For the first time ever there are now more Chinese citizens living in cities than in the countryside, according to government figures released on Tuesday.
The historic milestone was marked by a single sentence buried deep in a government press release on quarterly economic statistics which revealed that 51.27 per cent of China’s population was living in urban areas by the end of 2011, up from 49.95 per cent at the end of 2010.
Thanks largely to the frantic pace of urbanization in the world’s most populous country, the global population of urbanites surpassed rural dwellers back in 2008, according to the UN.
Just 190 million Chinese people, or less than 20 per cent of the population, lived in cities as recently as 1980, but if current trends continue analysts predict around 70 per cent of China’s population - roughly one billion people - will be living in urban areas by 2030.
But analysts point out that urbanization in China has been uneven and is quite dependent on continued rapid growth in the overall economy.
“The speed of urbanization depends on people having something to do in the cities,” said Tom Miller, managing editor of China Economic Quarterly and author of a forthcoming book titled China’s Urban Billion. “If economic growth isn’t there then there won’t be jobs for people to go to in the cities and they won’t go.”
In early 2009, as many as 25 million rural migrant labourers gave up looking for work and returned to the countryside in the midst of the global financial crisis and a precipitous drop in Chinese exports.
Most of them returned to the urban factories, restaurants and construction sites when growth quickly rebounded but there are concerns another steep slowdown in the economy could send them running for home again.
On Tuesday, Beijing said the country’s gross domestic product grew 8.9 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2011 from the same period a year earlier, the slowest pace in 10 quarters but only a gradual deceleration from 9.1 per cent growth in the third quarter and 9.5 per cent in the second.
Most analysts expect growth to slow markedly in the coming months, which could again cause a reversal in the urbanization gains last year.
The total population of urban inhabitants increased by 21million last year to 691 million, while the number of rural dwellers decreased by less than 15 million to about 657 million.
Analysts say the gap between the rise in urbanites and drop in rural inhabitants is partly explained by the fact that many migrant workers hang on to the agricultural land use rights allotted to them by the government even when they move to the city to work.
According to Mr. Miller, official surveys show three-quarters of peasant farmers don’t want to give up their rural status for the city if it means having to renounce their rights over their land.
Many economists believe China’s labour force has already started to decline and, over the longer term, a rapidly ageing population and a slowdown in urbanization are likely to further lower the potential growth rate in the world’s second-largest economy.