Urban Myths about China’s “Megacities”

A Guangdong Party spokesman has denied recent reports in the Western media about the merging of nine existing cities in the Pearl River Delta to form a single megacity with a population of some 42 million:

Guo Yuewen, spokesman for the Guangdong Provincial Committee of the Communist Party of China, made the remarks on Friday in response to recent overseas media reports that an ambitious urbanization project had been launched by the Guangdong government to merge nine cities in the delta region.

“The reports were totally false. There is no such plan,” Guo said at a news conference ….

“I can only say that Guangdong province is improving integration of infrastructure, industries, urban-rural planning, environmental protection and basic public services in the delta region,” Guo said.

China Economic Review recently declared that “almost everything written about China’s so-called megacities is ill-informed and misleading”:

HSBC’s research team, which frankly ought to know better, made the simple mistake of listing China’s largest urban-centered administrative units as if they were proper cities. These units typically encompass an urban core surrounded by several smaller cities, dozens of towns and hundreds of villages. Only the urban core is a “city” in the true sense of the word.

China’s city population numbers reflect the country’s unique administrative system; they do not tell you how many people live in a single urban area. They are further complicated by migrant flows and periodic adjustments to administrative boundaries and counting methods.

Take Chongqing, which HSBC’s report claims has a population of over 30 million. The idea that the administrative unit of Chongqing, which is roughly the size of Austria, is a “city” is the purest fantasy.

According to Chongqing’s own statistics, the municipality had a registered population of 32.6 million in 2008, and a resident population of 28.4 million, once you subtract the rural migrants who don’t live there for most of the year. But the urban core and suburbs – or what locals know as Chongqing City – had a registered population of six million.

Google Maps’ satellite view illustrates the distinction. Chongqing municipality, outlined in white dashes, extends far to the north-east and east of the city itself. A similar view of the supposed Pearl River Delta megacity area—a rough triangle between Zhaoqing, Huizhou and Zhuhai—appears to show a much higher level of urbanisation. Zooming in, however, reveals that much of the apparent urban development is actually rice paddies.

While Chongqing may not be a Gibsonesque Sprawl:, it is hardly a sleepy backwater: People’s Daily Online recently reported that its projected GDP growth for 2011 is the highest in China, while a Foreign Policy article last October dubbed the city “Chicago on the Yangtze”.

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