Is China a rural or urban society? Is this likely to change over the next decade?

The answer to the question of to what extent China is a “rural” versus “urban” society depends largely on how one chooses to quantify and qualify “rural” and “urban.” This choice is particularly complex and complicated for the case of China; as a result of China’s enormous territorial and demographic size, massive populations live in both “rural” and “urban” areas, making it difficult to come to a single, general conclusion about the overall character of Chinese society. Furthermore, various factors blend the distinctions between “rural” and “urban.” The difficulties which arise in answering the question because of these factors will be discussed later in this response. However, to provide a simple response to the question, and using population statistics as a measure to quantify the “rural” and “urban” nature of Chinese society, I would conclude that China is now an “urban” society. Over half of China’s population lived in urban areas by the end of 2013. In addition, migration into urban areas is likely going to only increase over the next decade, as both governmental forces, such as plans to move millions of people into developing cities, and nongovernmental forces, such as work-related migration, drive continued urbanization. Indeed, official predictions for 2020 state that at least 60 percent of the population will live in urbanized areas.[1] As such, China is slated to become even more of an urban society in the coming years.

Approaching the question through the lenses of structural and elite analysis also brings about the conclusion that China is arguably more “urban” than “rural.” Various structural and organizational features of the Chinese political system give more importance to urban areas than to rural areas. For one, China’s cities and other major urban areas are more directly connected to the state and party apparatus than its rural areas. Individual cities exist at the same level in the regional organization of China’s government as large rural areas, and a particular few of China’s largest cities exist at the same level of government as entire regions. Accordingly, China’s urban areas are more directly governed by, influenced by, and in turn more directly influence, the higher levels of the Chinese Communist Party than China’s rural areas, which often operate with a degree of independence and autonomy. In a country where party and state are so intricately linked, these connections serve as important measures of the significance of urban versus rural areas in Chinese society. Furthermore, the prominent road to higher power for aspiring members of the Chinese Communist Party is to administer major urban areas. For the political elite, urban areas represent career advancement and a chance to make a name for themselves far more readily than rural areas, thereby reinforcing the importance of urban China over rural China in Chinese political culture.

Historically, too, the heightened political importance of China’s urban areas over its rural areas is apparent. The countryside has long been neglected by the party elite, who have, through policies and patterns of investment which have benefited urban areas, created a significant discrepancy between high urban and low rural levels of development. Even during the Maoist years, which gave rhetorical and theoretical importance to the rural peasant and rural society, were China’s rural areas given secondary importance behind the urban areas; such can be seen as an explanation for why the famines and poverty of the Great Leap Forward struck China’s rural population hardest. Not only have such patterns of inequality in Communist Party policy persisted into the Reform Era, but the party’s ideological stance has grown to incorporate and highlight the importance of distinctly urban populations. Jiang Zemin’s idea of the “Three Represents,” which highlighted “high culture” and served in part as an ideological justification for allowing private entrepreneurs to be members of the Communist Party, is representative of the growing political importance placed on these developing urban trends and groups.

Yet these answers fall short of truly addressing the question, again perhaps because it is difficult to distinguish China as either an urban and rural society. While some states with small populations and territories can be clearly defined as “urban” or “rural,” China, with its massive population divided between intensely urbanized areas and deeply rural areas, is perhaps best defined as “both.” Defining China’s society with a broadly general term overlooks the complexity of and divisions in China’s population, with the lives and livelihoods of China’s rural and urban populations often being very dissimilar, and ignores the separate and often very different issues that China’s government faces when dealing with and administering urban and rural areas. In the particular case of China, there are also issues with the method by which “urban” and “rural” is usually quantified and qualified. Much of China’s “urban” population is actually comprised of “rural” migrants who have moved into the cities for work, and who often then return to the countryside. Accordingly, the distinctions between urban and rural populations are often blended, complicating the task of clearly defining who is an urban versus a rural resident. Furthermore, rural and urban areas are often mixed together in China’s administrative system; the administrative areas of some cities extend over both urban and rural zones. The fact that there are people living rural lifestyles in urban areas in China further complicates the answer to this question.

China is thus perhaps most appropriately defined as both an urban and a rural society. It is otherwise too difficult, and perhaps poor political science, to broadly generalize and define Chinese society. While a number of lenses of analysis and units of measurement would point to China being more of an urban than rural society or would indicate that China’s urban areas are more important than its rural areas, the fact nonetheless remains: more Chinese than the total populations of many of the world’s countries live in China’s rural areas and live rural lifestyles, and, despite increasing urbanization, the issues and characteristics which define and make distinct rural China are likely around to stay for a long time.

[1] “China’s urbanization level to reach 60 pct by 2020,” Xinhau Net, accessed March 15, 2015, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-03/16/c_133190605.htm