Who urbanized more quickly, America or China?

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In 2011, China passed a very important milestone. For the first time in its history the majority of its population lived in urban areas. This milestone came only three years after the global urban population passed the 50% level.

In aggregate the total number of people moving from China’s villages to its cities was astounding, with the urban population rising by 205 million between 2000 and 2010. At current rates of urbanization, China is moving the equivalent of America’s entire urban population into cities every 12 or so years.

But how does China’s current rate of urbanization compare with historical rates in America?

Here is a plot of the percentage of China’s population that live in urban areas:


Urbanization more or less did not occur in Maoist China. In 1960, the earliest year the World Bank provides data for urban population, 16% of Chinese lived in urban areas. This had only increased to 17.8% when Mao died in 1976. Urbanization did not get into full gear until the reforms of Deng Xiaoping took effect in the early 1980s. And like everything else in China, urbanization sped up significantly after 2000.

In 2000 35.9% of the Chinese population was classified as urban, and this rose to 49.3% in 2010. In effect, China is moving 15% of its population into urban areas every decade.

How do this compare with America? The American Census Bureau has published estimates of America’s urban population each decade going back to 1790. The actual definition of an “urban population” is itself slightly ambiguous, and America has changed its definitions historically.

Likewise there are, unsurprisingly, questions over how China calculates its population data.

These details aside, comparisons between historical rates of urbanization between America and China should be relatively meaningful, and certainly will be instructive if changes are significantly different.

Here is the growth of America’s urban population between


America’s most rapid period of urbanization came at the turn of the 20th century. Urban population increased from 28.2% to 45.6% between 1880 and 1910. In comparison China is now doing this in a single decade.

So, caveats about urban population definitions noted, China is clearly urbanizing at a much faster rate than America ever did.

Fully accurate historical comparisons would require recalculations of one of the urbanization figures to make the two apples to apples. That is the work of an academic paper, not a blog post…