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Inequality and segregation in China

In 2014 the Chinese government announced a new phase in the country’s development, one that would involve slower economic growth and a greater focus on improving quality of life. Given the enormous problems of pollution and overcrowding in many Chinese cities, this new policy agenda was a welcome development. But it also raised several important questions. What are the policy changes needed to enhance human welfare? Is improving societal wellbeing only a matter of reducing pollution, overcrowding and congestion? Or are there deeper social issues that need to be tackled if the government is to genuinely improve mental and physical wellbeing?

Income inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, for example, has risen markedly from around 31.0 before reforms began in 1978, to around 56.0 in 2003 and to over 58.0 in 2015.

In comparison, the Gini index for income inequality in the USA rose from around 40.0 in the 1960s to around 47.0 by the late 2000s. The question raised by this enormous rise in income inequality in China, and the associated rise in segregation, is whether it has had a negative impact on the quality of life of its citizens. Research from Europe and the USA suggests that there are indeed likely to be significant negative impacts on health and wellbeing, educational attainment, economic growth, crime, social cohesion and social mobility.

Building on our collaborations with the Hebei Statistical Bureau, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and researchers in Europe and North America, we have collected our research into an edited volume which we hope will be a landmark contribution to understanding the processes of segregation and inequality in China. We review the literature on urban segregation and consider how the vicious circle of rising inequality and social fragmentation could have important implications for the future of Chinese cities.  We also explore in considerable depth the impacts of the “hukou” household registration system (see an explanation of hukou here), and massive rural-urban migration that has lead to the emergence of “urban villages”, large-scale shantytown renovation, highly unequal public services provision and insecure poor quality housing for migrant workers. We also estimate degree of segregation of different ethnic groups and of migrants in Shijiazhuang, the capital city of Hebei Province, and develop a robust approach to estimating deprivation indices in the Chinese context. We draw together the implications of this large body of work and set out a comprehensive programme for policy reform.

Key Findings

  1. Changing the way deprivation is measured in China could significantly improve how the government prioritizes areas for regeneration funding.
    Gwilym Owen, Yu Chen, Gwilym Pryce, Tim Birabi, Hui Song and Bifeng Wang (2021) Deprivation Indices in China: Establishing Principles for Application and Interpretation, Chapter 14 in Pryce et al. (ed) Urban Inequality and Segregation in Europe and China: Towards a New Dialogue, Springer (forthcoming).
  2. The segregation of rural migrants in Chinese cities may not be due to poverty alone
    Owen, G. Chen, Y., Pryce, G., Birabi, T., Song, H. and Wang, B.Segregation of Rural Migrants in Shijiazhuang (2021) Quantifying the Centralisation, Multiscale and Intersectional Segregation of Migrants in a Chinese city (in progress)
  3. China’s economic transformation has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty but it has also led to the burgeoning of inequality and segregation.
    Pryce et al. (ed) Urban Inequality and Segregation in Europe and China: Towards a New Dialogue, Springer.

Policy implications

Given the continued rise of China’s significance in the world and its recent declaration of war on poverty, our work offers a timely contribution, guiding future directions for policymakers and researchers. Policymakers need to be cautious about inferring findings based on larger cities, where the vast majority of existing socio-economic research has been conducted, to smaller second-tier cities. Our research emphasises the need to move away from a “one size fits all” approach. Unlike many UK and US cities, poverty in China is often concentrated at the periphery rather than in urban centres, placing an additional burden on poor families in terms of the costs and risks of commuting to work and poor access to amenities. There is a need to measure deprivation not only in income but also in housing, education, environment, employment, transport and health so that policymakers more effectively help those most in need.

Research Team

Dr Nema Dean
Professor David Manley
Dr Andrew Bell
Dr Meng Le Zhang
Research Fellow