context: Between 2035 and 2050, China’s urbanisation rate will reach 75%-80%, adding about 150-200 million new urban residents. The slowdown of inter-provincial population flows and the return of migrant workers to their hometowns requires that counties develop to absorb this emerging population, meet their residents’ diverse and higher-level development needs, and solve important problems such as housing, employment, schooling and pensions. As a basic unit, the county economy has a unique and distinct existence in China’s regional economy. For a long time, the rapid development of the county economy has eased the pressure on employment and social management in large and medium-sized cities, and as China’s growth model turns inward, the proper handling of county development and construction will affect the spatial pattern of urbanisation and improvement of urban residents’ happiness. While some county seats have developed rapidly, others face various development bottlenecks that cannot be ignored. Some of these challenges include economic recession, weak industrial growth, the brain drain to big cities, chaotic planning and construction, and adaptations to high-quality development.

State Council released a new top-down policy roadmap for the next 15 years of urbanisation centred at the county level.

According to Wang Kai 王凯 China Urban Planning and Design Institute president and a national engineering survey and design master, the plan guides the urbanisation of counties by outlining their important role, function and purpose in developing small cities and counties

  • for creating new market opportunities
  • for strengthening urban-rural linkage
  • for revitalising and stabilising the longest lasting and most basic unit of national governance
  • for helping offset some of the problems caused by excess rural migration to megacities and metropolitan areas

The highlights of the new plan include:

  • special proposal for ‘coordinated development of large, medium and small cities and small towns’
  • positioning counties as an important urbanising vehicle for addressing the weaknesses of development based on small cities and counties
  • emphasis on ‘urban-rural integration’ which
    • promotes counties as the basic unit for the integrated development of urban and rural areas
    • insists on developing agribusinesses
    • advances the two-way flow of resources and the rational allocation of public resources between urban and rural areas.