Index > Briefing
Sunday, January 12, 2020
Looking at China's Urbanization Failure from the Perspective of Chunyun
He Jun

Beginning from the January 10, China has entered into the “Chunyun” (annual migration in conjunction with the Spring Festival) season of 2020. This is the earliest Chunyun in the past 8 years, and will concern the mass movement of workers, students and those visiting relatives. Officers from the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) said that during the 2020 Spring Festival, the number of people moving across China is estimated to reach about 3 billion, a figure that is roughly similar to 2019, albeit with a slight increase. Among all transportation modes, railway users are expected to reach 440 million passengers, an 8% y-o-y increase. Civil aviation users are expected to reach 79 million, an estimated increase of 8.4% compared to 2019, and a new record high.

From a global standpoint, the Chunyun phenomenon in China is a short-term, mass quantity natured large-scale migration. Coming to the national scale, as many as 3 billion people move around in the short span of a single month. This definitely tops it as the largest mass population movement incident in the world. Bloomberg commented that the Chunyun phenomenon is strong enough to “cripple the infrastructure of any country.' CNN on the other hand described that the total distance travelled during the annual Spring Festival is equivalent to 8 times the distance between our planet and the Sun, or in other words as far away as Saturn - travelling there on a rocket. Because the BBC could not find an English substitute for this unique phenomenon, the Chinese word “Chunyun” is used.

For Chinese people, Chunyun has become one of the “administrative tasks” that every department and locality must take charge of. For the hundreds of millions of Chinese, Chunyun is a big headache for those who make the arduous journey to their hometowns and back to the cities they work in each year. Sometimes, the Spring Festival carries a romantic notion to those who participate in the annual Chunyun, depicting those who travel as brave souls who are not afraid of danger and who must by all costs return home and reunite with loved ones for the Spring festivities. No matter what perspective, it is obvious that the Chinese people and the Chinese government is taking a serious look at the mass transportation events that take place every Spring Festival.

Despite this, ANBOUND researchers feel that looking at transportation alone is a one-sided view that is insufficient to understand the whole nature of Chunyun. ANBOUND believes that Chunyun should be regarded and reviewed from the perspectives of industrialization and urbanization.

After so many years of mass migration, China has now become accustomed to the annual craze that is Chunyun. However, few understand that this phenomenon is actually tied to China’s industrialization and urbanization efforts throughout the years. To be more precise, this special annual phenomenon is closely related to the failures and weaknesses present in China’s pursuit of urbanization. China has more than 4,000 years of history dating back with regards to the Spring Festival, but the Chunyun phenomenon has only been present for over 40 years. In 1980, the term “Chunyun” appeared for the first time in the People’s Daily. In 1989, opportunities present in the Pearl River Delta brought about massive amounts of migrant workers to work in the Guangdong region. From here, massive transportation efforts ensued every Spring Festival, and the term Chunyun began to be used more frequently. Since then, migrant workers have been like migratory birds, making this annual pilgrimage to their villages and back to the cities, what is now infamously known as Chunyun.

In the past 40 years, China has greatly focused on its industrialization development. It is only in the past 30 years that China’s urbanization has undergone rapid progress. China's past industrialization has promoted urban development and therefore attracted a huge number of rural villagers to seek work in cities. However, it is worth noting that despite this, China has not achieved true urbanization.

What is urbanization? There exist many different definitions. Demographic studies define urbanization as the process by which rural populations are transformed into urban populations. From the geographic point of view, urbanization happens when rural or natural areas are transformed into sprawling urban regions. Economics defines urbanization from economic and production models. Sociologists on the other hand, define urbanization from the scopes of social relationships and organizational changes. The multi-dimensioned concept of urbanization shows that it holds different regards for the many disciplines of population studies, economics, geography and sociology.

Looking at things from their core, any successful incidents of urbanization will come about by the proper urbanization of the people. People come to the cities to live and work, and they are not excluded due to their apparent differences in education and social status. All urban-dwellers enjoy the shared benefits of cities, which includes its public services and the opportunities presented within. At the same time, the cities are their home, as they live there full time. They should be able to integrate into the city and become part of the urban culture that exists in the city, and if possible go to a deeper level and integrate into urban civilization itself. In cases of successful urbanization, cities and their populations are well-integrated, and not divided in any sense.

Looking at things from this point of view, the gargantuan scale of Chunyun just works to expose the shortcomings China faces from its urbanization. If China’s efforts of urbanization are successful, how can the massive amount of people moving around during Chunyun be justified? The existence of this great seasonal migration clearly illustrates the division that exists between cities and rural villages. For many people, work lives in the city and the village is their home. If such a concept is still held to a high regard by most of the population, then such urbanization efforts can hardly be recognized as successful urbanization.

The obvious separation of urban and rural areas in the midst of China’s pursuit of urbanization is reflected in the Chunyun movement in multiple aspects. Firstly, the disparate structure of the city and the countryside is obvious, their differences are too wide and this leads to disparities in the developmental opportunities between the two different environments. Secondly, population control brought about by various system exclusions also prevent migrants from taking up new lives in the cities. This divides the urbanization of the population. Lastly, the different types of people living in cities have varying identities. This causes cultural and urban division among many living in the cities, as well as a division between work life in the city and their cultural identities in the countryside.

Final analysis conclusion

The massive transportation requirements needed by the massive migration of the population during the Spring Festival travel season is not only a transportation requirement that is faced during holiday seasons, it actually is a kind of mass migration. This mass migration has shown one aspect that failed for China’s urbanization efforts. In the future, changing the existing phenomenon of the separation of urban and rural will be a big task needed for the later stages of China’s urbanization efforts.


Contact ANBOUND Malaysia Office at :  Suite 25.5, Level 25, Menara AIA Sentral, 30 Jalan Sultan Ismail, 50250 Kuala Lumpur

TEL : +60 3-21413678       FAX : +60 3-21105855       Email :