Beijing, the political and cultural center of China, is experiencing both the rapid economic growth and the rapid population growth during its development. Since the reform and opening up, Beijing had grown from a city with population in the millions to a megacity of tens of millions of residents. Some cheer while others have concerns.
Beijing: Booming Population Defies Government Control

Beijing, the political and cultural center of China, is experiencing both the rapid economic growth and the rapid population growth during its development as most metropolitans once did. When China started its economic reform in late 1970s, Beijing had 8,710,000 permanent residents. the number rose to 10,000,000 in 1986 and 15,000,000 in 2005, then reached 20,000,000 in 2011. Beijing had grown from a city with population in the millions to a megacity of tens of millions of residents.

According to United Nations center of Statistics, Beijing is the forth largest city in the world by population, while the other two Chinese cities Shanghai and Guangzhou ranked first and tenth respectively.

City is not a lonely island. During China's urbanization, Beijing played the pivotal role. It is the financial and economic hub, the educational center, the high-end research and development center, the international communication center, as well as the country's political and cultural center. Centralizing these functions contributes to Beijing's unparalleled magnetism.

It's increasingly difficult for Beijing's migrant workers to get Beijing Hukou, due to the restrictive household registration system. Yet Beijing's strategic location and bountiful resources -- especially the abundance of job opportunities -- are still attracting waves of migrant workers and their families.

Caixin columnist, Jianzhang Liang, who got his PhD in economics degree from Stanford University, says that metropolitans like Beijing are naturally attractive to people. High population density leads to more optimal utilization of resources, more innovation, and better economic development.

Rapid population growth, however, poses great challenges to the government. Constantly under the pressures of environment and resource overload, traffic jams, insufficient infrastructures, etc. over the past 30 years, Beijing municipal government had more than once proposed plans on population control.

Beijing municipal government published a series of policies after China's economic reform: 'Beijing Urban Master Plan (1982-2000)', 'Beijing Urban Master Plan (1991-2010)', 'Beijing Urban Master Plan (2004-2020)'.

Among these Master Plans, the 1982 version was the first to position Beijing as the political center and cultural center of China, while the 1991 version was the first to propose that Beijing's urban construction should fully implement the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Each of the three Master Plans was designed for the twenty years, respectively. Their goals of population control had all been broken through 4-5 years later.

In March 2016, “The 13th Five Year Plan for Beijing national economic and social development” once again proposes a plan to control the number of Beijing's permanent residents. The policy proposed that by 2020 the number of Beijing's permanent residents should stay within 23,000,000. And yet, the number had reached 21,750,000 in 2015.

According to the 13th Five Year Plan, Beijing's population growth for the next five years will be controlled under 125,000. Will it succeed this time?

Population density imbalance in Beijing

Beijing's permanent resident count reached 21,750,000 by the end of 2015, of which 8,226,000 was migrants, accounted for about 37.9% of the totals.

According to Beijing's 13th Five Year Plan, the number of permanent residents in six urban districts (Dongcheng, Xicheng, Chaoyang, Fengtai, Shijingshan, Haidian) will drop 15 percent by 2020 from 2014 levels, a 2-3% reduction every year.

In order to maintain a centralized spatial development model, Beijing's urbanization is designed to center at the old town, and to spread through concentric ring roads. While this policy has succeeded in preventing chaotic urban sprawl and preserving construction land, it intensifies Beijing's problem of population imbalance, which is already more severe than other comparable megacities.

Beijing's average population density seems to be in line with other comparable megacities, but the distribution is severely unbalanced. In 2005, the population densities of the core area, the urban area and the suburban area in Beijing are 23,800 people per km², 8,300 people per km² and 600 people per km², while the numbers for Tokyo are 14,900 people per km², 5,300 people per km² and 2,000 people per km², respectively.

Population densities of the core area -- Dongcheng District and Xicheng District -- have steadily dropped in recent years. But the other urban districts, such as Chaoyang, Fengtai and Haidian, are experiencing rapid urbanization with large population base and fast growth.

Three suburban districts (Tongzhou, Changping and Shunyi) are becoming more attractive to migrants, while the population growth rates in the other three suburban districts (Huairou, Pinggu, and Miyun) are at par with the city average.

If the population control goals in the 13th Five Year Plan are accomplished, Beijing's population distribution will be more balanced and reasonable.

Population Control Goal of 2015
Six Urban Districts
Suburban Districts
Outside Beijing
The Heart of the Cabbage: the 6 Urban Districts

Beijing's six urban districts (Xicheng, Dongcheng, Chaoyang, Haidian, Shijingshan, Fengtai) account for 59% of the population and 69% of the GDP, with only 8.4% of the land, according to 2015 statistics.

Just like the rubies on top of the crown, the 6 urban districts are the vibrant centers of Beijing.

“The scale of the industries – the scale of the employment – the scale of the residence”—this chain clearly depicts how the 6 urban districts get their vitality.

Dongcheng and Xicheng Districts have the number of employment / number of residence ratios exceeding 60%, suggesting that these two districts are able to provide job opportunities for two thirds of their population. While this ratio is reasonable high (over 40%) for Haidian and Shunyi Districts, it is as low as 14.1% for Changping District, which is aptly called "sleep town".

Due to the high living costs in the city core, however, many Beijing residents choose to live in the suburbs or suburban areas while working in the city center. Research has shown that a city's business dominated areas and residential dominated areas are separated by a 15km radius circle. 15 km is roughly the distance from Tiananmen Square to the Fifth Righ Road of Beijing.

In sum, the residential population density is high for the 6 urban districts, the job density is even higher.

Land Area
Permanent Residents
Employees/Residents Ratio
Irresistible Charm

The 6 urban districts are offering not only more job opportunities, but also more lucrative ones.

In 2014, residents in Xicheng District have the highest average salary of Beijing, 147,618 Yuan, which is almost 3 times as high as the Yanqing County. The number for the whole Beijing is 103,400 Yuan.

The differences in salaries are not a recent phenomenon. Ten years ago when the average salary for Beijing was 40,117 Yuan, Xicheng was already the highest at 48,957 Yuan, 2.4 times of the lowest Pinggu district.

Although the income gaps across districts seem to be widen, the deviation of the salaries is actually on the decline, according to the statistics.

In fact, the income gap between the 6 urban districts and the other districts, including Changping, Shunyi, Tongzhou, are gradually narrowing.

Scheduled to implement in early 2017, “Score Based Beijing Hukou Administration Plan” dictates that bonus scores will be awarded to Hukou applicants who move from 6 urban districts to the other districts, the bonus will be even bigger for those whose employment and residence are both moved.

Will the Plan work?


Soaring housing prices, traffic congestion, resource scarcity, high living costs, these problems caused by population surge in rapid urbanization are called "big city disease". It has plagued almost all the metropolitans at some point in time. One third of Japan's population is concentrated in Tokyo metropolitan area, half of Korea's in Seoul.

Is it really a curse, or a blessing in disguise? Dr. Liang believes that population control in the megacities makes the city living unaffordable, inaccessible, and complacent. China's biggest advantage --- the population advantage will be once again wasted, as a large number of young people are unable to settle down in big cities, or to bear children. The wealthy population will also flow out of the China's cities mainly through emigration to western countries. Drop in both the quantity and the quality of China's human resources will trap China into a middle income country.

Dr. Liang further points that, as a matter of fact, congested traffic, insufficient schools, pollution and other big city diseases are not caused by growing population, but by the improper urban planning. In fact, high population density leads to more efficient and effective usages of environmental resources and public transport. Given adequate and proper planning, Beijing is able to cure the "Big City Diseases", just like Tokyo and New York did.

Sources:, Windows of the Capital, Beijing Statistical Information Net, Xinhua Net
Reasons and Control Methods of Beijing's Urban Population Boom
Main Feature Analysis of Greater Beijing Area Planning and Construction During the 30 Years of Economic Reform
Spatial Clustering Characteristics of Beijing's Residence and Employment Based on Social Attributes

Writer&Editor: Yihua Zhang
Designer&Developer: Meng Wei
Producer: Chen Huang