A recent survey showed that by the end of 2019 the population of Guangdong Province surpassed 115 million. The province recorded a population increase of 1.8 million, or 1.54 percent, last year, the biggest population increase among 31 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions on the Chinese mainland.
As we all know, a country where most of its population is in poor or remote villages will not be a modern and developed nation. Nevertheless, urbanization does not necessarily mean that population and other important resources will be equally distributed among different regions in a country. According to demographic theories, there are many factors that determine the spatial distribution of population. Those factors can be roughly summarized into two categories: socioeconomic factors such as economy, investment, transportation and education; and physical factors such as climate, topography and vegetation conditions.
Guangdong's population increase is fully in line with these theories. As the most populous province in China, Guangdong's GDP is also the highest in the country. Its GDP has topped the nation for 31 consecutive years since 1989. Other affluent coastal provinces such as Zhejiang and Jiangsu also witnessed population growth in recent years.
While coastal provinces are gaining in population, China's three northeastern provinces, namely Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang, all witnessed population losses. With Heilongjiang as an example, its population fell by 218,000 in 2019, a year-on-year decrease of 0.58 percent. The northeastern region was once the most important industrial engine in China in the 1950s and 1960s. However, population outflow in the region has continued in the past decades because of weaker economic development, slower industrial transformation, fewer job opportunities and cold winters there.
Unequal distribution of population is not a unique phenomenon in China, but is common throughout the world. With the United States as an example, after hundreds of years' industrialization process and urbanization competition, four global city clusters have emerged. The East Coast, with New York as the center, mainly engages in finance and other high-end tertiary industries. The West Coast, with California as the leader, mainly develops high and new technologies. The central and western areas, with Chicago as the core, concentrate on upgraded manufacturing and industrial transformation. The southern part of the country, with Houston in Texas as the engine, mainly supplies energy and agricultural products. Moreover, in the U.S. House of Representatives, California, the most populous state, has more than 50 seats, but some sparsely populated states such as Montana and Alaska have only one seat in the country's Lower House.
Rapid urbanization will surely continue in China in the coming years. Unbalanced economic development, city cluster expansion and widening income gaps will also bring about further demographic changes and great migrations in the country. We cannot stop people migrating from poor country villages to cities. However, as more and more Chinese people are moving to developed cities and coastal provinces, we should pay more attention to some new social problems arising from such migrations.
On the one hand, in some emerging mega-cities with huge population increases, traffic jams, concentrations of urban poverty, social isolation, insufficient access to natural resources and deteriorating living conditions will frequently happen. On the other hand, those places with population outflow and shrinkage may face a quicker population aging process, tighter financial budgets, worsened public services and a brain drain. While respecting the rights of individuals and families to move freely in the country, local governments in different regions should also make customized guidelines and policies to tackle these issues as soon as possible.
(The author is the editor-in-chief of Shenzhen Daily with a Ph.D. from the Journalism and Communication School of Wuhan University)