Urban legend:
China’s tiered city system explained

Tier systems are widely used to classify Chinese cities. The tiers are used by analysts to study consumer behaviour, income level, politics, and local trends to help tune strategies to local conditions

What’s a city tier and how is it assigned?

China has 613 cities which are usually divided into four tiers. Different organisations define a tier using a number of factors but they always fall within the following three main categories


Each city is first classified by Gross Domestic Product. China’s cities range from US$350 trillion to minor cities with GDP under US$20 billion

All first tier cities have a GDP over $US300 billion

The second tier includes cities with GDP between US$68 billion and US$299 billion

Third tier cities have a GDP between US$18 billion and US$67 billion

Most fourth tier cities have a GDP below US$17 billion


The second classification is the political administration of a city. China has four levels as well as two special regions, Hong Kong and Macau

The cities in here are directly controlled by central goverment

The second tier consists of provincial capital cities and sub-provincial capital cities

The third category is made up of prefecture capital cities

The rest are county level cities


The core city and urban areas surrounding the main city are taken into account to define metropolitan areas

Cities with more than 15 million people

The second tier includes cities of three to 15 million people

The third category is for cities with 150,000 to 3 million people

Cities populated by less than 150,000 people


Many cities rank differently in each area so the average is used to define their actual tier. A city ranking 1-2-1 will be in the first tier

Average tier1 cities

Average tier2 cities

Average tier3 cities

Average tier4 cities

China’s county portrait

Here we look at China's county administration divisions. The colours represent the tier level of each county. The darker hue allotted, the higher a counties qualification. Use the buttons below to compare a counties GDP, population size or political clout and see how the tiers vary



  • T1 (Highest)
  • T2
  • T3
  • T4 (lowest)

Tier classification

Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and, Chongqing are directly controlled by China's Administration Centre. Along with Guangzhou they make up the five cities which qualify across all three categories as tier one

All the cities in China

China classifies it's cities according to GDP, administrative level and population. The graphic below is a visual analysis of each of the 613 cities of China. Click a city for additional information

About this graphic

The position of the city is related to the average tier classification, that means a city 1-1-1 is top left, while a city classified as 4-4-4 will be at the bottom right. They are then sorted by population in descending order


Tier classification, top as best (1), bottom for last (4)

The size of each semi-circle is relative to the urban population in clusters


Scroll a side your screen to continue down, or scroll in the screen middle to view more cities.