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Urban growth in ChinaBookmark

Learning area: Geography
Year level: Year 8
Country: China
General capability: Intercultural understanding

This learning sequence examines the rapid urbanisation, development and redevelopment that is occurring in many parts of China. Students will gain insights into the impact on rural migrants having to adjust to life in big cities and the displacement of many city dwellers due to rapid building development. Students will focus on people and some of the issues people face through conducting a mock interview and presenting possible solutions to accommodation shortages.

Key inquiry questions

  • What are the effects of rapid urbanisation on people in China and how has the distribution of the population changed in recent times?
  • What impact does rapid urbanisation have on rural and city dwellers?
  • How could ghost cities solve the problem of the shortage of affordable accommodation in China?

Highrise buildings are left empty and vacantApartment buildings in Pudong, China


Image: The Bund_45 by Ryan McLaughlin (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Related resources

Activity 1: Rural migration and urbanisation

In this activity you will:

  • investigate the mass movement of rural migrants to the cities, the reasons for their movement and the impact of rapid growth and expansion of cities across China
  • select new information and present your ideas graphically.

Key inquiry question: What are the effects of rapid urbanisation on people in China and how has the distribution of the population changed in recent times?

Gathering data and information

  1. In pairs, discuss and make a list of what you know about the rapid development and growth of cities in China.
  2. View the video Urban Migration in China (on the right), which shows the growth and development of urban centres resulting from rural migration. Answer the following questions and, while viewing, consider the small population of Australia in relation to the huge numbers of people in China on the move in recent times. Add statistics and information to your list:
    • What key statistics are highlighted in the animation?
    • What do you think are some of the issues arising from rapid population growth and building development?
  3. View The largest migration in history, which is a videographic showing the acceleration of urban population growth and rural migration across China from the 1980s. Answer these questions and add more facts and information to your list:
    • What motivates rural people to move to cities in China?
    • What issues are faced by rural people living in big cities?
    • What statistics and dates are provided about population movement? Replay the video if necessary.
    • What are the benefits to the country from the growth of cities?
    • What are the major negative impacts of urban expansion?  
  4. View Urbanisation in China and focus on the key themes of:
    • benefits of rural migrants to Chinese consumption of goods
    • statistics on rates of urbanisation in China (you may need to watch the video again to gather the data)
    • unequal welfare benefits experienced by rural migrants compared to city residents
    • advantages of rural land ownership.
  5. Read the information about China's urban migration and take notes.
  6. In pairs, discuss and agree on the main points and add to your notes.
  7. Share and report on the key issues you observed with the whole class.

Presenting your information

Using the facts and information gathered, you and your partner will create an infographic that highlights:

  • the population migration statistics of rural migrants to the cities
  • the growth and expansion of cities throughout China
  • reasons for people movement
  • the benefits and disadvantages of rapid urbanisation.
  1. Refer to Learning Fundamentals: resources, the work of Jane Genovese, an Australian graphic artist who created popular infographics that are available online. 
  2. Ensure the arrangement of information, colours, shapes and facts is designed to engage the viewer.
  3. Look at the Population and the planet infographic (on the right), about China's internal migration, and analyse how the information is clustered and communicated by the graphic.
  4. Use this as a guide for creating your own colourful infographic either freehand, using PowerPoint or some of the 4 Simple Online Infographic Generators.
  5. Create a draft infographic where you focus on specific information that you want to include and how you want to categorise it. Then consider what images or icons you want to use to visually represent some of the main ideas.
  6. Before completing your final version, have you answered the key focus question:
    • What are the affects of rapid urbanisation on people in China and how has the distribution of the population changed in recent times?
  7. Present your infographic to the class, giving reasons for the way you designed it for maximum impact.

Activity 2: Adjusting to city living

In this activity, you will:

  • explore what it is like for people from farming communities to relocate to cities and some of the issues they face
  • examine the displacement of people in cities – caused by the destruction of old buildings – and their relocation to high-rise apartments
  • develop and conduct a news interview with a fictitious city resident affected by displacement.

Key inquiry question: What impact does rapid urbanisation have on rural and city dwellers?

Rural migrants adjusting to city living

  1. In groups of 4, view Urban Migration for Young Chinese on the Rise (on the right). Select one of the following questions to focus on and take notes:
    • Does Ahong regard himself as having successfully assimilated into city living? If not, why not?
    • What does Ahong say about his home town when he returns?
    • The Household Registration System is mentioned. What is it and why does it cause inequalities for rural migrants compared to their city counterparts? What rights are denied to rural migrants?
    • Why does Ahong have problems developing relationships?
    • What are Ahong's aspirations?
  2. In turn, share your group's responses with the class. Summarise the issues faced by Ahong and other rural migrants.

Life in a hutong

  1. Read the definition of a hutong and view Walk through a Beijing Hutong and answer the following questions:
    • How would you describe a hutong?
    • What is the layout and structure of the buildings and streets?
    • What methods of transport are used?
  2. As a class discuss and speculate on what life would be like living in a hutong.

Destruction of hutongs and upheavals for residents

  1. Read the article ‪‪‪‬‬‬‬‬‬Urban Development and Destruction of the Old Neighborhoods in China to find out further information about impact of destruction of hutongs and the disappearance of an old way of life.

Interview a resident

  1. In pairs, develop a 2- to 3-minute role-play between a news journalist and a fictitious person either a resident of a hutong or a rural migrant. Create a situation that shows inequalities or unfair treatment of that person. Use the facts and events you have already identified in the previous activities. Give your journalist and fictitious person a name.
  2. Refer to the ‪‪‬‬‬‬‬‬Reporter's Notebook from Harvard's Visible Thinking Routines to consider how you might use the information you gained from the videos and news article to develop the interview theme.
  3. Write the script that includes questions for the journalist and responses from the resident who is either a rural migrant or a displaced city resident.
  4. Practise and rehearse the script adding gestures and voice variation according to the messages in the script. Be creative here.
  5. Present your role-play to the class. As a reporter for a news bulletin, you could film your role-play to add authenticity to your performance.
  6. Following your performance the class will then ask questions about the stance of the journalist in order to differentiate facts from opinion. They will then ask the journalist whether they agree or disagree with the questions or viewpoints being presented.

Activity 3: Finding housing solutions

In this activity, you will:

  • investigate the building of ghost cities in China in a situation where millions of apartments remain empty
  • brainstorm the possibility of using these ghost cities to solve the acute shortage of accommodation for many ordinary people
  • prepare a presentation about your point of view.

Key inquiry question: How could ghost cities solve the problem of the shortage of affordable accommodation in China?

  1. In groups of three, watch the video about China's ghost cities, which shows some of the high-rise buildings and shopping complexes in sprawling cities. Take notes on key points and facts presented using these themes:
    • the size and vastness of these ghost cities
    • why the Chinese government continues to build these huge complexes of unoccupied shops and apartments
    • why they are mostly unoccupied – consider prices of apartments compared to the average wage
    • the Chinese dream of home ownership – consider the living circumstances shown in the interviews with people living in poor and crowded conditions and the percentage cost of a down payment on a new apartment
    • the likelihood of deepening social division between the rich and poor.
  2. In your group, share and discuss your observations and begin to think about the information you will use in your PowerPoint presentation.
  3. As a class, brainstorm what should be done with these cities and what issues need to be addressed.
  4. In your group, plan a PowerPoint presentation for a Chinese government body that has the power to make planning and infrastructure decisions. Use the key focus question 'How could ghost cities solve the problem of the shortage of affordable accommodation in China?' to build your argument. 
  5. Utilise the key points and facts from information you have gathered for your presentation. For images and more information, view the online news article China's ghost towns in the Daily Mail.
  6. Create the PowerPoint presentation of approximately 10 to 12 slides to include:
    • a title, introduction and a point of view that you will argue to present your case
    • a visual presentation of facts and images to illustrate your key points
    • a verbal commentary to accompany each slide
    • a conclusion to summarise your point of view
    • selected quotes and references that support your arguments
    • a bibliography.
  7. As a group, deliver your PowerPoint presentation to the whole class.
  8. Once everyone has presented, discuss the impact of each presentation and the effectiveness of the arguments.

Activity 4: Reflection

Use the following questions to reflect on what you have learned about the massive urbanisation taking place in China and some of the ensuing problems:

  • Rural migration: What do you think will happen to rural communities if millions of people, particularly farmers, continue to migrate to cities?
  • Unemployed migrants: What are some of the likely scenarios to arise out of increasing numbers of unemployed rural migrants living in cities?
  • Rapid urbanisation: How should local government bodies manage the huge influx of people?
  • Positive futures: What policies should be implemented by local government bodies to overcome overcrowding and poverty?

Conclude the activity by discussing the lessons that can be learnt about planning for the rapid growth of cities.

This learning sequence provides students with the opportunity to examine the rapid urbanisation resulting in massive urbanisation occurring in many parts of China and the impact this has on people.

Activity 1: Rural migration and urbanisation

This activity provides students with the opportunity to investigate the rapid mass movement of rural migrants that has created huge urban centres across China. They will examine the reasons for migration and the impacts on the economy and people. The activity will conclude with student pairs presenting their information in a visual graphic to the rest of the class.

Begin this activity by finding out what students know about China's population and economic rise. Have students work in groups to explore rural migration and urbanisation to build their knowledge of the huge movement of people and displacement caused by the rapid growth of cities.

About urban growth in China

China is experiencing the largest internal migration in human history. From 1990 to 1995, 32 million rural people had migrated to urban centres. By 2000, there were 38 million rural migrants and by 2011, a total of 160 million had moved to urban areas throughout China. For instance, Shenzhen – a major city in southern China's Guangdong Province – grew from a few thousand in 1978 to 12 million in 2000. The population is estimated to be as large as 15 million by 2020.

Activity 2: Adjusting to city living

In this activity students will gather information about some of the issues faced by people who relocate to cities from farming communities. They also examine the displacement of people in cities caused by the destruction of traditional hutongs to make way for high-rise complexes. To understand how some people are affected by displacement, students will role-play a news interview with a fictitious city resident. These interviews would be enhanced if they were filmed as a news bulletin.

Why people move to cities

Rural incomes are 40 percent less than those in urban areas. Aspirations of improved opportunities for better incomes in cities is a major reason for rural migration. Since 1978, 12 percent of the rural population has moved to urban areas. In one month, farmers can receive in the city what they would receive for growing rice in Guizhou for one year.

However, rural migrants are denied the welfare rights of city dwellers and struggle to access social services and benefits like health care, education and credit. The migrants frequently face problems such as poor living conditions or an inability to assimilate resulting in loneliness. Many migrants can only afford to travel once a year the many miles back home to visit their families.

Activity 3: Finding housing solutions

In this activity students investigate the reasons there are numerous empty, costly housing developments, skyscrapers (ghost cities) and apartments that remain empty while city residents live in crowded and poor dwellings. These sprawling cities with elaborate public buildings, apartments, parks, and car parks are often in desolate and unpopulated areas. There are many developers who have plans to build more.

Students have an opportunity to find out why ghost cities are still being built. They explore the possibility of using these ghost cities to solve the acute shortage problem of accommodation for many ordinary people. They will conclude the activity by developing a presentation of their point of view using facts, images and information they have gathered.

Activity 4: Reflection

It is important that students have the opportunity to reflect on what they have learned about the massive urbanisation taking place in China and some of the ensuing problems and planning required for rural migration, unemployment and rapid urbanisation.

Useful websites


  • Urban Migration in China – Infographic Animation – YouTube video animation from The Economist showing growth of urban centres from rural migration by Guy Thompson and Guy Hunter, VertigoMotionDesign
  • The largest migration in history – YouTube videographic from The Economist showing the acceleration of urban population growth and rural migration across China from the 1980s
  • Urbanisation in China – YouTube video from The Economist tracing the impact on rural and city populations arising from rapid urbanisation in China
  • Urban Migration for Young Chinese on the Rise – YouTube video showing the difficulties faced by Ahong, a 21-year-old hairdresser from a rural village who has worked his way up to become a stylist in a trendy hair salon
  • Walk through a Beijing Hutong – YouTube video showing the streets and buildings in a traditional hutong
  • China's Ghost Cities – YouTube video about the rise of uninhabited and desolate ghost cities across China, from SBS Dateline by analyst Gillum Tulloch

It is recommended teachers preview websites prior to use in class to ensure they are suitable for their students. Content accessed via these links is not owned or controlled by Asia Education Foundation and is subject to the terms of use of the associated website.

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