China's Rapid Urbanization

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Science  18 Oct 2013:
Vol. 342, Issue 6156, pp. 310
DOI: 10.1126/science.342.6156.310-a

Between 1980 and 2012, China's Urbanization increased from 19.4 to 52.6% (1). Unfortunately, China's urbanization has developed far ahead of its economic growth. As a consequence, China's urban economic advantages are being offset by the perennial urban curses of overcrowding, air and water pollution, environmental degradation, contagious disease, and crime (2, 3).

China's rapid urbanization has also resulted in a severe labor shortage in its rural communities. By 2012, 262 million people had migrated to urban areas. The majority of the rural-to-urban migrants are men, who seek higher wages in cities but leave their children, spouses, and aging parents in the villages. The number of rural children left behind increased from 22 million in 2004 to 58 million in 2010, and the women and aging parents left behind have reached more than 47 million and 40 million, respectively (4, 5). These three groups now account for more than 22% of China's total rural population. This has created societal unrest and psychological development problems for children left behind (4, 5).

The labor shortage in China's rural areas has led to increased uncultivated land and hastened significant changes to traditional agricultural practices, such as reduced tillage, burning of agricultural straw on site, and overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Overused chemicals have in turn caused widespread water, soil, and air pollution, soil and farmland degradation, and biodiversity loss (6). Of the 16,928 species that are threatened with extinction worldwide, almost 800 are in China; 25% of China's species are endangered, and 233 vertebrate animal species are facing extinction (7). Biodiversity loss has been shown to lead to increased human, animal, and plant diseases. The soaring rate of cancer in cities and the 200 “cancer villages” in China reflect the damage done to the health of its people (8).

China is seeking and implementing innovative solutions that balance economic growth and sustainable development. During the 2012 National People's Congress, the concept of “eco-civilization” was proposed. A year later, creating a green and sustainable urbanization and building an eco-civilization were the key subjects of the 2013 Global Eco-Forum (9). To achieve these ambitious goals, China must refrain from forced urbanization (10) and develop new policies and incentives to retain sufficient workers for its rural communities. By addressing these challenges, China will improve food safety and security, reduce dependency on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, improve air and water quality, and help to protect wild plant and animal populations. At the same time, China needs to address the urban issues of reducing air pollution and providing clean water, safe neighborhoods, and efficient infrastructure—the basics of city living (11).


  1. National Bureau of Statistics of China, Statistical Communiqué of the People's Republic of China on the 2012 National Economic and Social Development (22 February 2013); www.stats.gov.cn/english/newsandcomingevents/t20130222_402874607.htm.
  2. Geographical Distribution of Cancer Villages in China (22 July 2013); http://env.people.com.cn/n/2013/0722/c1010-22274134.html [in Chinese].
  3. Eco-Forum Global Annual Conference Guiyang (2013); www.efglobal.org/.

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