China’s City Tiers, Explained

At 1,389,618,778 people, China takes the top spot as the most populated country in the world. It is also developing at an impressive pace, which is most evident in its cities. The cities in China are vibrating with life and promise as centers of technology, business, and culture. But Chinese cities are not alike and they vary enough for a tier system to be upheld to classify the major cities in mainland China. Here’s what you need to know.

What is the city tier system?

An interesting fact about the city tier system in China is that it is not officially recognized by the government. The tiers were created by the media and used by businesses and citizens to connote the development, potential, and real estate value of cities. Because the tier system isn’t official, there is no universal standard everyone can refer to. But at the very least, there are four to six basic tiers that are most known in which the cities are categorized.

YiCai Global, the English news branch of YiCai Media Group, have set particular standards to define their version of the tier system, which is the system this article will refer to. The cities are put into each tier based on five criteria:

  • Concentration of commercial resources
  • The city as a hub for transportation and supplies
  • Citizen activity and vitality
  • Diversity in lifestyle and entertainment
  • Innovativeness and flexibility for the future

Companies and investors like to use the tiers to help determine and understand the consumer markets of each city in addition to the viability of particular businesses. One product may ultimately be appealing to a third tier city, but may not do as well in a first tier city. The difference is dependent on multiple factors, such as a city’s urbanization, technological progress, wealth, culture, infrastructure, and more.

The tier system can be interpreted as a shorthand way to specify and measure the urban development of cities. It can be suggestive of the daily lifestyle residents may have, their preferences, and how globalized it is. Even though it is not a state conducted system, it is still worthwhile to observe and understand.

What are examples of cities in each tier?

There are a total of 338 cities taken into account for the city tier system. Much like a pyramid, the number of cities grows as the tiers descend. For example, there are only four cities in the first tier, but there are 129 cities in the fifth tier.

The first tier only has four cities which includes Beijing and Shanghai. Beijing, as the capital of China, is the country’s center for culture and politics while Shanghai is its economic hub and is the world’s most populous city at 26.32 million people.

The next tier is somewhat unique to YiCai. Instead of the second tier, the next tier is called the “new first tier.” This is to signify that the cities in this special tier have become urbanized and developed enough to almost qualify as a first tier city but they don’t quite fit as typical second tier cities. The new first tier, which has fifteen cities, include Xi’an, Chengdu, and Dongguan. Among the 30 second tier cities are unique cultural icons Harbin and Urumqi.

From this point on, the cities in the remaining tiers become smaller and smaller, but many businesses see the economic potential in these cities. Third and fourth tier cities, which include 70 and 90 cities respectively, are mainly in the east and south parts of China. All 129 fifth tier cities can be found all over the country, but most notably inland, north, and west. You can find an excellent list of all cities by tier here.

Why is this good to know as a teacher?

Your students may not be familiar with the city tier system in China because it doesn’t really concern their day-to-day lives. However, by familiarizing yourself with these tiers and the cities categorized in them, you may understand your students and their culture better. Depending on the city and tier, your students’ hometowns may reveal how exposed they are to the English language being spoken around them. For example, English will most likely be spoken more in first tier cities than fifth tier cities. Other unique factors that may differ between cities and tiers are technology, community, local infrastructure, and culture.


Use the city tier system as an informal, cultural guide as you learn more about the diversity of China!