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Megacity 2020: The Pearl River Delta’s Astonishing Growth
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In the late 1970s, the fertile river delta to the north of Hong Kong’s territory was primarily agricultural land. Shenzhen was an unassuming town of 30,000 people – with only one functioning taxi – and China was still very much a communist, rural country.
As the visualization above, by Time Out Hong Kong, demonstrates, the sleepy Pearl River Delta was on the cusp of an unprecedented growth spurt that would see cities expand and merge to become the largest contiguous urban region in the world.
A trickle becomes a flood
In 1979, the Chinese government – led by Deng Xiaoping – created four Special Economic Zones (SEZ) with the intention of attracting foreign direct investment and encouraging private enterprise.
The designation of Shenzhen and Zhuhai as SEZs was a strategic move to act as an “overflow” for businesses in Hong Kong, and the impact on the Pearl River Delta was profound and immediate.
A number of factors also helped contribute to the meteoric rise of the region: proximity to Hong Kong’s financial sector, a world-class seaport, a huge and inexpensive labor pool, cheap and abundant land, and few regulatory impediments to rapidly growing companies.
In the two decades after Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms, the GDP of the region grow by more than 10x and urbanization – bolstered by large-scale infrastructure projects – began in earnest.
To put the scale of this population clustering into perspective, here are the populations of cities within the Pearl River Delta in 2020 compared with modern-day metropolitan areas in North America and Europe:
Today, this compact region has a GDP equivalent to that of South Korea.
Megalopolis at the Gates
The explosive growth the Pearl River Delta has upended the regional balance of power.
At the close of the 20th century, Hong Kong was the undisputed economic powerhouse of the region. In fact, just prior to the handover from the United Kingdom to China, the city’s economic output was equal to a quarter of China’s entire GDP.
Today, the situation is markedly different. Hong Kong is no longer a separate entity, and its GDP represents a mere 3% of China’s.
This shift in the regional dynamic is causing trepidation in Hong Kong, where over 90% of the millennial population identifies as “Hong Konger” as opposed to “Chinese”. Although the government has agreed in spirit to maintain the city’s autonomy until 2047, recent actions suggest an eagerness to integrate the entire region into a seamless megacity.
The blurring of the lines appears to be well underway, as more than half a million people from the city now reside in Mainland China, up from approximately 150,000 a decade ago.
One physical manifestation of Mainland China’s push for an integrated region is the Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge. This colossal infrastructure project is a 31 mile (50 km) connection that includes bridges, tunnels, and three man-made islands.
In China, where each project is more ambitious than the next, it’s only fitting that the world’s largest urban area will be connected by the world’s largest sea crossing.
The Population of China in Perspective
China is the world’s most populous country. But how does the population of China compare to the rest of the world?
The Population of China in Perspective
China is the world’s most populous country with an astounding 1.44 billion citizens. Altogether, the size of the population of China is larger than nearly four regions combined: South America, Europe (excluding Russia), the U.S. & Canada, and Australia & New Zealand.
Using data from the United Nations, this unconventional map reveals the comparative size of China’s population next to a multitude of other countries.
Note: To keep the visualization easy to read, we’ve simplified the shapes representing countries. For example, although we’ve included Alaska and Hawaii in U.S. population totals, the U.S. is represented by the contiguous states map only.
A Historical Perspective
Looking at history, the population of China has more than doubled since the 1950s. The country was the first in the world to hit one billion people in 1980.
However, in 1979, in an attempt to control the burgeoning population, the infamous one-child policy was introduced, putting controls on how many children Chinese citizens could have.
While the government eventually recognized the negative implications of this policy, it appeared to be too little, too late. The two-child policy was introduced in 2016, but it has not yet reversed the current slowdown in population growth.
|Year||China's Population (Millions)||Annual Rate of Growth (%)||Median Age||Fertility Rate|
The fertility rate has been consistently falling from over 6 births per woman in 1955 to 1.69 in 2020. Today, the median age in China is 38 years old, rising from 22 in 1955. Longer life spans and fewer births form a demographic trend that has many social and economic implications.
Overall, China’s young population is becoming scarcer, meaning that the domestic labor market will eventually begin shrinking. Additionally, the larger share of elderly citizens will require publicly-funded resources, resulting in a heavier societal and financial burden.
Strength in Numbers
Despite these trends, however, China’s current population remains massive, constituting almost 20% of the world’s total population. Right now 71% of the Chinese population is between the ages of 15 and 65 years old, meaning that the labor supply is still immense.
Here are the populations of 65 countries from various regions of the world—and added together, you’ll see they still fall short of the population of China:
|🇺🇸 U.S.||331,002,651||North America|
|🇨🇦 Canada||37,742,154||North America|
|🇧🇷 Brazil||212,559,417||South America|
|🇨🇴 Colombia||50,882,891||South America|
|🇦🇷 Argentina||45,195,774||South America|
|🇵🇪 Peru||32,971,854||South America|
|🇻🇪 Venezuela||28,435,940||South America|
|🇨🇱 Chile||19,116,201||South America|
|🇪🇨 Ecuador||17,643,054||South America|
|🇧🇴 Bolivia||11,673,021||South America|
|🇵🇾 Paraguay||7,132,538||South America|
|🇺🇾 Uruguay||3,473,730||South America|
|🇬🇾 Guyana||786,552||South America|
|🇸🇷 Suriname||586,632||South America|
|🇬🇫 French Guyana||298,682||South America|
|🇫🇰 Falkland Islands||3,480||South America|
|🇳🇿 New Zealand||4,822,233||Oceania|
|🇧🇦 Bosnia and Herzegovina||3,280,819||Europe|
|🇲🇰 North Macedonia||2,083,374||Europe|
|🇸🇲 San Marino||33,931||Europe|
|🇻🇦 Vatican City||801||Europe|
|🇬🇧 United Kingdom||67,886,011||Europe|
|🇮🇲 Isle of Man||85,033||Europe|
|🇫🇴 Faroe Islands||48,863||Europe|
To break it down even further, here’s a look at the population of each of the regions listed above:
- Australia and New Zealand: 30.3 million
- Europe (excluding Russia): 601.7 million
- South America: 430.8 million
- The U.S. and Canada: 368.7 million
Combined their population is 1.432 billion compared to China’s 1.439 billion.
Overall, the population of China has few comparables. India is one exception, with a population of 1.38 billion. As a continent, Africa comes in close as well at 1.34 billion people. Here’s a breakdown of Africa’s population for further comparison.
|🇨🇮 Côte d'Ivoire||26,378,274||Africa|
|🇧🇫 Burkina Faso||20,903,273||Africa|
|🇸🇱 Sierra Leone||7,976,983||Africa|
|🇨🇻 Cabo Verde||555,987||Africa|
|🇸🇭 Saint Helena||6,077||Africa|
|🇿🇦 South Africa||59,308,690||Africa|
|🇪🇭 Western Sahara||597,339||Africa|
|🇨🇩 Democratic Republic of the Congo||89,561,403||Africa|
|🇨🇫 Central African Republic||4,829,767||Africa|
|🇬🇶 Equatorial Guinea||1,402,985||Africa|
|🇸🇹 Sao Tome and Principe||219,159||Africa|
|🇸🇸 South Sudan||11,193,725||Africa|
Future Outlook on the Population of China
Whether or not China’s population growth is slowing appears to be less relevant when looking at its sheer size. While India is expected to match the country’s population by 2026, China will remain one of the world’s largest economic powerhouses regardless.
It is estimated, however, that the population of China will drop below one billion people by the year 2100—bumping the nation to third place in the ranking of the world’s most populous countries. At the same time, it’s possible that China’s economic dominance may be challenged by these same demographic tailwinds as time moves forward.
Visualizing China’s Dominance in Rare Earth Metals
Rare earth deposits exist all over the planet, but the majority of the world’s rare earth metals are produced and refined in China.
China’s Dominance in Rare Earth Metals
Did you know that a single iPhone contains eight different rare earth metals?
From smartphones and electric vehicles to x-rays and guided-missiles, several modern technologies wouldn’t be what they are without rare earth metals. Also known as rare earth elements or simply “rare earths”, this group of 17 elements is critical to a number of wide-ranging industries.
Although deposits of rare earth metals exist all over the world, the majority of both mining and refining occurs in China. The above graphic from CSIS China Power Project tracks China’s exports of rare earth metals in 2019, providing a glimpse of the country’s dominating presence in the global supply chain.
China’s Top Rare Earth Export Destinations
Around 88% of China’s 2019 rare earth exports went to just five countries, which are among the world’s technological and economic powerhouses.
|Export Destination||Share of China's Rare Earth Exports||Top Rare Earth Import (tons)|
|Rest of the World||12.1%||Cerium|
Japan and the U.S. are by far the largest importers, collectively accounting for more than two-thirds of China’s rare earth metals exports.
Lanthanum, found in hybrid vehicles and smartphones, was China’s largest rare earth export by volume, followed by cerium. In dollar terms, terbium was the most expensive—generating $57.9 million from just 115 metric tons of exports.
Why China’s Dominance Matters
As the world transitions to a cleaner future, the demand for rare earth metals is expected to nearly double by 2030, and countries are in need of a reliable supply chain.
China’s virtual monopoly in rare earth metals not only gives it a strategic upper hand over heavily dependent countries like the U.S.—which imports 80% of its rare earths from China—but also makes the supply chain anything but reliable.
“China will not rule out using rare earth exports as leverage to deal with the [Trade War] situation.”
—Gao Fengping et al., 2019, in a report funded by the Chinese government via Horizon Advisory.
A case in point comes from 2010 when China reduced its rare earth export quotas by 37%, which in part resulted in skyrocketing rare earth prices worldwide.
The resulting supply chain disruption was significant enough to push the EU, the U.S., and Japan to jointly launch a dispute settlement case through the World Trade Organization, which was ruled against China in 2014.
On the brighter side, the increase in prices led to an influx of capital in the rare earth mining industry, financing more than 200 projects outside China. While this exploration boom was short-lived, it was successful in kick-starting production in other parts of the world.
Breaking China’s Rare Earth Monopoly
China’s dominance in rare earths is the result of years of evolving industrial policies since the 1980s, ranging from tax rebates to export restrictions. In order to reduce dependence on China, the U.S. and Japan have made it a priority to diversify their sources of rare earth metals.
For starters, the U.S. has added rare earth metals to its list of critical minerals, and President Donald Trump recently issued an executive order to encourage local production. On the other side of the world, Japan is making efforts to reduce China’s share of its total rare earth imports to less than 50% by 2025.
Increasing rare earth mining outside of China has reduced China’s global share of mining, down from 97.7% in 2010 to 62.9% in 2019. But mining is merely one piece of the puzzle.
Ultimately, the large majority of rare earth refining, 80%, resides in China. Therefore, even rare earths mined overseas are sent to China for final processing. New North American refining facilities are being set up to tackle this, but the challenge lies in managing the environmental impacts of processing rare earths.
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