While the overwhelming majority of China's 1.1 billion people live in the countryside, migration to the cities is accelerating as the poorest seek a better deal amid the bright lights.

Economic reform has improved living standards in big cities, especially along the coast, beyond all recognition from a decade ago. Rural areas remain for the most part desperately deprived.Urban income is reckoned to be growing at an annual 8.4 percent in real terms, up from 3.7 percent a few years ago.

Town dwellers earned an average 1,968 yuan ($238) in the first half of this year, according to Shao Zongming, deputy director of the State Statistics Bureau. Cash income of rural residents stood at 758 yuan.

China's urban population has swollen to 346 million and is increasing by 14 million a year, figures from the Ministry of Construction show.

Beijing's population is now 11 million and expected to reach 14 million by the end of the decade. Already, the price of ordinary housing is up to 30 times the capital's average annual household income, official figures show.

Infrastructure in the towns and cities, many already badly crowded and polluted, is hopelessly inadequate to cope with such an influx.

Ministry statistics show China that has 622 cities, against 245 in 1985. The number of small towns has risen to 55,000, more than six times the number in 1978, the year China began its reform and opening to the outside world.

There are 32 cities with populations greater than 1 million, 41 of between 500,000 and 1 million, 177 medium-sized cities housing between 200,000 and 500,000, and 372 small cities with under 200,000 people.

The United States, which has about the same land mass as China, had 10 cities of a million or more in the 1990 census; 14 of between 500,000 and 1 million; and 52 in the 200,000-to-500,000 range.

As in the West for hundreds of years, hamlets in China expand to become villages; they tend to blur at the edges and merge into small towns, and the towns in time grow into cities.

What China terms city groups - roughly equivalent to metropolitan statistical areas in the United State - are also emerging.

Most are in delta areas of the Yangtze River around Shanghai; the Pearl River in southern Guangdong adjacent to Hong Kong; on the Liaodong Peninsula in the industrial Northeast; and along the Beijing-Tianjin-Tangshan corridor in the north.

About 200 medium-sized cities have developed into city groups from small towns.

The uneven distribution of wealth and opportunity is reflected in the ministry's notation that the eastern part of the country has 44 percent of the country's cities, while the western interior accounts for just 19 percent.

China is working to shift economic development away from the coasts into the hinterland by offering incentives to overseas investors. Most remain stubbornly unpersuaded because of transport, communications and other infrastructure.