There are approximately 700 urban areas that are classified as cities (shi) in China (668 in 1997), including the four municipally organized areas that report directly to the central government (Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing). These four metropolitan regions (all of which include in their territory counties and smaller cities or towns) form the summit of an urban hierarchy, followed by approximately ten other cities with a population of over 2 million, twenty-three with a population between 1 and 2 million, forty-four with populations between 500,000 and 1 million, 159 with a population between 200,000 and 500,000, popularly referred to as ‘middle-sized cities’; and finally, 393 cities with populations of less than 200,000. There is also a very large number of smaller towns (zhen) of sub-regional or local importance (see towns and townships). Cities and towns combined make up a population that is well over 500 million. However, these kinds of numbers can be misleading since within the areas of many municipalities one often finds a number of satellite towns and rural counties, and invariably a significant proportion of the labour force that is made up of agricultural workers. Chongqing in Sichuan province is an extreme example of this reality: the municipality of the same name has an area of 82,400 sq km (almost the size of an eastern province—for example, this is about 80 per cent of the area of Jiangsu province) and has a total population of over 30 million, whereas the hilly city of Chongqing itself, spread over the promontory formed by the confluence of the Jialing and the Yangzi rivers, has a population of the order of 5 million. The rest of Chongqing’s population is spread out among smaller cities, towns and agricultural areas falling within the boundaries of this immense municipality. Approximately 40 to 50 per cent of the population of the municipalities of Beijing and Shanghai also live outside the main built-up city areas. This trend can also be seen frequently in large and middle-sized cities. Wenzhou municipality, for example, in southern Zhejiang province, has a population of well over 6 million, while the actual city of the same name on the Ou River has a population of only around 600,000. Nevertheless, it is hard to define the geographical limits of most cities because of a historically recent trend—the spread of urbanization from cities into rural areas to form a new type of urban-rural landscape in the highly urbanized areas of China as elsewhere in Asia. The term used for this phenomenon is desakota, taken from the Malay-Indonesian words for village and city (McGee 1991).
Compared to other developing countries, urbanization has been relatively slow in China, and up until the 1990s reasonably controlled by making it officially very difficult to move from the countryside and towns into the city (see hukou; migration and settlement patterns). Another characteristic that is not, however, unique to China is that certain regions show much greater urban growth than others.
One of these, for example, is the southern part of Jiangsu province called Sunan. In general, such urbanizing regions owe their great economic and demographic growth to the proliferation of rural township and village enterprises—once again resulting in the mixed desakota type of rural-urban landscape.
Davis, S.D. (2000). The Consumer Revolution in China. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Davis, S.D., Kraus, R., Naughton, B. and Perry, E.J. (1995). Urban Spaces in Contemporary China: The Potential for Autonomy and Community in Post-Mao China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hu, Zhouliang and Foggin, Peter (1995). ‘Chinese Cities after Reform and Opening to the Outside World’. China City Planning Review 11:12–24.
McGee, T.G. (1991). ‘The Emergence of Desakota Regions in Asia: Expanding a Hypothesis’. In Norton Ginsburg, Bruce Koppel and T.G.McGee (eds), The Extended Metropolis: Settlement Transition in Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Solinger, Dorothy, J. (1999). Contesting Citizenship in Urban China: Peasant Migrants, the State, and the Logic of the Market. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Tang, Wenfang and Parish, William (2000). Chinese Urban Life Under Reform: The Changing Social Contract. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Yeung, Yue-Man (ed.) (2000). Urban Development in Asia. Hong Kong: Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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