The distribution of Chinese city sizes


The Economist‘s Economics Focus column looks at Chinese cities and manages to discuss the distribution of city sizes while avoiding the phrase “Zipf’s law”.

China makes a habit of bending the rules of economics. Do its cities obey the rank-size rule? The fit is not perfect. China’s small cities are too dispersed and its big cities are too even in size…

Messrs Xu and Zhu show that China’s cities became more equal during the 1990s, especially in the first half of the decade…

China’s small cities exploded in number. But its biggest metropolises conspicuously failed to explode in size. As BCG notes, only 27m Chinese live in cities of more than 10m, compared with 58m Indians and 32m Brazilians. Shanghai may have sprouted dozens of skyscrapers and Beijing may boast half a dozen ring roads, but China’s big cities are still surprisingly small.

This partly reflects a conscious policy. Although China’s rulers have embraced urbanisation, they still seem wary of mega-cities…

China’s economy would benefit from a stretching out of the distribution of its cities, argue Ting Jiang of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and co-authors. But how might such a divergence come about? It might, they speculate, happen as an unintended consequence of the government’s push to expand higher education. Since the bigger cities have the most universities, their expansion will draw youngsters from the hinterland to the metropolis. And with a degree (and a job), their graduates should win permission to stay.

Xu and Zhu, “Urban Growth Determinants in China“, Chinese Economy, 2008.

[HT: Alejo]