they need care from others. The psychological pressure is one of the most outstanding negative impacts: investigation shows that about 95.1% of the left-behind elderly expressed concerns about their grandchildren in terms of study, personality development and especially safety (He & Ye, 2013).

Beyond that, there are results showing that left-behind children are at greater risk of depression related to their unique child or family experience of separation, exposure to trauma and, most importantly, neglect (He, et al., 2012). Even though most left-behind children have the companionship of their grandparents, which may seem to be a suitable substitute for the absence of their parents, grandparents are essentially different from parents and thus, disruptions still occur in attachment relationships.

Eventually, insecure attachment to caregivers will lead to higher depression risk in adolescents (He, et al., 2012). Even though parents try to bring their children with them, they face tremendous difficulty enrolling their children into city schools because their hukou, which “demarcates their location of residence and classifies that location as agricultural or non-agricultural” (Zhang, 2019, para. 6) restricts them to receive welfare rights like healthcare and education in a place other than places of their origin. In addition to that, since many migrant parents are not well educated and the only work they can get in cities is construction or assembly line work that require long hours of physical work. After work, they are usually exhausted and have little energy to take care of children. Besides, they often live in crowded dormitories assigned by their employers. Under such circumstances, leaving children at home seems like a better choice.

As more and more attention is directed to this issue, the Chinese government has been forced to take action. Some guidelines issued for protecting left-behind children include offering more residency status to rural-urban migrants, improving rural education, and conducting more research into the issue. Influential individuals like Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba have been gathering support and resources to build boarding schools for children so that they can have better access to education in the countryside (Zhang, 2019). However, these approaches are not solving the fundamental root of the problem since parents are still leaving their children, motivated by the hope of earning more money in cities. In short, left-behind children and the elderly are two issues closely related to poor economic opportunity in the countryside. Despite the fact that China’s overall economy has grown exponentially in the past few decades, rural economies are left behind and the inequality between urban and rural residents has been forcing many rural households to make hard choices between family and money. The left-behind children and elderly is a striking example of changes in traditional family structure emerging through urbanization, which is not a good sign since there is no good tradeoff between better living and the well-being of the millions of left-behind children and elderly.. Such rupture of the rural community can be only resolved until the economic gap has been eliminated.


Through analyzing three issues that China has been facing with urbanization, we see some challenges and innovations that China has made. Clearly, the pace of government policy making to alleviate the social issues that have arisen with urbanization in China is being outstripped by the pace of urbanization itself. As urbanization is an ongoing process, additional accompanying societal issues will undoubtedly arise in the future. For the next stage of urban change, Chinese policymakers will need to focus their attention on the quality of the urbanization process rather than the quantity of urbanization.

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