The numbers are overwhelming: Over the next 17 years, 350 million rural residents (more than the entire U.S. population today) will leave the farm and move to China’s cities. That will bring the Chinese urban population from just under 600 million today to close to 1 billion, changing China into a country where more than two-thirds of its people are city dwellers, says Jonathan Woetzel, a director in McKinsey’s Shanghai office. The change will reverse China’s centuries-old identity as a largely rural country. Thirty years ago, when China started modernizing its economy, more than 80% of Chinese lived in the countryside. And just six years ago it still was about 60%. Today China is just under 50% urban.
The newly urbanized population will live in eight megacities, those with a population of more than 10 million, as well 15 big cities with populations between 5 million and 10 million. In addition, by 2025 China will probably have at least 221 cities with a population over 1 million, estimates Woetzel. That compares with 35 cities of that scale across all of Europe today. These new urbanites are expected to be a powerful booster of growth: Urban consumption as a share of gross domestic product will most likely rise from 25% today to roughly 33% by 2025. “Urbanization is the engine of the Chinese economy—it is what has driven productivity growth over the last 20 years,” says Woetzel. “And China has the potential to keep doing this for the next 20 years.”