In a recent speech on urbanisation to local upper management, Premier Li Keqiang mentioned the need to foster urbanisation in the central and western regions of China so as to avoid the socioeconomic problems caused by overpopulation in the three poles of growth of the east.1 He made reference to the Hu Huanyong line to stress the Chinese population’s asymmetric distribution across the country. The Hu Huanyong line is an imaginary line, which was drawn by the Chinese geographer Hu Huanyong (胡焕庸) in the 1930s to reveal the accumulation of China’s population in the east of the country. This imaginary line divides the area of China into two parts, 36% to the east of the line and 64% to the west. It stretches diagonally from the city of Heihe, in Heilongjiang, to Tengchong County, in Yunnan. At the time when Hu Huanyong drew the line, 96% of the population was concentrated east of the line. Almost one century later, and more than 30 years of rapid economic growth, this uneven distribution of the population has barely changed.
Historically, the area east of the Hu Huanyong line has been the most suitable land for human settlement. It encompasses the regions east of the mountains and south of the northern steppe. The mighty Yellow and Yangtze rivers emerge not far from each other in Qinghai, and then flow eastwards irrigating valleys and plains. The Yellow river, also called Mother River, is considered to be the cradle of the Chinese civilisation. The Yangtze (aka Chang Jiang – 长江, or long river) runs parallel to the Mekong and the Nujiang (Salween in Burmese) for some 300 kilometres, then changes course in Shigu (石鼓), Yunnan, a 180 degrees U-turn from south to north. It is often said this turn was crucial to the development of Chinese civilisation for, after this turn, the river flows east, irrigating a fifth of China’s land area. After a journey of 6,400 kilometres, it empties into the China Sea at Shanghai. The average population density in the regions east of the Hu Huanyong line is 277 people per km2.
In contrast, the population is sparse in the west. Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet, Qinghai and Gansu comprise 55% of the country’s land area but only 6% of its population, with a population density of 15 people per km2. The western region is a more hostile environment, marked by the presence of the world highest mountains and deserts.
During the past 30 years, migration towards the east coast has been more related to economic growth than to land suitability. China’s economic opening brought Special Economic Zones and foreign investment to the coastal regions, and millions of migrants went there to work. However, most migrations have taken place east of the Hu Huanyong line. Thus, inflow municipalities/provinces such as Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Guangdong and Zhejiang have seen their population increase by 26%, 25%, 18%, 8%, and 6% just during 2006-2011, respectively, whereas in outflow provinces such as Guizhou, Guangxi, Anhui, Henan, and Sichuan, the population has declined by 10%, 6%, 6%, 3%, and 3%, respectively.
When Li Keqiang cited the need to bring urbanisation and industrialisation to the central and western regions, he probably had these provinces with population flight east of the line in mind as well. The impetus of the Chinese leadership’s urbanisation plan is to counter this historical demographic trend by “bringing the cities to the towns”. It is an effort to break with the traditional structural demographic patterns through commanded urbanisation and strategic changes in the hukou policy. The full-scale plan involves land consolidation and agriculture modernisation, with the ultimate objective of transferring the (surplus) rural population to small and medium sized cities. It also involves huge investments in infrastructures reaching out to neighbouring regions (i.e. railway networks in South East Asia) to boost economic growth in the bordering cities. However, the income gap between regions west and east of the line is such that whatever results this effort to reverse the demographic trend brings about will only be seen in the long term. In the short term higher GDP will probably continue to motivate people to move to coastal cities.
- 李克强：协调推进城镇化是实现现代化的重大战略选择 http://theory.people.com.cn/n/2012/1026/c40531-19403044-3.html Last accessed October 16, 2013 [↩]