China’s Cities Project Updates

ISS’ collaborative project on China’s cities explores the diverse aspects of the economic, political, and social phenomena at play in China’s urbanization. Every year, during their 3 year term (2016-2019), the fellows provide updates on the progress and current direction of the project.


The China’s cities team—Panle Jia Barwick (Econ), Eli Friedman (ILR), Shanjun Li (Dyson), Jessica Chen Weiss (Govt), and Jeremy Wallace (Govt, Team Leader)—conducted new studies, published research, and engaged the public in a very productive year.

Problems of China’s urbanization received substantial attention around the globe this year. This collaborative project analyzed these “big city diseases” from multiple perspectives. Air pollution remains a critical concern for China’s urban denizens, as it takes away not just the blue sky but years off of lifespans as detailed in research by Barwick and Li covered in VoxChina. Li also researched the source of much of that pollution, traffic congestion, with his paper on road pricing in Beijing using big data, covered in the People’s Daily.

The ways that the government has tried to address these problems range from authoritarian to technocratic. The most precarious residents of China’s cities are migrants working informally, as studied in multiple papers by Friedman. Many migrant communities were demolished this past year after they were deemed unsafe by local authorities, Friedman and Wallace provided expert commentary on this targeting of the “low-end population” of China’s cities in Jacobin and ChinaFile. At the other end of the spectrum are China’s massive infrastructure and industrial investments, such as its growing High Speed Rail system and its subsidization of shipbuilding, analyzed in multiple papers by Barwick and Li and Barwick, respectively. Beijing and Shanghai’s vehicle purchase restrictions are another anti-congestion policy examined by Li and covered in the media.

The collaborative project also explored the international connections of China’s cities. Popular animosity with Japan led to a wave of anti-Japanese protests and boycotts in 2012, analyzed in two papers by Weiss and Wallace as well as Barwick, Li, Wallace, and Weiss. The ways that Chinese nationalism interacts with attitudes towards China’s internal others is another topic investigated by Weiss and Wallace, using a large scale survey of urban China.

On campus, the research team worked with more than a dozen graduate students from ILR, Arts and Sciences, SC Johnson School of Business, and Art, Architecture, and Planning on the various projects. They continued developing infrastructure for future investigations on China’s urbanization as well as finding external funding. Project members were awarded grants supporting additional research on “Infrastructure Investment and Community Health” (Barwick and Li, CTECH Grant, $60,000) and “Using Big Data to Evaluate the Impacts of Transportation Infrastructure Investment: The Case of Subway Systems in Beijing, China,” (Li, 3ie Impact Evaluation, $340,000). Li and Barwick’s Cornell Institute for China Economic Research (CICER) is flourishing. Friedman is leading a new collaborative initiative with Hong Kong University to build a joint Labor and Migration Program. Faculty and student affiliates presented research at conferences around the United States and China.

Looking ahead to the third and final year of the term, the project will continue to research questions central to China’s cities, using interviews, surveys, and big data. Further, it will seek to build deeper roots on campus and in China and to find partners to support related research efforts.


The China’s Cities: Divisions and Plans project spent most of its first year planning research projects. Led by Jeremy Wallace in government, the team is examining the factors that divide migrants and native city dwellers, including environmental policies, health consequences, and attitudes. Panle Barwick in the Department of Economics, Eli Friedman in the Department of International and Comparative Labor, Shanjun Li at the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, and Jessica Chen Weiss, also in the De-partment of Government, are Faculty Fellows on the project.

One joint research project, “How Domestic Urban Unrest Affects Commerce,” examines how both the 2010 labor pro-tests at automobile factories in Southern China and the 2012 anti-Japanese demonstrations in China’s cities affected consumer behavior, specifically car sales. Working with graduate student Yiding Ma, the team is merging car registrations and consumer data to explore this dynamic.

Barwick and Li are investigating how the eight national and 26 regional high-speed railways are facilitating market integration and reducing domestic trade barriers. They also are collaborating on another project assessing the correlation between health spending and human health impacts stemming from air pollution.

Working with graduate research assistant Hao Zhang, Friedman is using empirical research to explore labor issues, including employment practices, strikes, and collective bargaining, in China’s sanitation and taxi industries. Another project under Friedman’s leadership is incorporating ethnographic observations and interviews to assess how the urban state uses migrants for labor purposes but ignores them in primary school education.

Wallace and Weiss are involved in “Nationalism and Nativism: Varieties of Other in China,” research exploring whether nationalist appeals promoting economic performance drive or counter domestic unity among disparate groups rural and urban, migrants and locals, and ethnic minorities and Han. In another project, Wallace and research assistant Lincoln Hines, are using the Chinese census as well as fiscal data and satellite imagery to explain why slums and ghost cities – areas where there is too much infrastructure and urban services in the same place are simultaneously emerging in China.

Wallace participated in the “Sustainability in Asia: Partnerships for Research and Implementation” held in Hong Kong from April 6-7, 2017. Organized by the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, the conference brought together international scholars, scientists, business leaders, and policy influencers from the U.S. and Asia to advance sustainable practices worldwide. Wallace was a member of the panel, “Rural-Urban Transitions to Sustainable Settlement Systems” examining Asia’s economic growth and focusing on challenges and solutions.

The China’s Cities project worked with 14 graduate students on projects as varied as the impact of urban air pollution on public health to slums in ghost cities. The graduate students helped with project design, ethnographic interviews, dataset creation, and data analysis.


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 that will begin Fall 2016, 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.