China’s Cities

The ISS’ China’s Cities project is part of an active community of Cornell scholars researching China-related issues and commenting in the press.


This project focuses on the economic, political, and social phenomena at play in China’s urbanization. Using surveys, ethnographies, interviews, and big data, ISS faculty fellows are examining the divides between local urban dwellers and migrants who relocate to the cities, such as access to education and other social services.

The project also is looking at massive transportation and geographic data sets—such as information from thousands of Beijing city traffic cameras every two minutes—to improve our understanding of how environmental policies in cities affect economic growth, pollution emissions, and public health outcomes. Faculty fellows are tackling the challenges inherent in using China’s administrative and consumer data, presenting the complexity and variety of China’s cities to broad audiences through research articles and policy analyses.

China’s cities are home to one in ten human beings. During the past decade, nearly 200 million people in China have migrated from rural to urban areas. Eight million more—the equivalent of New York City—are expected to join them every year until 2050.  Rapid urbanization has brought improved living standards but also huge social challenges. The Chinese government has been managing urbanization, as it plays a central role in efforts to shift to a more socially equitable, economically sustainable, and environmentally sound model of development. But realizing these aims will require innovation on an absolutely unprecedented scale. Policy and governance challenges abound, in areas including pollution, transportation, housing, and education, among others.

In our ISS Collaborative Project, we propose research that delves below the surface to understand the economic, political, and social phenomena at play in China’s urbanization. While many scholars in different disciplines have studied China’s cities, the interdisciplinary expertise of our team makes for the possibility of both policy impacts and academic breakthroughs in answering important questions. Will China’s urbanization reduce inequality or reinforce internal cleavages amid rising nativism and nationalism? What environmental and health consequences does this urban growth pose for the residents of these cities? Decisions that will remake China’s cities are happening now, and our project aims to generate knowledge and improve these decisions. At the same time, the project represents an investment in building the infrastructure needed to turn Cornell into a leader in social science research on China, bridging gaps and forging connections between different institutions and communities on campus and in China.