China’s rapid urbanization in recent decades is literally reshaping the world as old cities balloon and new cities spring up out of nowhere.

China’s urban population rose from 459 million to roughly 780 million from 2000 to 2015, according to the United Nations. That’s 321 million new Chinese city dwellers — which just so happened to be the size of the entire U.S. population in 2015. Rural China is slowly being consumed by rapidly expanding urban areas.

Below, we highlighted some of the fastest-growing Chinese cities over the past 32 years by using the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)’s ranking of China’s “Emerging Cities”. These cities share positive economic indicators, including rising gross domestic product (GDP), foreign direct investment (FDI), consumer spending per person, and population growth over time.

Then, using time-lapse imagery from the Google Earth Engine, we created visualizations of each city’s geographical between 1984 and 2016.


10. Chengdu

Population: 14.3 million (2014)

Chengdu is a capital in the western Sichuan province where its geographical position gives it easy access to trade markets to the southwest. Largely considered a poster city for China’s “Go West” policy, Chengdu owes much of its growth to increasing numbers of overseas investors, and focus from large tech companies like Intel and Dell, with the ultimate aim of making Chengdu into a “global Silicon Valley.”

9. Zhengzhou

Population: 9.6 million (2015)

The former capital of the Shang Dynasty and current capital of the Henan province, Zhengzhou has history reaching back as far as 10,000 years.

Now, Zhengzhou is seeing rapid growth as an industrial city bigger than New York. Part of its rapid expansion has to do with a burgeoning “aerotropolis” as part of its area, which is a large city centered around a thriving airport at its heart.

8. Zhuzhou

Population: 4.1 million (2014)

Zhuzhou enjoys a particularly beneficial geographical location along the Xiang River, though it has a reputation for low air quality after investing heavily in machine and chemical manufacturing.

With Changsha and Xiangtan, it is part of the “ChangZhuTan Golden Triangle,” a development zone meant to interconnect and eventually unite the three cities into one megacity with a population of over 13 million.

7. Huaibei

Population: 2.0 million (2010)

Nestled just south of the Xiangshan Mountain, Huaibei is home to Huaibei Mining, which makes good use of the estimated 35 billion tons of perspective coal reserves within the mountain.

6. Huainan

Population: 2.3 million (2010)

Another massive producer of China’s coal reserves, Huainan has made focused efforts towards revitalizing the environment by converting towards an “eco-city.” According to the China Sustainable Cities Project, Huainan is leading national efforts toward “balanced socio-economical development with healthy ecological objective to achieve the harmonious coexistence of man and nature.”

Among many eco-friendly initiatives in Huainan is the world’s largest floating solar farm.

5. Suqian

Population: 4.7 million (2010)

Suqian is an old city (c. 760 AD) that has seen explosive growth in recent years: 1,620 percent increase in its population from 1985 to 2015. The Economist Intelligence Unit also projects further increases by 3.2 percent each year until 2019.

Suqian is also home to the two brands of spirits, Yanhe and Shuang Gou, who claim the area is the “birthplace of Chinese liquor,” specifically the liquor known as Baijiu.

4. Chongqing

Population: 8.1 million (2015)

Chongqing has seen tremendous growth in its population, and in 2016, it led China in GDP growth at 10.7 percent.

Its success has a lot to do with aggressive support of urbanization through the “Chongqing model” of social and economic policies — incorporating state control, neo-leftist ideology, and the promotion of Maoist-era socialist ethics.

3. Hengyang

Population: 7.1 million (2010)

The “Bright Pearl in Southern China” makes for quite the namesake, and as one of the largest cities in the Hunan province, Hengyang’s rapidly increasing populous is also home to a global hub for LED production.

2. Xiangyang

Population: 5.5 million (2010)

The ancient city of Xiangyang is positioned on the Han River and centrally located in mainland China. In recent years, it has seen an “industrial transfer”, per the EIU, as one of many inland cities left to produce cheaper goods as coastal cities produce higher-value products.

1. Guiyang

Population: 4.3 million (2010)

The capital city of China’s poorest province, in terms of GDP, Guiyang is positing itself as a fast-growing “big data” center, according to the EIU.

The Milken Institute’s second annual Best-Performing Cities China Index, announced in September 2016, ranked Guiyang as the top city in all of China, beating out even Shanghai in terms of economic performance, based on factors like growth in jobs, wages, and GDP.


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Photos via Google Earth Engine