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In 1950, with 12-14 per cent of the total population in cities, India and China were overwhelmingly rural and equally urban. In 1990, too, at 25-26 per cent of the total, the urban proportions were similar. By 2011, however, a dramatic gap had appeared. At the end of 2011, the Chinese government said, China was 51 per cent urban, whereas that figure for India was only 32 per cent. Urban China has stolen a big march over urban India in the last two decades.
Scholars have always been sceptical about official Chinese statistics. It is also unclear how "urban" is defined in China. During my recent visit, I, for example, could not get a clear answer from Chinese experts about the definition of the urban. Urban is what the Chinese government calls urban, it seems.
But however one may cut the statistical cloth, driving along China's industrialised eastern coast tells a clear tale. Not even the most urbanised states of India look comparable: not Tamil Nadu, not Gujarat, not Maharashtra. The partial exception is greater Delhi. Pictures and accounts from the Chinese interior also do not look, or sound, as rural as those from India's least urbanised states. China today is undoubtedly much more urbanised than India.
Why is that so? And who has paid for China's urban transformation? While firmer answers must await careful scrutiny, we can begin to generate some early ideas for reflection and debate.
The first question, some might say, is straightforward. As my seminar interlocutors in Beijing and Guangzhou argued, China's per capita income, compared to India's today, is roughly three times as high. At higher levels of income, societies tend to be more urban (and also generally less poor).
But this argument begs an important query. Is China more urban because it is richer, or is China richer because it has pursued urbanisation more vigorously? What is the cause? What is the effect?