Arguments - Data Quality
Data on city growth and rural-urban migration are highly problematic in
China. There are gross inconsistencies in the Chinese classification system for urban,
rural, and city populations, because the system mixes territorial and functional
definitions. The definitions have also been changed several times. Official household
registration data often do not reflect the actual place of residence, indicating a problem
of illegal migration.
|Description of the Problem
distinction between rural and urban populations is one of the most notorious fields for
statistical artifacts and not just in China. It is extremely difficult to find a
consistent classification that accurately represents the situation.
Unfortunately, the urban-rural classification system in China is extremely
inconsistent and confusing. Before we can use Chinese urban-rural statistics, we have to
consider the following problems:
statistics use several different methods for classification.
||The definitions of
"urban" and "rural" have changed several times in
China over the past decades. It is therefore extremely difficult if not impossible
to generate time series of urban-rural statistics.
||The boundaries of
towns and cities are frequently defined according to political and administrative
considerations. In China, many cities and towns include large rural areas (counties) where
farmers still cultivate crops.
||There are frequent
reclassifications. Many rural townships have been designated as towns in recent years.
This has "created" urban populations without any major change in the
peoples place of residence, labor force participation, or lifestyle.
||A growing number of
people in China do not live where they are officially registered. A wave of
"illegal" rural-urban migrants is flooding all major Chinese cities. This
"floating population" is estimated to be in the range of many millions.
||Charts & Tables
at least four different concepts have been used simultaneously to classify the population,
creating a whole range of overlapping classifications and incompatible statistics (see
Figure 1). Many authors have tried to sort out the various definitions and have suggested
improvements (see, e.g., Kirkby, 1985; Ma and Cui, 1987; Ran and Berry, 1989; Goldstein,
1990; Chan, 1994; Shen and Spence, 1995; Zhang, L. et al. , 1998). One of the clearest
analyses of urbanization definitions in China (available in English) is by Jianfa Shen
(Shen, 1995). To understand the maze of China's urbanization statistics, it is necessary
to distinguish the following classification schemes:
The easiest and most straightforward definition is the distinction between the
population living in counties (excluding people living in towns within these
counties) and the population living in cities and towns (excluding
people living in the counties within cities). As can be concluded from this territorial
definition, counties can include cities and towns - so we cannot simply substitute the
total county population for the rural population. Also, cities can include counties, so we
cannot substitute the city population for the urban population.
agricultural - nonagricultural population
This functional classification also seems to be simple and clear, but only until
we learn that, in China, the agricultural population does not necessarily work in the
agricultural sector or live in rural areas.
The distinction between agricultural and nonagricultural population is made by local residence
registration committees. These committees are a legacy of the communist system. Their
function was (and still is) to control rural-urban migration and organize state supplies
for urban residents. All residents are classified as either belonging to the agricultural
population or to the nonagricultural population. The agricultural population usually (but
not always) works in the agricultural sector; the nonagricultural population usually (but
not always) works in industry, the service sector, or the administration. However, the
distinction does not simply characterize an individual's likely position in the labor
force. It also determines the person's privileges. For the nonagricultural population, the
government assumes the responsibility of providing jobs, housing, education, grain, and
other benefits. In contrast, the population that is registered as agricultural is more or
less responsible for itself. Obviously, nonagricultural population status has become a
privilege that is not given to everyone living in an urban area. In fact, many cities have
a surprisingly low percentage of nonagricultural population (see Figure 2), usually
because cities include rural counties with agricultural population, but also because
rural-urban migrants are sometimes allowed to live in the city provided they supply their
own grain. These migrants are classified as agricultural by the
residence committees so the government can avoid financial responsibility for them.
agricultural - nonagricultural employment
While the registration status of nonagricultural or agricultural basically
describes a person's legal rights and the state's obligations, the actual agricultural or
nonagricultural employment defines a person's position in the labor force. The
population in nonagricultural employment is significantly larger than the
population with nonagricultural registration status, mainly because former
farmers and rural laborers have found jobs in township industries or service sectors
without being a nonagricultural resident. Since the 1978 economic reforms, the government
has encouraged these employment changes, but is not prepared to provide the privileges of
the nonagricultural resident status.
with villagers committees - residents committees
People in townships are registered with villagers committees.
They are automatically classified as agricultural population. People in towns
are registered either with villagers committees, and thus are classified as agricultural
population, or with residents committees, and thus are classified as nonagricultural
population (with the privileges mentioned above). The bottom line of this distinction is
as follows: if you are born in a Chinese village, you are automatically registered with
the villagers committee as a member of the nonagricultural population.
|Change of definitions
statisticians have not only introduced a confusing maze of incompatible urban-rural
definitions, but they have also changed these definitions several times since the
foundation of the Peoples Republic of China (see Figure 3). This makes it almost
impossible to compile consistent time series of urbanization in China.
As Jianfa Shen has demonstrated, there are huge differences in China's
rural (and consequently urban) population size depending on the definitions used. For
instance, according to the pre-1982 definition, China's rural population in 1990 would
have been 932 million; with the 1982 census definition it was only 535 million;
and with the 1990 census definition it would have been 842 million
people (see Table 1). The number of rural residents (measured as the agricultural
population) would have been 896 million. Obviously, these statistical inconsistencies make
it almost impossible to get a clear and realistic picture of urbanization trends in
addition to the classification problems outlined above, there is the problem of
"illegal" migrants. These are people from rural areas who move to the cities in
search of work and a better life and stay there - at least temporarily. Chinese
demographers call these migrants the "floating population," suggesting that
these people will eventually return to their villages.
No one knows how large the floating population really is. There are gross differences in
estimates: official sources speak of 2 or 3 million for each of the larger cities, such as
Beijing or Shanghai. However, foreign China experts, such as Kenneth Lieberthal, consider
a floating population of 100 million people to be possible (Lieberthal, 1995b, p. 303).
The floating population problem is a good example of China's tendency to ignore or
underestimate trends that are not consistent with the official state doctrine. With the
strict Chinese household registration system it should be easy to identify and control the
floating population. In principle, the floating population from rural areas remains
registered in their home villages as part of the agricultural
population. They are not entitled to the privileges of subsidized food and housing
reserved for urban residents. Employers must get permission from the ministry of labor or
their local labor offices to hire migrant workers, and they must register these workers.
In other words, the state authorities have legal and administrative means to send migrant
workers back to rural areas once they are no longer needed.
However, in reality, there is a substantial number of people who fall through the
cracks of the system, or who simply ignore it. Many cities have also relaxed the rules and
are tolerating large numbers of migrant workers to satisfy the labor demand in certain
sectors, especially demand for unskilled labor in the construction industry and in certain
service sectors (restaurants, textile wholesalers).
With growing pressure from the huge army of unemployed rural laborers and increasing
demand for cheap labor in the cities, the number of unregistered city residents will grow,
despite frequent crackdowns by city administrations and attempts to send some of these
people back to their villages. The floating population is a consequence of China's
economic reforms and it is unlikely that administrative or coercive measures will be able
to stop the wave of rural-urban migrants in the long run (see: Scharping, 1997; Chan and
Zhang, 1998; Zhang and Zhao, 1998).
Urbanization: Trends Impact
Data Quality Prediction Error Intervention Possibilities Intervention Costs