China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
What explains urbanization strategies of China’s cities? While urbanization is often assumed to be a process of economic development, in China it is also the consequence of bureaucratic negotiation. Since reform to China’s infamous household registration system began in 2003, a city’s bureaucratic rank has determined central government pressure to urbanize: small and medium cities are expected to urbanize local rural residents, large cities to integrate non-local migrants, and mega-cities to restrict urbanization. More than a decade after reforms began, however, there is wide variation in how cities up and down the bureaucracy buck their center-prescribed urbanization strategy. When do local governments follow central directives and when do they deviate? I use a novel dataset to estimate formal urban integration of migrants in 297 Chinese cities through the household registration system from 1994 until 2014. I draw on the development literature to explain variation in urbanization tactics used by cities within China. I show that cities follow central directives only when the local economic development strategy, either locally or externally driven, aligns with prescribed policy, as variation in economic development strategy changes incentives for cities to urbanize different types of migrants. I conclude with a discussion of implications for the future of China’s urbanization process and institutionalized inequalities among the population.