Making Rural China Urban

The Chinese government’s plans to move some 250 million rural residents into new towns and cities are being followed with interest worldwide. Writing in the New York Times (15 June 2013), Ian Johnson notes: ‘The shift is occurring so quickly, and the potential costs are so high, that some fear rural China is once again the site of radical social engineering.’ In this essay, Mi Shih 史宓 offers insights into how Chinese urban planners and policy makers understand this ambitious project.

Mi Shih is a postdoctoral research fellow in the China Research Centre at the University of Technology, Sydney. A graduate of Rutgers University where she obtained her PhD in planning and public policy, her research areas include social resistance and land politics, rural land conversion and urbanization in China, and community-based planning and city redevelopment in Taiwan. She has conducted fieldwork research in China (Shanghai, Guangzhou and Zhejiang) and Taiwan and her articles have appeared in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research and Urban Geography. She is currently writing on urban expansion and rights formation in Guangzhou and Shanghai.—The Editors


‘Unprecedented’ is the word commonly used to describe China’s urbanisation 都市化. Yet the country remains less urbanised than most developed countries. What makes China’s urbanisation process remarkable and, indeed, unprecedented is its magnitude and speed. Today, fifty-one percent of the Chinese population live in cities as compared to the nineteen percent that did so in 1979.

In 2012, the process of urbanisation entered a new phase following central government directives to pursue a new policy of chengzhenhua (城镇化, literally ‘city- and town-ification’). The directives have been widely discussed in the mainland media and online. The new policy marks the inauguration of a new Party leadership and the effectiveness of its implementation will undoubtedly be used to adjudge the performance of the Xi Jinping-Li Keqiang administration.

So, what distinguishes chengzhenhua from the former process of rapid urbanisation in China? Will the trajectory of ‘becoming urban’ remain the same, such that the chengzhenhua policy ends up being nothing more than novel rhetoric? What goals are China’s fifth-generation leadership attempting to establish, what new practices do they seek to adopt, and which aspects of the status quo does chengzhenhua intend to break away from?

This article attempts to shed some light on these questions. Readers should note that a cross-departmental effort organised by the National Development and Reform Commission (Guojia fazhan han gaige weiyuanhui 国家发展和改革委员会) is currently underway to furnish details about the new policy. The state media have already announced that ‘National Guidelines on Promoting Healthy Development and Planning for Chengzhenhua 2011-2020′ (Quanguo cujin chengzhenhua jiankang fazhan guihua gangyao 全国促进城镇化健康发展规划纲要 2011-2020) will be published in mid-2013. They will go into effect immediately.

Farmers’ old housing sites (on the left) and farmers’ apartments (nongmingongyu 农民公寓) currently under construction. ‘Moving up’ (shanglou 上楼) is a common practice through which local governments merge farmers’ housing sites and redo land use planning in the chengzhenhua process.

Farmers’ old housing sites (on the left) and farmers’ apartments 农民公寓 currently under construction. ‘Moving up’上楼 is a common practice through which local governments merge farmers’ housing sites and redo land use planning in the chengzhenhua process.

Chinese urban planners and policy makers approach chengzhenhua by considering towns and villages as potential sites of transformation. To understand the process by which a rural entity becomes an urban one, we need to consider the institutional reforms that have facilitated this process of transformation. In the discussion below, the Chinese term chengzhenhua will be used to refer to the new policy as the English translation ‘urbanisation’ is misleading for two reasons. First, ‘urbanisation’ is already being used to translate dushihua 都市化, from which the new policy is intended to mark a departure. Secondly, ‘urbanisation’ evokes the image of an expansion of existing urban cores. As such, it forecloses possibilities of imagining the rural as a potentially urban site.

The Goals of Urban-rural Integration

The larger goal and rationale underpinning chengzhenhua is urban-rural integration 城乡一体化. The official discourse describes this goal as ‘breaking the urban-rural duality structure’ 打破城乡二元结构. In 2007, the Ministry of Construction established four ways of rebuilding peri-urban villages so as to integrate them into existing cities. The so-called Four Transfers involve: converting collective land ownership to state ownership; converting the rural household registrations of villagers into urban registrations; re-assigning social services provided by village collectives to selected municipal bureaus; and redeveloping villages according to the urban spatial planning regime.[1] Recent empirical research and case studies, such as those undertaken in the Pearl River Delta region, suggest that wholesale transfers are highly unlikely.

On the one hand, many rural household registrations have been converted into urban ones. Therefore rural residents (cunmin 村民) have been officially renamed as city residents (shimin 市民) and villages (cun 村) as communities (shequ 社区). On the other, local infrastructure and services – in particular, health care, education and social security – remain largely funded through village collectives’ assets and business earnings. Moreover, collective landownership has historically been the most important source of income for villagers, and any ‘across-the-board’ attempt for rural-to-urban land conversion almost always attracts local opposition. These gaps between the state’s attempts at urbanisation and what has happened on the ground suggest that the new policy of chengzhenhua will encounter significant complications, contingent on the actual process of implementation in different places.

The zhen (‘town’) in chengzhenhua

The use of chengzhenhua, rather than dushihua, to describe urbanisation indicates that the new policy is focused on towns (zhen 鎮). Administratively, towns fall under the rural government system in China and are therefore subjected to rural institutions such as collective land, rural household registration and village governance. However, towns can be populous and prosperous. There are over 20,000 towns in China, and the average population of the largest 1,000 of these is over 70,000. In coastal provinces, populations of well-developed and powerful towns (qiangzhen 強鎮) can exceed 500,000 people, as is true of Humen town 虎门镇 in Guangdong province. In interviews and explanations given by officials,[2] a major objective of chengzhenhua is to encourage and accelerate urbanisation in large towns like Humen. Similarly, twenty-seven large towns in Zhejiang province have been selected as experimental sites (shidian 试点). Planners in each of these towns are currently considering which urbanisation path best suits their situation.

Promoting chengzhenhua in Towns

It has become increasingly clear that there is no clear-cut (yidaoqie 一刀切) prescription for implementing chengzhenhua, because each town has its own historical and socio-political conditions. Nevertheless, three main approaches to organising the various practices for ‘urbanising’ towns can be identified.

New zone development (xinqu kaifa 新区开发) is a major strategy used by local governments to implement chengzhenhua. Generating land-related profits through expropriation and conversion of rural collective land is central to this mode of development.

New Zone Development 新区开发 is a major strategy used by local governments to implement chengzhenhua. Generating land-related profits through expropriation and conversion of rural collective land is central to this mode of development.

The first of these is described in the official literature as encouraging farmers to move into the city (nongmin jin cheng 农民进城). Here, the word ‘farmers’ 农民 refers to people who hold rural household registrations with no bearing on their actual employment; ‘city’ 城 refers to the built-up residential areas in towns. The core idea of this approach is to reduce the threshold for people to obtain urban household registrations, especially for those who have already lived, worked, or been educated in towns and cities. An important reason behind this approach is that the rural immigrant population 外来人口 of many towns often outnumber the registered population 户籍人口 by a large margin. For instance, Chang’an town 长安镇 in Dongguan city 东莞市, Guangdong province, has a registered population of 40,000 but an immigrant population of 570,000.[3] Granting rights, entitlements and urban status to at least some of these rural migrants is expected to lead to increases in local consumption, a larger share of tax-based income to be retained by the town government and greater spending on public infrastructure building, which would help further urbanise these towns. 

The second approach to chengzhenhua is decentralising the authority for spatial planning. This approach is also commonly referred to as ‘planning first’ 规划先行. Sitting at the lowest level of the administrative hierarchy, town governments have little decision-making power over spatial development. Towns are usually rather passive recipients of the spatial planning conducted by higher levels of government. However, to promote chengzhenhua, towns selected as experimental sites have themselves been granted more power and authority over spatial planning and land leasing decisions. This means that town governments will be much more actively involved in spatial and land-use planning activities and have greater regulatory discretion in determining both the direction and content of town development.

The third approach is the legal relaxation of collective land transfers 集体土地流转. Currently, collective land is subject to many legal constraints on private and profit-oriented development. To permit and encourage chengzhenhua, experiments are currently in progress to both deregulate and marketise collectively owned land. For instance, the Twelfth Five-Year Plan for Chengzhenhua Development in Guangdong Province (Guangdong sheng chengzhenhua fazhan shierwu guihua 广东省城镇化发展十二五规划) has allowed the land use rights of contracted land 承包地 and housing sites 宅基地 to be leased and transferred on the market.[4] This practice of chengzhenhua may significantly increase the degree of commodification of collectively owned rural land in China. In public discourse, this important change to the socialist divide between urban and rural land is lucidly described as ‘capital going to the countryside’ 资本下乡.

It is of course too early to assess the scope of chengzhenhua let alone its outcomes. In the implementation of this new policy in the coming months, what we are likely to see are diverse local practices that accord with the three approaches outlined earlier. However, in all of the towns undergoing chengzhenhua there is likely to be intensive commercialisation of rural collective land. For instance, Zeguo Town 泽国镇 with a total population of 30,000 in Wenling city 温岭市, Zhejiang province, has actively promoted a project called ‘new central zone development’ 新中心区开发. The project, which will lead to the building of a new administrative centre, includes these major tasks: consolidating housing sites previously scattered across the town; revision of land use planning; and the expropriation of a significant area of rural collective land for private development. The project’s goal is to attract capital investments and to generate land-related profits through ‘commodity housing’ 商品房 and real estate development. The process of chengzhenhua will vary from town to town but there is little doubt that the commodification and marketing of rural land is a key objective. The numerous incidents to date of conflict over rural land conversion indicate that local communities may not welcome chengzhenhua. It remains to be seen whether this new policy, the latest in the government’s zeal for development, will lead to heavy-handed treatment of the rural population.



[1] Ministry of Construction, Research on Issues of Villages in the City Construction and Planning 城中村规划建设问题研究, China Building Industry Press, 2007.

[2] For instance, see Tao Dongqin 姚冬琴, ‘Official of the National Development and Reform Commission Discusses China’s Chengzhenhua: The Five Misunderstandings’ 国家发展改革委官员谈中国城镇化: 存五大误读, 16 April 2013, online at:

[3] ‘The Characteristics and Problems of China’s Current Path to Chengzhenhua’ 当前中国城镇化进程的特点和难点, 13 March 2013, online at:

[4] Issued by the Guangdong Provincial Government on 7 March 2013.