China goes urban as workers flood into cities

For the first time in history, China’s urban population outnumbers the rural. City living is now the future for the majority of humanity. But what is the appeal of the big smoke?

Cities have long sat at the centre of human society. From the thriving philosophy of ancient Athens to the vibrant slums of modern Mumbai, millions flock to them every year, in the hope of prosperity, learning, and adventure.

Now, for the first time in history, the world’s most populous nation, China, is also a mainly urban one. According to statistics published yesterday, over half of China’s 1.4 billion citizens now live in a metropolis.

The shift is the result of thirty years of migration, from the Chinese countryside to the ‘big smoke’. Lured by jobs and and the promise of wealth, China’s migrant workers flooded into the country’s crowded and polluted cities.

They were following a worldwide trend. Globally, city dwellers first outnumbered the rural population in 2007, and in some nations the countryside is practically deserted. A stunning 87% of Brazilians, and 82% of Americans, live in cities.

There was a time when many thought that the advance of technology would make big cities a thing of the past. The internet, it was predicted, would mean people of the future would be able to run businesses, visit friends and do their shopping from anywhere in the world.

But in fact, the opposite has happened. Globalisation means concentrated hubs with international connections are now essential. Cities – where people, trade and ideas mix irresistibly together – are still by far the most appealing places for business.

And where businesses grow, people flood in.

These benefits, however, do not come without problems. The difficulty of providing sanitation, housing and even work for hordes of urban migrants is tragically visible in Rio’s favelas and the homeless beggars of Mumbai. And as millions struggle to survive, surrounded by strangers in cramped quarters, the urban jungle can become a dangerous place, with soaring levels of crime.

Paradise City?

For many, the city is the pinnacle of human achievement. A true melting pot, it is a place where the intelligence, culture and skill of millions comes together to produce exciting results. The countryside may be beautiful, but the variety, diversity and possibility of city life is surely the best way for humans to fulfil their potential.

Surrounded by the roar of traffic and crush of concrete, others say, city life is filled with anonymous faces, monotonous chores and threatening characters. It is a place where people are jammed together yet distanced from one another, and where the pleasures of nature are replaced by material consumption. The city is a melting pot, they say, but one in which it is easy to drown.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather live in the city or the country?
  2. Have cities made a positive or negative contribution to our society?


  1. Imagine you are a Chinese migrant worker, who has just arrived in Beijing. Write a letter to your family in the countryside, describing what the big city is like.
  2. Research a work of literature that deals with the city, and write a short essay on how it presents urban life. A good place to start could be William Blake’sLondon, Tom Wolfe’sBonfire of the Vanitiesor the ‘Unreal City’ section of T.S. Eliot’sThe Waste Land. Do these writers communicate a message about the city in their work, or do they leave it to the reader to judge?

Some People Say...

“Humans can never flourish when they move away from nature.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Will cities continue to dominate the way we live?
The growth of cities doesn’t look like it’s going to slow anytime soon. By 2030, it’s estimated that three quarters of China’s population will live in urban areas. For them, the city’s promise of prosperity – or escape from rural poverty – is an irresistible draw. Last year alone, an amazing 20 million made the move.
Is this really sustainable, though?
Urban living faces serious challenges in the future. As people move away from the countryside, producing enough food to feed the urban masses could be problematic. And in China, the stability of urban areas depends on the health of the international economy. Urban jobs are supported by international trade: if that slumps, the result could be urban unemployment, and all the problems it brings.

Word Watch

Ancient Athens
Ancient Athens is often hailed as a kind of model city. Modern ideals of democracy are often said to come from the city, and it was well known for being a seat of learning and philosophical teaching.
Migrant Workers
Workers that have travelled in order to access jobs. The term can refer to travel across borders, or, in the case of China, within a country.
Over the last century, global trade and communication have led to businesses expanding their reach across countries and continents. This means that international chains, from McDonalds to Microsoft, have spread across international boundaries, and has led to all kinds of industry outsourcing services abroad.
In Brazil, a 'avela’ is a slum, or shanty town. These settlements are not built by authorities but evolve organically, set up by migrant workers who come to cities in search of jobs. These slums are often high in crime, with poor standards of sanitation.

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