Beyond Hukou Reform: Enhancing Human-Centered Urbanization in China


In this Paulson Policy Memorandum, Juan Chen, Deborah Davis, and Pierre Landry note that, in the past three decades, China has simultaneously witnessed the largest peacetime migration in history and an accelerating process of city expansion. Driving this massive demographic shift has been the migration of over 200 million rural residents, who left their homes to start new lives in China’s cities as migrant laborers.

Yet equally important was the reclassification of 200 million former villagers as residents of new urban districts. Thus, they argue, urbanization in China has been the result of two distinct but interrelated phenomena: first, the growth of cities and towns, swelled by an influx of migrant labor from rural areas, and second, in situ urbanization, whereby villagers become urban residents not because they decided to try their luck in the cities but because their land was reclassified as urban. Rather than go to the city, the city came to them.

This leads to the core of the three authors’ policy recommendations: Because these two distinctive processes drive rapid urbanization in China, prospective remedial policies must also distinguish between urbanization of people and urbanization of place.

In their memorandum, the authors focus particularly on in situ urbanization—one of the two distinct pathways to urban residence. They first describe how villagers become urbanites via the re-classification of their land and the associated disparities in quality of life between in situ urbanized rural residents and long-term urbanites. Then, they offer a cluster of policy suggestions to reduce the disparities by: (1) balancing resource distribution between China’s mega cities and its smaller cities, (2) creating incentives for Chinese local governments to focus on providing public services and improving residents’ quality of life, and (3) cultivating government-coordinated but resident-participated models for urban development.


Juan Chen

Associate Professor in the Department of Applied Social Sciences, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Juan Chen is Associate Professor in the Department of Applied Social Sciences, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. She received her BA and MA from Peking University, and her MSW and PhD from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her research focuses on migration and urbanization, health and mental health, and help-seeking and service use in the United States, China, and Hong Kong. Her work has appeared in Social Service Review, Social Science & Medicine, China Quarterly, Habitat International, and Cities. She has completed two research projects on migration dynamics and migrant integration in China in recent years. She is currently working on another project investigating the impact of local government policies and practices on the in situ urbanization process, which affects the general wellbeing of formerly rural residents as well as their integration into the various facets of urban life.

Deborah S. Davis

Professor of Sociology, Yale University

Deborah S. Davis is Professor of Sociology at Yale University. Her primary teaching interests are inequality and stratification, contemporary Chinese society, and methods of fieldwork. Author or editor of 10 books, her past publications have analyzed the politics of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese family life, social welfare policy, consumer culture, property rights, social stratification, occupational mobility, and impact of rapid urbanization and migration on health and happiness. Her current research focuses on intimacy, marriage, and intergenerational relationships. In 2017 she will join the inaugural faculty for Schwarzman College at Tsinghua University.

Pierre F. Landry

Professor of Political Science and Director of Global China Studies, NYU-Shanghai; Research Fellow with the Research Center for Contemporary China, Peking University

Pierre F. Landry is Professor of Political Science and Director of Global China Studies at NYU-Shanghai, as well as Research Fellow with the Research Center for Contemporary China at Peking University. His research interests focus on Asian and Chinese politics, comparative local government, quantitative comparative analysis, and survey research. Besides articles and book chapters in comparative politics and political methodology, he has written on governance and the political management of officials in China and is the author of Decentralized Authoritarianism in China, published by Cambridge University Press (2008). He also collaborates with the Program on Governance and Local Development, the United Nations Development Program, and the World Bank on developing indicators of the variability of local governance in a variety of countries, particularly China, Vietnam, Tunisia, Jordan, and Malawi.

Topics: Urbanization