In 2010, China’s urban-dwelling population surpassed its rural population, marking a monumental demographic milestone in the country’s history.
Just three decades prior, China looked markedly different. Only 20% of Chinese citizens lived in urban areas, and many of today’s metropolises were still small villages.
Since then, huge swaths of the population have moved from farmland into cities, a shift that is still causing many urban areas to swell in size. Case in point is the growth of Guangzhou, which lays just north of Hong Kong. From 1980 to today, more than 18 million people moved into the city. A 40-year-old born in Guangzhou will have seen their small, regional city mushroom into one of the largest urban amalgamations on Earth.
Of course, this is just one example of a process that has been altering the landscape of cities from the coast of the South China Sea out to the Eurasian Steppe.
The One Million+ Club
According to Demographia’s World Urban Areas report, there are now 113 urban areas in China that surpass the one million population threshold. In comparison, North America and the EU combined have 114 urban areas that surpass one million people.
Below is a full breakdown of China’s one million+ club:
The massive scale of rural-to-urban migration isn’t just a major development within China, it has no parallel in modern history.
Since 1980, over half a billion people have moved from the countryside to an urban center. The construction of these new cities took a staggering amount of raw materials. Few data points highlight the scale of construction better than China’s cement production in recent years.
In 2018, Chinese construction used about 8x the amount of second place India, which has a similar population size.
Megacities on Megacities
Cities with over 10 million inhabitants are defined as megacities. China is already home to six megacities, with another three urban areas well on the way to achieving that status.
In fact, some megacities within close proximity have grown so large that they are merging into contiguous urban areas. The most prominent example of this phenomenon is in the Pearl River Delta region of China.
The Pearl River Delta region is not only home to the megacities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen, but also a number of other sizable cities that are quickly merging into a unified continuous entity containing up to 50 million people. Demographia still considers most of these cities to be separate labor markets — but as more connections form across the region, the Pearl River Delta could be poised to become the largest unified urban area in human history.
As megacities like Shanghai and Shenzhen have grown and developed, they’ve also become more expensive places to live and do business. The economic evolution of these cities has created opportunity for smaller, less developed cities to woo both residents and businesses.
This natural reshuffling has led to impressive growth in cities further inland like Zhengzhou, which sits 350 miles (630 kms) east of the coastline where many of the country’s largest cities reside.
Using the “build it and they will come” approach, the city converted a 160 square mile (410 sq km) patch of empty land into the Zhengzhou Airport Economy Zone (ZAEZ). The project has proven wildly successful, and the city even has the nickname “Apple City” thanks to the presence of Foxconn (which produces the iPhone) and a cluster of other smartphone manufacturers.
This airport-centered zone was developed with the full political and economic backing of Beijing as part of a broader effort to increase economic activity in China’s interior cities. Zhengzhou has nearly tripled in size over the last decade, a powerful testament to the shift in economic momentum.
China’s Inland All-Stars:
|Urban Area||Population 2010||Population 2019||Change (2010-19)|
Compare the numbers above to fast-growing cities in the U.S., such as Las Vegas or Phoenix, which managed 33% and 12% growth respectively over the last decade.
If this trend continues, China’s one million+ club will most likely expand once fresh census data is released in 2021.
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Visualizing China’s $18 Trillion Economy in One Chart
China’s economy reached a GDP of 114 trillion yuan ($18 trillion) in 2021, well above government targets. What sectors drove that growth?
Visualizing China’s $18 Trillion Economy in 2021
China is the world’s second largest economy after the U.S., and it is expected to eventually climb into the number one position in the coming decades.
While China’s economy has had a much rockier start this year due to zero-tolerance COVID-19 lockdowns and supply chain issues, our visualization covers a full year of data for 2021—a year in which most economies recovered after the initial chaos of the pandemic.
In 2021, China’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) reached ¥114 trillion ($18 trillion in USD), according to the National Bureau of Statistics. The country’s economy outperformed government targets of 6% growth, with the overall economy growing by 8.1%.
Let’s take a look at what powers China’s modern economy.
Breaking Down China’s Economy By Sector
|Sector||2021 Total GDP |
|2021 Total GDP |
|Wholesale and Retail Trades||¥10.5T||$1.7T||9.2%|
|Farming, Forestry, Animal Husbandry, and Fishery||¥8.7T||$1.4T||7.6%|
|Transport, Storage, and Post||¥4.7T||$0.7T||4.1%|
|Information Transmission, Software and IT Services||¥4.4T||$0.7T||3.9%|
|Renting & Leasing Activities and Business Services||¥3.5T||$0.6T||3.1%|
|Accommodation and Restaurants||¥1.8T||$0.3T||1.6%|
Industrial production—activity in the manufacturing, mining, and utilities sectors—is by far the leading driver of China’s economy. In 2021, the sector generated ¥37.3 trillion, or one-third of the country’s total economic activity.
Despite a slowdown in December, wholesale and retail trades also performed strongly in 2021. As the main gauge of consumption, it was affected by lockdown measures and the spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant towards the end of the year, but still rose by double digits, reaching a total of ¥10.5 trillion*.
“Other services”, which includes everything from scientific research and development to education and social services, generated 16% of China’s total economy in 2021, or ¥18.1 trillion.
*Editor’s note: At time of publishing, China’s government seems to have since adjusted this number to ¥11.0 trillion, which is not consistent with the original data set provided, but worth noting.
Where is China’s GDP Headed?
China’s economy recovered noticeably faster than most major economies last year, and as the overall trend below shows, the country has grown consistently in the years prior.
Before the pandemic hit, China’s quarterly GDP growth had been quite stable at just above 5%.
After the initial onset of COVID-19, the country’s economy faltered, mirroring economies around the globe. But after a strong recovery into 2021, resurging cases caused a new series of crackdowns on the private sector, slowing down GDP growth considerably.
With the slowdown continuing into early 2022, China’s economic horizon still looks uncertain. The lockdown in Shanghai is expected to continue all the way to June 1st, and over recent months there have been hundreds of ships stuck outside of Shanghai’s port as a part of ongoing supply chain challenges.
China’s Zero-COVID Policy: Good or Bad for the Economy?
While every country reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic differently, China adopted a zero-COVID policy of strict lockdowns to control cases and outbreaks.
For most of 2021, the policy didn’t deter GDP growth. Despite some major cities fully or partially locked down to control regional outbreaks, the country’s economy still paced well ahead of many other major economies.
But the policy faced a challenge with the emergence of the Omicron variant. Despite lockdowns and an 88% vaccination rate nationally, seven out of China’s 31 provinces and all of the biggest cities have reported Omicron cases.
And China’s zero-COVID policy has not affected all sectors equally. Industrial production rose by more than 10% in the first 11 months of 2021, despite city lockdowns around the country. That’s because many factories in China are in suburban industrial parks outside the cities, and employees often live nearby.
But many sectors like hotels and restaurants have been more severely affected by city lockdowns. Many global economies are starting to transition to living with COVID, with China remaining as one of the last countries to follow a zero-COVID policy. Does that ensure the country’s economy will continue to slow in 2022, or will China manage to recover and maintain one of the world’s fastest growing economies?
Satellite Maps: Shanghai’s Supply Chain Standstill
China’s lockdown of Shanghai is causing massive back-ups at the world’s largest container port. Hundreds of ships are now waiting at sea.
Satellite Maps: Shanghai’s Supply Chain Standstill
China has mandated a strict “zero COVID” policy since the onset of the global pandemic, which has led to tight lockdowns across the country whenever cases have started to spike.
Recently, lockdown restrictions have been enacted in major cities like Shenzhen and Shanghai, as China deals with one of its worst outbreaks since Wuhan in December 2019.
These cautionary measures have had far-reaching impacts on China’s economy, especially on its supply chain and logistics operations. Shanghai’s port system, which handles about one-fifth of China’s export containers, is currently experiencing significant delays as a result of the recent government lockdown.
Shipping volume has dipped drastically since early March this year, right after partial lockdowns began in Shanghai. By the end of March, as restrictions continued to tighten up, shipping activity dipped nearly 30% compared to pre-lockdown levels. And while activity has recently picked up, it’s still far below average shipment volumes prior to the recent lockdown.
While the port is still technically operating, shipping delays will likely cause hiccups in the global supply chain. That’s because the Shanghai port is a major hub for international trade, and one of the largest and busiest container ports in the world.
How Bad is the Back-Up?
Here’s a closer look at satellite imagery that was captured by the Sentinel-1 satellite, which shows the current congestion at Shanghai’s port as of April 14, 2022. In the image, a majority of the white dots are cargo ships, many of which have been stuck in limbo for days.
Traffic has been building up at the Shanghai terminal. As of April 19, 2022, over 470 ships are still waiting to deliver goods to China. If you’d like to check out the Shanghai ports most up-to-date traffic, this live map by MarineTraffice provides real-time updates.
The number of container vessels waiting outside of Chinese ports today is 195% higher than it was in February. – Windward
Much of these delays are due to transport issues—an estimated 90% of trucks that support import and export activities are currently offline, which is causing dwell time for containers at Shanghai marine terminals to increase drastically.
Wait times for at Shanghai marine terminals has increased nearly 75% since the lockdowns began. Delays at the Shanghai terminal have sent ships to neighboring ports in Ningbo and Yangshan, but those ports are beginning to get congested as well.
The global impacts of this current bottleneck are still pending, and depend greatly on the length of Shanghai’s lockdown. According to an article in Freight Waves, this could turn into the biggest supply chain issue since the start of the pandemic if China’s marine shipping congestion isn’t cleared up soon.
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