Bringing the wonders of the hex grid tile map to China

As you may have noticed I have a bit of a thing for maps. I often go out of my way to find a way to present statistics in map form, because it’s fun, and also because I think it’s important to understand regional variation in China (here’s one recent attempt). But that kind of map where different areas are colored in to convey information, known as choropleths to infographics aficionados, has some drawbacks when applied to Chinese provinces. Namely, the size of Chinese provinces varies hugely. A standard map is visually dominated by Xinjiang and Tibet, which happen to have few people and small economies, while the economic powerhouses of Beijing and Shanghai are barely visible.

This is in fact an extreme version of the problem faced when mapping the US, which also has some big empty states and small populous ones. A recent solution adopted by many infographics mavens is to make all the states the same size; the resulting “grid” maps, usually made up of squares, have been the talk of the infrographics community. Recently the folks over at NPR came up with an even cooler solution, which is to use hexagons rather than squares. This allows the resulting layout of tiles to more closely approximate geographic reality and the well-known shape of the US. I quite like it:



Naturally, this presented a challenge: can this same technique be applied to China? You betcha. After some playing around I came up with the following solution, which preserves both the chicken-shaped outline of China, and is reasonably accurate about the positions of individual provinces relative to each other. The biggest compromise with reality I made was to pull off the coastal municipalities (Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai) from the main part of the map. This makes it easier to get the relative positions of the remaining provinces correct.


I’m pretty pleased with this (though suggestions for improvement are naturally welcome). Now for the test: does the hexagon tile map work better at presenting information visually? Here’s a map I produced earlier this year, which highlights the regional variation in economic growth across China.


And here’s the same statistical information presented in a hex tile grid map.


The differences are interesting. The traditional map presentation works quite nice visually, because the big swath of the slow-growing black and red provinces across the north half of the country conveys a daunting impression. The hex map, as intended, lessens the visual impact of the large but less-important western provinces, and makes it clearer what is happening in the municipalities. It also makes it easier to see how many provinces are growing slowly versus how many are growing more quickly (and has the added benefit of being able to fit in province names, which is hard to do legibly on a regular map). It’s a bit less scary as a result, since you can see that there are still more fast-growing ones than slow-growing ones. So it seems like the hex map is best for illustrating data where the important point is the number of provinces meeting various criteria. I’m not sure for this particular example I would prefer the hex map, but it was certainly fun to explore.

Mapping China: Six decades of population flows

One of my recent side interests has been getting an understanding of how China’s population flows in recent decades relate to patterns further back in history. Mass migration has been a feature of Chinese history long before recent years’ headlines about migrant workers and urbanization. One example is the huge movement of people into Manchuria in the late 19th and early 20th century, which was in terms of the absolute number of people comparable to movement of people into the western United States from 1880-1950, and larger than the emigration from Ireland in the 19th century (according to statistics from Thomas Gottschang’s 1987 article; JSTOR link). After the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, central planning and political campaigns also had big effects on the movement of people. Examples here are the heavy-industrialization drive of the 1950s, or the “sent-down youth” phenomenon of the 1960s, when millions of students were shipped from urban centers to more isolated provinces.

To try to give myself a way to better understand and visualize all this history, I went through a fairly simple exercise. I put together a spreadsheet of population by province going back to the 1950s from various Chinese statistical yearbooks. Then I looked at which provinces had a rising or falling share of population over time. If the natural rate of population growth does not vary too much from province to province, then a rising or falling share of national population should be a result of net in- or out-migration. The maps below are the result; they depict three big eras in Chinese population flows over the past six decades. The results are obviously sensitive to the periods chosen, which probably could be refined. I also ended up treating the entire reform era (post-1980) as one period as differences among the three decades were not great. (The arrows are just to help clarify the trend, and do not actually indicate the source and destination of migration flows–the data do not permit such precision.)

Hopefully the maps should mostly speak for themselves, but the shift in the direction of population flows over time is quite striking. The first years of Communist rule led to big flows of people into old and new industrial centers in north China and the Pearl and Yangtze River deltas. Some of those movements were then reversed in the chaos of the 1960s, which saw the coastal provinces lose people to a belt of inland provinces. With the reform era the influence of political campaigns declined, and the market forces helped draw people to growing urban centers where higher wages could be earned. The formation of big urban concentrations around Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou/Shenzhen is clearly visible in the map. Some regional patterns persist throughout the three periods, notably the net migration into Xinjiang and other western provinces, as well as the island of Hainan, which were places that were relatively lightly populated. I’m sure there is more to learn here, but I have to say these initial results are quite pleasing.






Mapping China: base and superstructure

A very interesting new paper from MIT, entitled “China’s Ideological Spectrum,” has been making the rounds over the last few days. It uses some unique survey data to show what some basic political terms mean in practice in China. The paper identifies the “core ideological divide” among Chinese people as between left-conservatives (authoritarian government, socialist economics, traditional social values) and right-liberals (constitutional politics, market economics, individual rights). The authors find that support for left-conservative views is highly correlated; in other words, that people who look with nostalgia upon the planned economy also tend to have traditional social values and support authoritarian government, while those who favor, for instance, gay rights also tend to support more market-based economics and democratic politics. This pattern is quite different from the contemporary West, where many people are both economically conservative and socially liberal, or vice versa. (Another key point is that conservatives in China are considered to be left, while liberals are considered right–the opposite of the American usage, though sensible since what Chinese conservatives want to conserve is in fact a leftist system). While the broad conclusions are probably not surprising to those familiar with China, the explanation is clear and the empirical evidence strong and interesting; very much worth reading.

While there are a lot of interesting details in the paper, being a lover of maps I of course immediately looked at the map, which shows the variation in ideology around China. I’ve reproduced it below; the 10 most conservative provinces are colored red, the 10 most liberal blue, and those in the middle purple.


The authors run some regressions and find that provinces with more liberal populations also tend to have higher incomes, more openness to trade and higher rates of urbanization. The broad pattern is reasonably intuitive, as are some of the specifics (Tianjin being more conservative than Beijing will surprise no one who has been to both places). But I also wondered, if conservatism means in part support for the state role in the economy, why not also measure its relationship to a state role in the economy? Given that we are talking about a leftist system, a little Marxist analysis seems appropriate: how is the superstructure (ideology) related to the base (economy)? Or to put it a different way, do people whose livelihoods depend on SOEs think more highly of SOEs? Below is my own map of state influence over the economy, color-coded in the same way: red for the 10 most state-dominated provinces are red, blue for the 10 least are blue, and purple for those in the middle.


The indicator I used is state-owned enterprises’ share of gross industrial output. This is not a perfect measure, as it does not include the service sector where many SOEs operate–Beijing’s highly service-driven economy is also heavily state-owned, and if services were included then Beijing would almost certainly be in the 10 highest, rather than in the middle as shown here. But the pattern seems broadly correct: provincial economies are least state-dominated on the eastern coast, more so in the central provinces, and most state-dominated in the old industrial bases and resource-heavy border areas.

This map also lines up pretty well with the ideology map, though there are some interesting divergences. The old industrial bases of Jilin and Heilongjiang in the northeast, which certainly have some of the most state-dominated economies in China (and currently among the worst-performing), register as only moderate in their ideological conservatism. If I had to come up with an explanation for this, it would go something like this: the large role of state enterprises in these provinces has not in fact been a good thing in the last couple of decades. There were mass layoffs and immense social dislocation in the late 1990s as money-losing SOEs were overhauled, and there has been a lot of out-migration to more prosperous regions since then. Northeasterners do tend to be rather socially conservative, but because of their own experiences I suspect they are also unlikely to have the illusion that state-owned enterprises are wonderful things.

The where and why of East China

The easternmost parts of China are in fact pretty far east–from there it’s only about 500 more miles east to reach Japan, which is closer than Beijing. The area would be in the same time zone as Korea, if China did not ignore time zones and force everywhere to run on Beijing time. But the easternmost parts of China, which are in the provinces of Heilongjiang and Jilin, are not East With A Capital E: they are not in the officially defined region of East China which every schoolchild learns and which shapes every map and statistical release. Somewhat bizarrely, the easternmost parts of China are in fact designated as being part of “Central China.” Once I finally absorbed just how weird this is, it became clear to me that these regional categories are not simple descriptions of geographic reality but something more complicated. So why is eastern China not the same thing as East China?


As I learned from a classic article by geographer Cindy Fan (JSTOR link), the modern definition of “East China” is in fact an industrial policy program from the early years of the reform era. According to Fan, the current West-Central-East scheme of dividing up the provinces originated in the Sixth Five-Year Plan (1981-85), and was formalized in the Seventh Five-Year Plan (1986-90). The main purpose of the division was to give more favorable treatment to the coastal provinces and focus on developing foreign trade. (As you can see from the map, “East China” includes any province with a coastline, some of which of which are as far west as “Central” provinces.) This decision represented a backlash against the regional policies of the Mao era, which had spread state-sponsored investments–like the infamous “Third Front” military-industrial projects–across the interior in an attempt to narrow regional economic gaps. It was eventually realized that these investments had been generally bad and produced few returns. So rather than try to remove the coast’s historic advantages, the government decided to capitalize on them, and hope the resulting growth would lift the interior provinces as well. Which it more or less did.

The pendulum started to swing back toward favoring the interior provinces in 1998 with the launch of a program to “develop the west.” Concern about uneven development and regional inequality has been a persistent feature of Chinese Communist economic thinking, and these concerns had been put on hold rather than forgotten during the two decades or so of coastal favoritism. The western development program indeed had an old-school feel,  focusing on state-sponsored investments, though more in infrastructure than heavy industry or defense. And it was quickly followed by similar programs to “revive the northeast” and to promote the “rise of central China.”

Although I don’t want to go into too much detail about these programs, it does seem pretty clear that all these measures supporting investment in inland provinces did in fact lead to a lot more investment in inland provinces. There was lots of press coverage about the boom in the western provinces, which were growing faster than the east. In fact we can see that the much-discussed rise in China’s investment share of GDP is most intense in the inland provinces (the investment share of GDP at the provincial level is not consistent with the same figure at the national level, in part because the national figures attempt to correct for overstated investments in the provincial figures.) To me it seems quite plausible that at least some of this distortion is the result of all these regional development programs.


So one of my big questions about the current government has been whether the pendulum will swing back the other way–whether they will, as in the 1980s, get tired of making lots of poor investments in the inland provinces. The general rhetoric of giving a greater role to market forces could certainly imply a lower priority for these regional development programs, which by their nature try to stand in the way of the market forces that tend to reinforce gains in the coastal provinces. There are some interesting signals: in this year’s government work report Premier Li Keqiang said “we will support the eastern region in taking the lead in development”–which certainly sounds like a return to the 1980s-era policies. On the other hand, he continued to endorse the regional development programs for the west, northeast and central regions, which are promised more government funds. But given how hard the current downturn is hitting some inland provinces, in part because of their heavy dependence on mining, my bet is that East China is going to reclaim its leadership position anyway.

Endless maps most beautiful, China edition

Maps are enjoying a renaissance these days, with many websites and news outlets turning maps into wonderful graphical tools for showing data and seeing new patterns. There are now lots of good free tools for putting these kind of infrographics together, but a lot of what is available is rather US-centric. So I am very pleased to have recently stumbled across a couple of pretty wonderful free tools for making informative maps of China. The first and most amazing one is the ChinaMap project hosted over at Harvard, which allows you to plot a huge variety of social and economic data in map form.

Here’s a fun one: the language regions of China. Other cool ones for history buffs include the locations of Ming dynasty garrisons, the concentration of Qing dynasty entry exams–and, you guessed it, locust attacks during the Yuan dynasty. There’s also more practical and recent stuff like the routes of natural gas pipelines, air pollution, GDP per capita and similar economic indicators. The depth and variety of what’s available is stunning. I could play with this for hours (and in fact I have…)



The other new entrant in the cool China map sweepstakes is the PUMA project just launched by the World Bank, an open platform that pulls together an enormous amount of information about urban boundaries gathered from satellite photography (it includes China rather than being specifically for China). The level of detail here is amazing: check out for instance this illustration of the urban expansion of Beijing. The in-browser software seems quite sophisticated and has lots of useful features, though it’s less of a general-purpose mapping tool than one for tracking urbanization specifically. Still, pretty nifty.




The woes of China’s mining belt

Tiff Roberts over at Bloomberg Businessweek gave a nice write-up of a recent piece I did looking at how the impact of lower energy prices on China differs depending on where you are in China.This provides an excuse for me to reproduce one of my favorite maps for a wider audience:


While we stereotypically think of China as a huge consumer of energy and commodities, it is in fact also a big producer of same (one way in which China resembles the US).  Within China, this is essentially a regional phenomenon: the center, south and east are mainly resource consumers (and are inhabited mainly by ethnic Han Chinese). The northern and western provinces are where all the resources are produced (and where ethnic minority populations are larger).

One of the interesting things I learned from this map is that in economic structure terms Heilongjiang and Xinjiang are not that different, even though conventional geography and economic analysis never puts them together. Xinjiang is usually considered an exception to everything in “core China”, because it is so clearly a frontier territory, with different ethnic and economic dynamics (same goes for Tibet). Heilongjiang by contrast is uncomplicatedly part of “core China”. But in fact both have local economies with a high degree of resource dependence. And in historical terms it was not all that long ago that Heilongjiang was not part of “core China”: it is one of the three modern provinces covering the territory of Manchuria, which in the 19th century was an ethnic enclave for China’s Manchu rulers, then a booming frontier region when migration was opened up to Han, then a de-facto colony of Japan. Heilongjiang is obviously much more integrated now but I wonder if its earlier history offers any parallels to some of the dynamics we’re seeing in Xinjiang today