Urban shrinkage with Chinese characteristics

This study exposes a hitherto well-concealed dimension of China’s urban geography – that of shrinkage, directly effecting one in ten of its cities. Urban shrinkage is revealed to be a growing concern for the most populous country on earth, with the absolute number of shrinking urban areas rising by 71 percent, from 164 in the 1990s to 281 in the 2000s. Sixty-eight Chinese cities, mostly in North-eastern China, are found to be shrinking continuously since 1990, losing around 3.5 million dwellers in the process, with China’s total net urban population loss more than doubling between 1990 and 2010, from 3.2 million inhabitants to 7.3 million respectively. The study provides an operational definition of the city in the Chinese political-administrative context, and uses it to build a morphologic taxonomy of Chinese shrinking cities. The article identifies four distinct but overlapping causes of urban shrinkage in the country, including 1) state-incubated re-industrialization and economic restructuring; 2) China’s state-mediated new economic geography, with its underlying centripetal forces; 3) state-propelled demographic decline; and 4) state-sponsored mega-shrinkage. This study further provides a theoretically-informed reflection on the peculiarity of shrinkage in China, and its broader meaning for human geography and planetary urbanization.