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How China Became a Country of Suburbs

If there’s a “Chinese Dream,” it can be found on the fast-growing outskirts of Beijing, Shanghai, and other major cities.
Yoko Wu walks toward an Uber car as she leaves her house in Shunyi District, a Beijing suburb.
Yoko Wu walks toward an Uber car as she leaves her house in Shunyi District, a Beijing suburb. Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters

On a rainy winter’s afternoon, I went with a friend to the train station in Shanghai to head to a wedding in Nanjing. On the train, stations flicked by us in the mist. The undulating, highly developed landscape of Jiangsu province didn’t seem to change much: fast-food restaurants, apartment towers, shopping malls, factories and warehouses, university towns—a new normal that is miles away from what we might think of as “Chinese.”

As of the 2010 census, the vast majority of Shanghai’s population lived in suburban areas. Between 2000 and 2010, suburban areas grew by 50 percent or more, compared to the city’s central districts, which grew slower or in some cases even shrank, according to an analysis by the researcher Fulong Wu. Outside of Beijing, too, suburban or satellite urban districts like Fengtai, Shijingshan, Mentougou, and Shunyi together eclipse the population of the city core.