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Urban and Rural Population in China, 1978 and 2002
China Statistical Yearbook, 2003, Table 13-3 (p. 413) and Table 4-1 (p. 97)
Notes: Data in this table exclude the population of Hong Kong SAR, Macao SAR and Taiwan.
Survey-based population estimates for 2002 have been calculated on the basis of the annual national sample survey on population (which is corrected on the basis of the population census). Hukou-based population estimates are calculated on the basis of China's household registration system. It still uses the town classification standards of 1964, which also include rural population in what is now established towns.

There are three major problems with urban-rural population data in China:

1. The Chinese household registration system (the so-called Hukou system) is using a very peculiar and outdated classification system of the population. Basically, everyone who is registered by a village committee is classified as a farmer and belongs to the rural population. Everyone, who is registered by a street committee in a town or city, belongs to the urban population. Of course, this is highly inaccurate because today there are many people still registered in a village at their place of birth, who have in the meantime migrated to a town or city and work in the non-agricultural sector. This population with "false rural" registration might be in the range of 15 million people.

2. On the other hand, there are people living in towns with an urban household registration, who work in agriculture. They are essentially farmers, who have moved to towns and suburbs and changed their household registration from village to town - but they are essentially rural people. This group with "false urban" registration might be in the range of 23 million people.

3. There is also a very large group of people, who are registered in a village (and thus are classified as rural) but work temporarily in urban areas. This is the so-called "floating population" of rural people, which can be easily observed in all major cities of China. Experts have estimated this group of the population to be in the range of 90 to 110 million. Perhaps some 65 million of this "floating population" are true migrant workers, who spend some time in a big city to earn money but still have a significant income from farming. They regularly go back during harvest times. The rest of this migrant workers are in different stages of actual migration. They more or less permanently live in big cities and are "tolerated" despite their village registration - such as many ten-thousand semi-permanent migrants from rural areas in certain districts of Beijing.

The Hukou system of household registration was designed in the past to hinder farmers from migrating to urban areas. This has effectively prevented the "urban explosion" that was typical for most other Asian countries - including the problems of spreading slums, squatter settlements and increased social conflict. However, today this system is anachronistic. Urban household registration is no longer linked to numerous benefits and privileges as in the past. Today, China needs cheap rural labor in towns and cities and has therefore gradually loosened the strict rules of household registration. In some provinces, it is relatively easy to change from rural to urban household registration. In others, people carry a "false" household registration but are tolerated by the town or city administration.

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These sections were checked and updated: September 17, 2005

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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Gerhard K. Heilig. All rights reserved. - 18 April 2012