Almost one-third of Chinese cities are shrinking – but developers told to keep building

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  • Satellite imagery monitored the intensity of night lights in more than 3,300 cities and towns between 2013 and 2016
  • In 28 per cent of cases, the intensity of lights had dimmed, but urban planners are still assuming China’s urbanisation will continue, research shows

The perception that China’s urbanisation is still in full swing is untrue for nearly one-third of Chinese cities, whose populations are shrinking, according to new findings by a Chinese university.

A research team from Tsinghua University used satellite imagery to monitor the intensity of night lights in more than 3,300 cities and towns between 2013 and 2016. In 28 per cent of cases, the lights had dimmed.

China now has 938 shrinking cities, according to Long Ying, an urban planning expert at China’s Tsinghua University, who founded and led the research group, Beijing City Lab. This is more than any other nation on Earth.

Furthermore, the problem is getting worse. Between 2000 and 2012, previous analysis showed that China had fewer shrinking cities than France, Germany, the UK and the US.

Long told a seminar in Shanghai last week that he is looking forward to China’s 2020 census to see whether the trend of China’s shrinking cities is confirmed.

“The 2020 census could give us some hints [as to] whether the trend worsened further,” Long said.

The Chinese cities under the greatest pressure of shrinking include those heavily dependent on natural resources, such as the coal mining town of Hegang in Heilongjiang province.

Also diminishing are cities “in the process of transformation”, such as Yiwu in Zhejiang province, once christened the “largest small commodity wholesale market in the world” and famous for its sprawling networks of stalls selling counterfeit goods.

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Another huge problem facing China is that the urban shrinkage identified in images beamed back from outer space is going unnoticed by those planning cities on the ground.

The country’s city planners, which take orders from municipal authorities, are still drawing up plans based upon the assumption that China’s urban areas will grow indefinitely, Long said.

“It’s like you’ve been losing weight for over a decade, but still make nutrition plans assuming that you are gaining weight,” said Long, who is trying to raise awareness of the issue.

Most Chinese city planning is detached from the reality of today, Long said after his team reviewed ambitious urban development plans for more than 60 cities. The plans usually include key infrastructure projects, as well as industrial, commercial and residential developments that may diverge significantly from the demographic trends.

His team also conducted a survey of 80 urban planners from China’s north-easterly rust belt, where a large number of the country’s shrinking towns are located.

Over half of the planners worked under the assumption that the local population would grow, while nearly 90 per cent said they faced pressure from local officials to use optimistic assumptions when drawing up blueprints.

Long said urban planning is often based on population and economic data provided by local authorities. In many cases,


Long said it is a difficult job to tell Chinese urban officials that the population of their towns – and resulting economic activity – is shrinking. He said that he always uses the word “shrinking” to describe the situation because it is more neutral than “decline” or “decay”.

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Many landscapes in the US rust belt could be the future of some of China’s shrinking cities.Long Ying, Tsinghua University

However, the problem is real and Chinese local and central government officials need to wake up to the harsh reality as quickly as possible, Long said, since a shrinking city is more complicated to manage, and presents different problems than a growing one.

Huge apartment buildings dominate the skylines in most Chinese urban areas. These buildings would be much more costly to tear down should they be vacant than the standard smaller houses in shrinking cities in the US, for example.

These large buildings may also be sparsely occupied – it could be difficult to survey how many homes are empty, Long said. Furthermore, no official wants to face a decision over whether to tear down a building that might just have a few occupants.


However, the desolation that haunts many of America’s decaying post-industrial towns could be

, if the situation is not managed properly, Long said.

“Although shrinking cities in the US and China are different on many levels, many landscapes in the US rust belt could be the future of some of China’s shrinking cities,” he warned.

As China’s cities compete for industry and resources, these already declining cities risk being left even further behind.

“The heated battle for talent among Chinese cities has only exacerbated this trend,” Long said. “Shrinking cities are not going to win that fight.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: One-third of mainland cities ‘are shrinking’

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