Kam Wing Chan talks with
ScienceWatch.com and answers a few questions about
this month's Fast Moving Front in the field of Social
Article: Misconceptions and complexities in the
study of China's cities: Definitions, statistics, and
Journal: EURASIAN GEOGR ECON, 48 (4): 383-412 JUL-AUG
Addresses: Univ Washington, Dept Geog, Seattle, WA 98195
Univ Washington, Dept Geog, Seattle, WA 98195 USA.
Why do you think your paper is highly
It has examined, in a comprehensive way, some fundamental issues about
measuring city populations in China. Due to China's heavy weight in the
world's urban population, these are also important issues in studying
global urbanization trends. China's urban/city definitions and statistics
may be the world's most complicated and confusing; their peculiarities
continue to plague the field as the country experiences further significant
social and economic changes.
Moreover, China's growing economic and political importance has attracted
increasing attention from scholars. This paper is also highly cited because
it appeared in a prominent journal, Eurasian Geography and
Economics, which has the highest "impact factor" (based on citations
in 2007) in the field of area studies.
Does it describe a new discovery, methodology, or
synthesis of knowledge?
"In my doctoral work on Chinese
urbanization, I was able to straighten out a
number of complicated statistical and
methodological problems in the then-Chinese
systems of defining urban population and
The paper provides methodological guidance to the proper use of the present
suite of Chinese city population statistics. In doing so, it has solved
several major puzzles by deciphering China's recent city population
statistics correctly. Also included is a critique of selected writings
found in the literature, to highlight misstatements and areas of
misunderstanding resulting from inappropriate use of the published data.
Thus, the paper synthesizes a significant range of information to generate
a new understanding of China's urban population.
Would you summarize the significance of your paper
in layman's terms?
The paper aims to make sense of the array of available city population
statistics for China, which are notoriously complicated and confusing. It
helps alleviate confusion and misunderstanding in this area of research,
particularly in studies pertaining to China's cities in recent years.
In addition, the paper points to a little-used source of useful statistical
information from the census conducted by China's National Bureau of
Statistics in November, 2000, and also answers basic questions such as the
population sizes of China's 200 or so largest cities. Understanding and
applying these statistics properly is essential for producing an accurate
analysis of China's society and economy at each individual city level. One
example is the calculation of per capita GDP indicators, which are used to
estimate the level of development of individual cities and the consumer
purchasing power in each city.
How did you become involved in this research and
were any particular problems encountered along the way?
I was born in China, although I have lived in the USA for almost two
decades now. I developed a strong interest in studying Asian cities while I
was in college at the University of Hong Kong, where I received a B.A. in
Geography and Statistics (1980), followed by an M.S. in Urban Planning
(1983). I started working on this topic in the mid-1980s when pursuing a
Ph.D. degree in Geography at the University of Toronto.
In my doctoral work on Chinese urbanization, I was able to straighten out a
number of complicated statistical and methodological problems in the
then-Chinese systems of defining urban population and measuring migration.
I got involved in analyzing the Chinese 2000 Census data when it became
available a few years ago. I became even more interested because I was also
advising the United Nations Population and Development Section about
Chinese city population statistics, as well as consulting for the McKinsey
Global Institute on its project entitled "Preparing for China's Urban
As for problems, like many other scholars doing research in this area, I
have not found it easy to keep up with China's rather frequent changes of
urban definitions and city boundaries. Furthermore, the Chinese city
population data are often not well-publicized or clearly explained.
Where do you see your research leading in the
This research has helped me produce significantly more usable and
systematic city population data for China. I am currently exploring this
data to analyze salient features of China's recent urban expansion, along
with the structure and dynamics of its urban settlement systems.
Do you foresee any social or political implications
for your research?
My research has demonstrated that there is an enormous misunderstanding in
the existing Chinese and Western literature on Chinese urban and city
population statistics, upon which many findings and policy prescriptions
are based. The research shows that there is an urgent need to reassess many
previous findings and the policy prescriptions drawn or implied from them.
China now accounts for about one-fifth of the world's entire urban
population. Managing urbanization is an important policy issue not only for
China but also for the world.
Kam Wing Chan
Department of Geography
University of Washington
Seattle, WA, USA. Web