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Think our city boundaries are a mess? Consider China, and then think again

This week, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping is making a state visit to the UK. In a very fortuitous bit of scheduling, this is the perfect lead-in to our own City Horizons event on the 28 October, where Bill Tompson will be telling us about his work studying cities and urban policy in China. Bill will also provide details of the “extraordinary transformation” of Chinese urbanisation, drawing on his Urban Policy Review of China for the OECD.

Talking about Chinese cities can induce something like vertigo in the Western mind: the numbers involved are staggering. China has 17 megacities that are bigger than London. Over 700m people live in a Chinese city. And a further 240m will move to one over the next 35 years.

As a long-time student of comparative work, I know that familiarity with the most fundamental differences in any foreign system is essential to highlight the distinctive features of our own, as well as some of the shared challenges faced by people around the world. In order to prepare for Tompson’s talk I have been trying to make a dent in my own ignorance about Chinese cities by getting to grips with some of the principle differences – and similarities – between them and our own.

Here is something familiar: administrative definitions complicate the governance of cities. Getting administrative boundaries aligned with the economic realities of UK cities is an ongoing challenge here.

But under the Chinese system the differences are even more extreme. While the OECD recognises 38 “Functional Urban Areas” of over 5m people in China, according to the government’s administrative definitions there are only 16 “Statutory Cities” that large. These antiquated boundaries, which can include farmland within city boundaries and leave urbanised commuter neighbourhoods out, make our own (sometimes challenging) LEP designations look more reasonable.


Here is something more unfamiliar: in a mind-bending twist on devolution, many government services in China are tied to a person’s official hometown under the hukou household registration system. Used under the command economy to restrict migration, it means that moving from a rural area to an urban one creates a multitude of complications and disadvantages.

The rigidity and inequity in this system has led to a two-tier society, with tens of millions of the recent migrants from the countryside unable to access education, healthcare, and pensions in their new urban homes.

Given the differences in scale, governance and culture of China, what can we hope to learn from Tompson’s talk? We are not sure – but the fresh perspective offered by international comparison is always welcome. 

Meg Kaufman manages the What Works Centre for the Centre for Cities. This article was originally published on the think tank’s blog.
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