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The great sprawl of China: satellites reveal growth of cities over 30 years

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Timelapse videos show the staggering growth of cities such as Shenzhen, Dongguan and Yiwu, which three decades ago were barely on the map

Thirty years ago, most of these cities were barely on the map. Take the manufacturing and trade hub of Yiwu, pictured above. In 1985 it was home to 73,000 people; 20 years later that had risen to 1.1 million population growth of 1,380%.

Now their staggering growth has been captured by Googles Earth Engine timelapse interactive of satellite photography from 1984 to 2016.

To identify the fastest-growing Chinese cities over that period, we used the latest UN World Urbanisation Prospects population data, and calculated the highest percentage growth from 1985-2015, filtering for cities with current estimated populations above 1 million. Below are the 10 fastest growers. Yiwu ranks No 6.

10: Linyi, Shandong

Linyi 1984-2016: explore the Google Earth Engine satellite timelapse viewer here

Population growth 1985-2015: 840%

1955: 22,000 people

1985: 182,000

2015: 1.7 million

The eastern city of Linyi traces its history back 2,400 years, and was the home of statesman Zhuge Liang (the creator of empty fort strategy) and master calligrapher Wang Xizhi. The city recently expanded north along the Yi river under the slogan Grand Linyi, New Linyi.

9: Cixi, Zhejiang

Cixi 1884-2016: explore the Google Earth Engine satellite timelapse viewer here

Population growth 1985-2015: 960%

1955: 5,000 people

1985: 123,000

2015: 1.3 million

The city of Cixi lies on Hangzhou Bay to the south of Shanghai. It was noted for its Yue ware porcelain.

8: Zhongshan, Guangdong

Zhongshan 1984-2016: explore the Google Earth Engine satellite timelapse viewer here

Population growth 1985-2015: 1,100%

1955: 71,000 people

1985: 308,000

2015: 3.7 million

Zhongshan lies to the south of the Pearl river delta. It was named after the founding father of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen, whose name is Sun Zhongshan in Mandarin Chinese.

7: Huizhou, Guangdong

Huizhou 1984-2016: explore the Google Earth Engine satellite timelapse viewer here

Population growth 1985-2015: 1,250%

1955: 58,000 people

1985: 171,000

2015: 2.3 million

To the north of the Pearl river, Huizhou is part of a number of economic development initiatives, pushing automotive, electronic, chemicals and hi-tech industries. International investors include Sony, Coca-Cola and Siemens. Huizhou is twinned with the village of Hallstatt in Austria, and is home to a notorious copy of the Unesco World Heritage site.

6: Yiwu, Zhejiang

Yiwu 1984-2016: explore the Google Earth Engine satellite timelapse viewer here

Population growth 1985-2015: 1,380%

1955: 5,000 people

1985: 73,000

2015: 1.1 million

The manufacturing hub of Yiwu is home to a large foreign population attracted by trade opportunities and boasts the worlds largest small commodities market. Its 75,000 stalls supply plastic stuff for discount stores the world over: fake flowers, coloured beads, hair ties, inflatable toys, tinsel, party hats, umbrellas and 70% of the worlds Christmas decorations.

5: Puning, Guangdong

Puning 1984-2016: explore the Google Earth Engine satellite timelapse viewer here

Population growth 1985-2015: 1,520%

1955: 19,000 people

1985: 62,000

2015: 1 million

In the east of Guangdong province, Puning is famous for fruit production and textiles.

4: Suqian, Jiangsu

Suqian 1984-2016: explore the Google Earth Engine satellite timelapse viewer here

Population growth 1985-2015: 1,620%

1955: 1,000 people

1985: 61,000

2015: 1.1 million

Two hundred miles north of Shanghai, Suqian is first recorded in 760AD and is home to two famous spirits brands, Yanhe and Shuanggou.

3: Zhuhai, Guangdong

Zhuhai 1984-2016: xplore the Google Earth Engine satellite timelapse viewer here

Population growth 1985-2015: 1,740%

1955: 5,000 people

1985: 84,000

2015: 1.5 million

Zhuhai literally pearl sea was one of the original special economic zones. It is on a stretch of coast near Macau known as the Chinese Riviera, and has Chinas second largest port (behind Shenzhen).

2: Dongguan, Guangdong

Dongguan 1984-2016: explore the Google Earth Engine satellite timelapse viewer here

Population growth 1985-2015: 3,040%

1955: 95,000 people

1985: 237,000

2015: 7.4 million

This former agricultural town was transformed into a manufacturing hub as part of the Pearl river development in the 1980s. It gained a reputation as Chinas Sin City and reportedly has a much higher female than male population owing to factory owners preference for female workers.

1: Shenzhen, Guangdong

Shenzhen 1984-2016: explore the Google Earth Engine satellite timelapse viewer here

Population growth 1985-2015: 6,040%

1955: 5,000 people

1985: 175,000

2015: 10.7 million

Shenzhens transformation from fishing village to megacity is well documented. It attracted massive investment after its designation in 1980 a Chinas first special economic zone. A recent survey found the city had the worlds fastest growing residential property prices.

Guardian Cities is dedicating a week to the huge but often unreported cities on the front line of Chinas unprecedented urbanisation. Explore our coverage here and follow us on Facebook. Share stories via WeChat (GuardianCities) and by using #OtherChina on Twitter and Instagram

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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