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The population race: Changsha’s path to growth

Written by 36Kr English Published on   6 mins read

The livability of and opportunities available in Hunan’s capital city have been a draw for talents.

In late April, Changsha released its statistical communique for national economic and social development in 2023, marking the end of the competition among China’s trillion-yuan GDP cities for the title of the city with the highest population growth.

Changsha secured eighth place with an increase of 92,500 people, while Hefei claimed the top position with an increase of 219,000 people. Changsha had held the top spot in 2022.

In central China, competition among Wuhan, Changsha, and Hefei has become a hot topic. Particularly, Changsha and Hefei share numerous similarities in economic size, industrial structure, and innovative “city-school symbiosis” models, where cities and universities collaborate closely to foster growth.

Both cities are stellar performers in terms of population growth. Backed by national strategies supporting the rise of central China and the Yangtze River Economic Belt, both cities showcase great potential for development.

The fight for population growth

On April 28, the Changsha Municipal Bureau of Statistics announced that, by the end of 2023, the city’s permanent population had reached 10.5 million, reflecting a 0.9% increase. Comparatively, at the end of 2022, Changsha’s population was 10.4 million, having increased by 181,300 people, the highest among China’s major cities. However, in 2023, the net population increase was 92,500, marking the first time Changsha’s growth fell below 100,000.

The latest population figures for all 26 cities with GDP over RMB 1 trillion are now available, with 24 of these cities experiencing notable population growth. Shanghai, Chengdu, Hangzhou, Zhengzhou, Hefei, and Shenzhen each saw increases of over 100,000 people.

The top ten cities for population growth in 2023 were Hefei (219,000), Zhengzhou (180,000), Hangzhou (146,000), Chengdu (135,000), Shenzhen (128,300), Shanghai (115,600), Guangzhou (92,900), Changsha (92,500), Xi’an (82,300), and Ningbo (79,000).

Recent population data shows that central China continues to lead in population growth. For three consecutive years, the cities with the most significant population growth have been Wuhan in 2021, Changsha in 2022, and Hefei in 2023. From 2010–2020, the population growth leaders were primarily coastal cities like Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Hangzhou.

Despite central China’s dominance, coastal cities in the Yangtze River Delta and Pearl River Delta remain attractive. Hangzhou, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Ningbo remain among the top ten for population growth.

Additionally, major cities, particularly those in the trillion-yuan GDP club, have a noticeable pull on their respective provinces. While several provinces saw a population decline, their core cities, such as Changsha, Jinan, Zhengzhou, Wuhan, Hefei, Chengdu, and Xi’an, continued to grow.

How Hefei rose to the top

Over the past three years, Hefei’s population growth has steadily increased from 95,000 in 2021 to 169,000 in 2022, and then to 219,000 in 2023. This growth is not just in numbers but also in quality. Data shows that, in 2023, 91.8% of Hefei’s population increase came from net migration, with an influx of 201,000 people. Additionally, over 27,000 people per 100,000 in Hefei have a college degree, about 1.8 times the national average. The city has over 180 R&D personnel per 10,000 employees, which is twice the national average.

According to Hefei’s territorial and spatial plan for 2021–2035, its permanent population is projected to exceed 13 million by 2035, with an actual service population of over 15 million.

Understanding Hefei’s rapid population growth involves examining its industrial development.

Hefei’s growth is supported by strategic national initiatives like the Yangtze River Delta integration, which enables Hefei to benefit from the industrial and resource spillover from the region. In 2023, Hefei signed 89 new projects in its two interprovincial industrial parks, with a total investment of RMB 23.1 billion (USD 3.19 billion).

Moreover, Hefei’s robust scientific and educational resources have played a significant role. Over the past two decades, Hefei has developed a governance model that attracts large projects through investment, promoting industrial cluster development and local industrial upgrading. From 2012–2022, Hefei’s GDP grew by more than 8% annually, joining the trillion-yuan GDP club in 2020.

Hefei currently boasts six industries worth over RMB 100 billion (USD 13.8 billion): new energy vehicles, photovoltaics , new displays, smart home appliances, high-end equipment, and artificial intelligence. Companies like BOE Technology Group and ChangXin Memory Technologies (CXMT) have helped Hefei establish significant supply chains for industries such as new displays and integrated circuits. The NEV industry has also seen rapid growth, with production reaching 746,000 units in 2023, ranking among the top five cities nationwide.

As a city renowned for venture capital activities, Hefei has attracted a significant influx of population due to its emerging industries. In 2023, Hefei introduced 127 high-level talent groups, adding 55,000 high-skilled talents and recruiting over 300,000 university graduates.

What are Changsha’s advantages?

In the population growth race, Changsha has been a top performer over the past decade.

At the end of 2013, Changsha’s permanent population was 7.2 million, and reached 10.5 million by 2023, with an annual average increase of nearly 330,000 people during this period.

Low housing prices have been a significant factor attracting young people to settle in Changsha. According to data released by CityRE Data in 2024, Changsha’s average housing price was RMB 11,414 (USD 1,576) per square meter, while Hefei’s was RMB 19,675 (USD 2,717) per square meter, nearly double of Changsha’s.

Shanghai E-House Real Estate Research Institute released a list in 2020, ranking 50 cities in China by housing price-to-income ratio. Changsha had the lowest ratio at 6.2 years of income to buy a house, compared to Hefei’s 13.5 years, ranking 17th.

In 2020, Wondershare Technology launched the recruitment slogan: “Get a Shenzhen salary, live in a Changsha house, do global business,” attracting numerous talents to Hunan Province. This concept was widely recognized and deeply ingrained.

At this year’s National People’s Congress, committee secretary Shen Xiaoming, who represents Hunan, said that for young people, livability means low housing prices and living costs, and high education and medical levels. He believed that Changsha’s housing prices and living costs are among the lowest in provincial capital cities, while its education and medical levels are among the best, making it a livable city. Looking ahead, he said, “building a global R&D center in Changsha with young people at its core would be most ideal.”

In addition to low housing prices, Changsha has developed rapidly in several core industrial chains, attracting a large number of talents, especially retaining a large percentage of local university graduates. For example, Wondershare chairman Tobee Wu once said that “returning to Hunan to develop was an emotional decision, but the key was to go with the trend. We rely heavily on talents, now we recruit from Hunan universities and retain the university talents.”

Wondershare Technology chairman Tobee Wu speaking at the World Computing Conference in 2023, sharing about his decision to set up Wondershare in Hunan. Photo source: 36Kr.

Changsha has also cultivated six RMB 100 billion industrial clusters: advanced energy storage materials, engineering machinery, electronic information, automotive and parts, new materials, and food and agricultural product processing including tobacco. The city has ambitious plans for the computing era. Currently, Changsha’s coverage of the domestic semiconductor and machinery industry is highly extensive, with its ecosystem connecting 360,000 enterprises nationwide with 1.516 million hardware and software products, forming the sole computing industry cluster in China.

Changsha’s confidence also stems from its educational and research platforms. The city is home to 58 tertiary institutions, including the National University of Defense Technology and Hunan University, 99 independent research institutions such as the 48th Research Institute of China Electronics Technology Group Corporation, and over 2,300 innovation platforms. With these resources, Changsha’s capability has ranked eighth in the national evaluation of city-level innovation for four consecutive years, providing momentum for the city’s development into a global, high-quality R&D center.

Like Hefei, Changsha has made significant efforts, leveraging local university research advantages to cultivate related industrial chains. When talent and technology are concentrated, it naturally attracts capital.

The competition for population is a long journey. Changsha and Hefei, each with its own advantages, are engaging in healthy competition, promoting the rise of central Chinese cities and the Yangtze River Economic Belt. This friendly rivalry will drive innovation, attract talent, and ultimately contribute to the sustained economic growth and development of the region.

​​​​KrASIA Connection features translated and adapted content that was originally published by 36Kr. This article was written by Xiaoke for 36Kr.


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