There is considerable confusion in both Chinese and foreign sources over definitions of urban places and hence considerable variation in estimates of China's urban population. The problem of determining the size of the urban population reflects inconsistent and changing administrative categories; the distinction between rural and urban household registry and between categories of settlements; the practice of placing suburban or rural districts under the administration of municipal governments; and the differences in the status accorded to small towns. In sociological terms, urban refers to an area characterized by a relatively high degree of specialization in occupational roles, many special-purpose institutions, and uniform treatment of people in impersonal settings. In this sense, a Chinese market town is more urban than a village, and settlements become more urban as they grow in size and economic complexity. Special municipalities like Beijing and Shanghai have the highest degree of division of labor and the most specialized institutions.
Legal status as an urban dweller in China is prized. As a result of various state policies and practices, contemporary Chinese urban society has a distinctive character, and life in Chinese cities differs in many ways from that in cities in otherwise comparable developing societies. The most consequential policies have been the household registration system, the legal barriers to migration, the fostering of the allembracing work unit, and the restriction of commerce and markets, including the housing market. In many ways, the weight of official control and supervision is felt more in the cities, whose administrators are concerned with controlling the population and do so through a dual administrative hierarchy. The two principles on which these control structures are based are locality and occupation. Household registers are maintained by the police, whose presence is much stronger in the cities than in the countryside. Cities are subdivided into districts, wards, and finally into small units of some fifteen to thirty households, such as all those in one apartment building or on a small lane. For those employed in large organizations, the work unit either is coterminous with the residential unit or takes precedence over it; for those employed in small collective enterprises or neighborhood shops, the residential committee is their unit of registration and provides a range of services.
The control of housing by work units and local governments and the absence of a housing market have led to a high degree of residential stability. Most urban residents have spent decades in the same house or apartment. For this reason, urban neighborhoods are closely knit, which in turn contributes to the generally low level of crime in Chinese cities.
Since the early 1950s, the party leadership has consistently made rapid industrialization a primary goal and, to this end, has generally favored investment in heavy industry over consumption. For cities, these policies have meant an expansion of factories and industrial employment, along with a very low level of spending in such "nonproductive" areas as housing or urban transit systems. The emphasis on production, and heavy industry and the discouragement of consumption and exchange, along with state takeovers of commerce and the service sector, led to cities having many factories but no peddlers, snack stalls, or entertainment districts. In the 1950s and early 1960s, major efforts were made to bring women into the paid labor force. This served the goals of increasing production and achieving sexual equality through equal participation in productive labor, a classic Marxist remedy for sexual inequality. By 1987 almost all young and middle-aged women in the cities worked outside the home.
Chinese cities, in contrast to those in many developing countries, contain a high proportion of workers in factories and offices and a low proportion of workers in the service sector. Workers enjoy a high level of job security but receive low wages. Between 1963 and 1977 most wages were frozen, and promotions and raises were very rare. Even with the restoration of material incentives in the late 1970s, two general wage raises in the 1980s, and increased opportunities for bonuses and promotions, wages remained low and increased primarily with seniority. As in most parts of the world, one reason that so many Chinese urban women are in the work force is that one income is not enough to support a family.
In the 1980s it was possible to purchase such consumer durables as television sets and bicycles on the market, but housing remained scarce and subject to allocation by work units or municipal housing bureaus. Although housing was poor and crowded, Chinese neighborhoods had improved greatly over the slum conditions that existed before 1950. Most people were gainfully employed at secure if low-paying jobs; the municipal government provided a minimal level of services and utilities (water and sanitation); the streets were fairly clean and orderly; and the crime rate was low.
|Country Studies main page | China Country Studies main page|