The First Frontier: Urban Studies and the Exploration of Space

It's been a while since I updated my blog. But I've been absent for a good cause! For the past year or so, I've been busy building the Urban Studies programme at Yale-NUS College. For a taste of what I've been up to, I'm re-posting a blog entry I wrote for the Yale-NUS Admissions Office on urban studies and spatial analysis. You can find the original post here.

“What is urban studies?” I often get asked this question by students considering their choice of major. And it is not an easy one to answer. Unlike other disciplines, urban studies is not neatly defined by either method or subject matter. One of the first things you learn in Introduction to Urban Studies is that the very nature of the “urban” is up for debate. And the study of the urban is inherently interdisciplinary, combining aspects of anthropology, geography, sociology, history, economics, political science … . In some ways, urban studies is the epitome of the liberal arts—it simultaneously requires the breadth of interdisciplinarity and the depth of engaged inquiry. What is urban studies? There are probably as many answers to the question as there are urban scholars. This is what makes urban studies both endlessly fascinating and infuriatingly elusive. 

“Why can’t I just study urban topics in anthropology or PPE?” This is the next question, and it hits close to home. In my research on Chinese urbanization and planning, I wear the hats of both anthropologist and political economist. I need the methods, tools, and theories of these disciplines (among others) to study the urban. Yet urban studies is also something more. Urban studies does not just mean investigating things that happen in cities. Urban studies involves the investigation of the city itself. And when it comes to investigating the urban (and all the various processes that produce and transform it), there is something central that is missing from other disciplines—space.

When we study the urban, we are studying the processes by which people come together to co-inhabit space. These processes are simultaneously social, temporal, and spatial. Disciplines like anthropology and history can provide us with insight into the social and the temporal, but for the spatial we need to turn elsewhere. Other disciplines, like geography, planning, and design, offer a complementary set of methods and techniques for spatial analysis. By combining these tools across disciplines, we can develop a robust, multi-dimensional approach to urban studies. And this is an important part of what we do in the Urban Studies major at Yale-NUS: we cultivate the ability to think spatially and to integrate spatial analysis with the insights provided by other disciplinary perspectives. 

This past semester, in collaboration with our colleagues at the Future Cities Laboratory, the Yale-NUS Urban Studies programme offered the first installment of our spatial curriculum: Urban Spatial Reasoning. Students were introduced to a variety of spatial analysis methods, from figure ground and perspective to GIS and remote sensing. For their final projects, students selected a four-square-kilometer section of Singapore in which to apply their newly acquired analytical skills. In the fabrication lab, they then produced three-dimensional tiles synthesizing these various analyses into arguments about socio-spatial transformation.

The students’ finished projects were installed on a schematic grid of Singapore laid out in the foyer of the performance hall, where students defended their analyses in front of a panel of external critics. The full diversity of Singapore’s socio-spatiality was on display: the fragmentation of experience in Bukit Timah, the intersection of religion and sex work in Geylang, and the articulation of functional diversity (à la Jane Jacobs) in Joo Chiat. That afternoon in late April was an important moment in the evolution of the Yale-NUS Urban Studies programme. It was a turning point for our students: they were no longer just talking about urban studies, they were doing urban studies.

A living transect of Hailong Village, showing the intersection of agricultural, industrial, and residential uses

A living transect of Hailong Village, showing the intersection of agricultural, industrial, and residential uses

Listening to the students unpack their projects inspired me to reflect on the role of spatial analysis in my own research. Starting in 2011, much of my work has focused on the transformation of Hailong Village, located on the peri-urban outskirts of Chongqing, one of the metropoles of China’s late-developing west. Over the past decade, Hailong has achieved spectacular economic growth. According to village records, between 2002 and 2010, annual per capita net income rose from 1,578 to 12,000 RMB. Meanwhile, the village’s resident population ballooned from 1,950 registered villagers to 16,266 people, including more than 13,000 migrant laborers.

This rapid transformation has made Hailong a site of great optimism, attracting the attention of China’s highest leaders, who hope the village can become a model for rural development. But it has simultaneously made Hailong a site of great contestation, as many different actors—including the municipal government, village leaders, and village residents—put forward competing visions for the kind of society Hailong (and China) should become. Hailong is now on the front lines of the battle for China’s urban future.

These competing visions are rooted in divergent rationalities and alternate definitions of social justice—abstract principles about the way that institutions should be designed and resources should be distributed. But they are ultimately realized in the everyday politics surrounding the material transformation of village space. Understanding the contestation of Hailong’s transformation required parallel investigations of its social, temporal, and spatial dimensions, and the interdisciplinarity of urban studies was thus central to the success of my research. Using interviews, participant observation, and archival research, I drew on the practices of anthropology and history to understand the social processes that were driving Hailong’s transformation. But these practices were never separate from the spatial analysis techniques that I adopted from geography and planning. As I documented Hailong’s spatial transformation through maps and architectural drawings, these activities simultaneously served to structure and guide my inquiry into the village’s social transformation.  

As a privileged medium for the expression and intersection of the rationalities and practices that produce urbanization, space was an integral part of understanding Hailong’s processes of transformation. Citing Bourdieu’s notion of habitus, John Archer argues that “built space becomes the reference system within which knowledge is produced and applied, the physical forms according to which people establish and discipline their lives” (2005: 431). And in her argument for space as a medium of multiplicity, Doreen Massey observes that “the spatial, crucially, is the realm of the configuration of potentially dissonant (or concordant) narratives” (2005: 9, 71). Space therefore accommodates the intersection of diverse rationalities. Everyone must work through this common medium—planners and non-planners alike. Though space enables some of these rationalities to be stabilized, its constant ongoing production ensures that alternative rationalities are never entirely excluded.

If space accommodates diverse rationalities, how are they to be accessed? A sensitivity to the politics of space requires special attention to representational conventions, which encode specific rationalities and politics. For instance, Robin Evans observes how architectural plans describe desired human relationships but obscure the real human bodies and relationships that use and occupy space (1997 [1978]: 56-57). Similarly, because orthographic drawing does not correspond to a situated perception of the world, it privileges the instrumental rationality that produces it (Evans 1995 [1989]: 21). By contrast, the sketch has the “capacity to absorb so many other interpretations, to be whatever one wants to see in it, and to multiply ambiguities and inconsistencies” (Evans 1995 [1989]: 33-34). And it is equally necessary to avoid reducing space to the merely visual, thereby excluding the alternative rationalities embedded in smell, sound, and taste (Fabian 2002: 108).

To balance these various demands, spatial analysis requires a diversity of conventions and representations, each with its own biases and privileged rationalities. In my research on Hailong, this included both my own representations and those produced with and by others. From planners and officials I collected plans and design renderings of proposed transformations (including both preliminary and final drafts), as well as maps of existing spaces. In the course of research conversations, I had village residents produce cognitive maps (Lynch 1960: 140-143), respond to existing maps, and give tours of village spaces. I also produced sketches and formal design studies of village spaces, representative buildings, and spatial practices.

A figure-ground drawing showing changes in the built environment of Hailong Village in 2006 and 2007

A figure-ground drawing showing changes in the built environment of Hailong Village in 2006 and 2007

As a foundational reference, I produced a base map through a detailed ground survey of the village. I began with a topographic survey map provided by a village official and produced in CAD. I then conducted a detailed survey of every structure and pathway in the village, noting differences on the map and photographing all buildings and open spaces. For each structure, I also noted information such as material, height, age, cost, ownership, and use, as available. I also added more interpretive layers, including my experiences of smell and sound, my perceptions of privacy, and my understandings of spatial interconnections. Using satellite imagery, I then geo-referenced these layers in GIS. This map provided a basis for GIS-based analysis, including accessibility, morphological diversity, and density.

The process of producing this map also served as a structuring device for much of my research. It ensured that I systematically investigated every corner of a village that had a high degree of socio-spatial diversity. Participants’ reactions to and engagements with my map tiles served as the starting points for many productive conversations. And the map also provided one of several indexing devices for tracking my research materials—every research conversation, observation, photograph, and design study was located and tagged in the map. This integrated approach both destabilized the apparent facticity of visual representations and spatialized the often-disembodied evidence of ethnographic encounters. Through this approach, I sought an understanding of the social, spatial, and temporal dimensions of Hailong’s transformation.

As the rising seniors in the Urban Studies programme approach their Capstone projects, they will begin to grapple with similar questions of multi-dimensional method. I look forward to guiding this process in my role as the facilitator of the Urban Studio, a course that combines pedagogical tools from both the social sciences and design to support students as they tackle their Capstone projects. The analytical perspectives students have cultivated in Urban Spatial Reasoning will serve them well, and their insights promise to become even richer and more nuanced as the students immerse themselves in the glorious messiness of urban research. The same is true of the roles they will take on after graduation. Whether they pursue careers as planners, architects, real estate developers, community activists, marketers, investment bankers, entrepreneurs … but most importantly in their roles as citizens, the spatial perspectives they have developed in urban studies will enrich their lives and their work.

Works Cited:

Archer, John. 2005. “Social Theory of Space: Architecture and the Production of Self, Culture, and Society.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 64 (4): 430–33.

Evans, Robin. 1995. The Projective Cast: Architecture and Its Three Geometries. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

———. 1997. Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays. London, UK: Architectural Association.

Fabian, Johannes. 2002. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Lynch, Kevin. 1960. The Image of the City. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Massey, Doreen. 2005. For Space. London, UK: SAGE.

Urban Furnace: The Making of a Chinese City (Dissertation Defense)

I will be defending my dissertation on April 7th. All are welcome. Details below.

Urban Furnace: The Making of a Chinese City

Nick R. Smith

Dissertation Defense

Department of Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Urban Planning

Harvard University


Tuesday, April 7th 1:00-3:00 PM

Gund Hall, Room 122


Committee: Eve Blau, Peter Rowe, Susan Fainstein, Michael Herzfeld


Urban transformation and the production of urban-rural difference have been defining characteristics of reform-era China. In recent years, the Chinese state has taken measures to relieve urban-rural inequity and coordinate urban and rural development. Beginning in 2003, these efforts took the form of “urban-rural coordination,” a national regime of policy reform that included local experiments throughout China. One of the earliest and most significant of these experiments was located in Chongqing, a provincial-level municipality in China’s southwest. In this dissertation, I explore Chongqing’s urban-rural coordination program as part of a larger process through which urban-rural difference is produced, contested, and mobilized in China. I pursue this project through an investigation of Hailong, a peri-urban village that has undergone rapid transformation over the last decade. An experiment within an experiment, Hailong is a site of intense contestation, as planners, party and state leaders, and residents advance alternately competing and complementary visions of Hailong’s future.

Through my investigation of Hailong, I pose the following question: How is urban-rural difference produced, and to what ends? Using a combination of ethnography and spatial analysis, I explore the social, spatial, and temporal dimensions of the political processes that produce urban-rural difference. My investigation reveals urban-rural difference as both an expression of the spatio-temporal unevenness of power and a means to consolidate and contest that power. Through this analysis, urban-rural coordination emerges as a political project that simultaneously expands state power and depoliticizes that expansion through its representation as a function of technical and market rationality.


The Next Step in Chinese Land Reform

Yesterday, China took an important step toward the liberalization of rural land rights. In a document entitled “Opinion of the State Council Secretariat on Guiding the Healthy Development of Markets for the Transfer and Exchange of Rural Property Rights,” which was finalized in late December but only released yesterday, China’s central government set out the first official guidelines for the establishment of rural land markets.

This is a highly anticipated move. As early as 2008, much excitement greeted the announcement of a similar reform program. But the celebration was premature, as implementation of the program ground to a halt amidst the resistance of party hardliners. China’s new leadership repeated the call for reform in 2013, but implementation was again delayed. Over the years, a number of local governments have set up experimental markets for the exchange of rural land rights, including Chongqing’s widely acclaimed land ticket market and Chengdu’s land use rights exchange. But broad-based national reform remained out-of-reach. The release of the new document suggests that Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive has begun to bear fruit, allowing him to consolidate power and advance more aggressive policy.  

While yesterday’s announcement is therefore an important landmark, the reform program it lays out is also incomplete and flawed. Before delving into some of the details, let me first quickly explain the context of China’s rural land rights (China hands can skip to the next paragraph):

Chinese land is divided into two separate urban and rural land regimes, granting ownership rights over urban land to the state, while rural land is collectively owned. Use rights to urban land can be alienated and, subject to planning restrictions, developed for industrial, commercial, residential, and other uses. Collective ownership of rural land is substantially more constrained. This land is divided into construction land, agricultural land, resource land (including forest and water resources), and wasteland. Construction land includes land used for village infrastructure and services as well as housing construction land, which is allocated to each village household. Agricultural land is also allocated to village households for subsistence or on a contract basis, as governed by the Rural Land Contracting Law. The alienation and development of this land is strictly circumscribed. While villagers’ use rights can be transferred to other village households or leased to non-village households, they may not be directly exchanged in China’s land markets, which are limited to urban land. Neither can collectives lease or transfer land to outside investors, though black market transfers are widespread. Moreover, agricultural land cannot be converted to non-agricultural purposes without the permission of the state. By contrast, the state, as represented by local governments, has the power to unilaterally expropriate rural land, convert it to urban construction land, and sell its use rights to developers. This creates an effective state monopoly over the rural land market.

The first thing to observe about the State Council document is that it does not call for the establishment of a market in rural land rights—it calls for the establishment of many such markets. While the State Council has laid out general guidelines and limits for these markets, it calls for local governments to tailor them to suit local conditions. In the short term, this means that existing experiments will continue and new experiments will be started “where appropriate.” The document also proposes that these markets should primarily be confined within counties and towns, though it allows for the establishment of larger markets (at the level of the municipality or the province) if necessary. Like many reform efforts, the policy is explicitly incremental. In the words of the State Council: “Don’t be impatient for quick results. Don’t unilaterally pursue speed and scale.”

The majority of the three-page document is devoted to what can and cannot be traded on these markets. The State Council is unequivocal: collective “ownership” (suoyou quan) of land is not eligible for exchange. Instead, the reform is primarily aimed at the “management rights” (jingying quan) held by rural households and collectives over contracted agricultural land and forest land. The document enumerates eight categories of rights that will be considered tradable during the initial phase of implementation:

  1. Households’ management rights over contracted agricultural land
  2. Collectives’ management rights over forest land and ownership and use rights over timber
  3. Use rights to collectively owned wasteland (including beaches, ravines, etc.)
  4. Ownership and use rights to collectively managed real assets, excluding land
  5. Use rights to agricultural infrastructure
  6. Use rights to irrigation infrastructure
  7. Intellectual property related to agricultural operations, including brands, trademarks, and technologies
  8. “Other,” including village construction projects, which can be bid out, and industrial projects which can be sold or made available for investment

This list notably omits rural construction land of any kind, though the document does not exclude the possibility that construction land might be included in subsequent phases. Indeed, another portion of the document places restrictions on the parties who are qualified to purchase rights to housing construction land and housing, suggesting that these assets may eventually be eligible for transfer.

In general, the State Council’s announcement uses an expansive definition of the actors who are eligible to participate in these markets, extending beyond village households, cooperatives, and collectives to include agro-businesses and investors. It even explicitly mentions the inclusion of joint ventures and foreign corporations. This suggests that China is serious about following up on its promise, articulated in the national urbanization plan, to grant equal status to rural and urban land markets.

All in all, the reform program announced by the State Council is consistent with China's efforts at marketization. That is to say, this is not marketization in the sense of a transition to a free market system as defined by the liberal principles of the Washington Consensus. Rather, directional liberalization is mobilized instrumentally as a tool of economic and political discipline. This is made evident by the State Council's insistence that the establishment of these markets is intended to serve the development of agriculture and the protection of the public interest, not the pursuit of profit.

Moreover, it warns that all transactions of collective assets above a certain (though unspecified) value must be exchanged on the open market. And it directs local governments not to confuse matters by creatively interpreting its guidelines. Finally, the announcement explicitly forbids any changes in land use, meaning that the state will retain its monopoly over rural development capacity and its right to appropriate the land rent increment. These admonishments and caveats suggest that the establishment of rural land markets is as much about the central government's desire to rein in black market land transactions and the discretionary development initiatives of local governments as it is about a commitment to liberalization. In China, marketization is used to exert state control, not to relinquish it.


Trying to Escape Top-down / Bottom-up

China's urban / rural dichotomy takes many forms. It is a meta-binary that seems to index all other socio-spatial binaries. Formal / informal, planned / unplanned, good / bad, neat / messy, state / society, high-quality / low quality, developed / undeveloped, advanced / backward, rich / poor, active / passive ... Perhaps one of the most insipid of these binaries is top-down / bottom-up, a formulation that seems so natural, so given, that it pervades discussions of urbanization in China (and many other issues). Even in contexts where planners and policy makers are earnestly trying to overcome the urban / rural dichotomy, top-down / bottom-up still creeps in. As a result, these efforts often end up reproducing the urban / rural binarism they aim to eliminate.

It's not just a conceptual problem. Thinking of village development in terms of top-down and bottom-up creates a false choice for China's planners, a choice inevitably weighted toward the top-down. After all, planners' paychecks and career opportunities are delivered top-down, and there are no incentives for privileging the bottom-up. Top-down / bottom-up and urban / rural easily become conflated with more normative binaries such as good / bad, safe / dangerous, etc. One of the results is the creeping homogenization of China's villages, as vibrant, "bottom-up" villages are replaced by characterless, "top-down" new towns. In the process, the diversity necessary for urban sustainability is gradually eroded, and the opinions and desires of residents (those at the very bottom) are ignored.

But top-down / bottom-up is an oversimplification of a set of processes that are much more complex. Any instance of urban transformation always involves the intersection of many actors working up, down, diagonally, laterally ... Thinking of urbanization in terms of top-down / bottom-up relies on the same reductive thinking that tries to cram Chinese society into categories like state / market or state / society. They just don't work. Reality is too complex.

I recently published an article in the journal Cities in which I try to destabilize this hegemonic dichotomy and offer an alternative framework for conceptualizing village urbanization in China using the socio-spatial dimensions of scale, territory, networks, and temporality. This is both a review of some of the research I did pre-dissertation (it includes three case studies, two of which were villages I researched as possible sites for my dissertation work) and a prequel to the larger challenge I am taking on in the dissertation: deconstructing and destabilizing China's urban-rural dichotomy.

I have excerpted a few paragraphs below (sans citations), but the rest of the article is available through Elsevier. Free for the next month or so!


Chinese planners and policy-makers have thus appropriated the top-down/bottom-up dichotomy to argue for the superiority of planned transformation. This is not just a matter of professional self-interest but also a reflection of their positionality within the top-down/bottom-up framework. These actors occupy privileged positions within a planning system that is explicitly constructed as a top-down hierarchy, in which each plan precedes and sets the parameters for those below it. As a hegemonic category of analysis, top-down/bottom-up naturalizes and legitimizes the metaphorical construction of planning as a hierarchical system of vertical encompassment.

Top-down/bottom-up thus easily intersects with normative dichotomies such as desirable/undesirable, modern/backward, efficient/inefficient, and clean/messy. Top-down and bottom-up are repeatedly represented as incompatible tendencies that produce conflict, competition, and fragmentation in the built environment. Bottom-up transformation is also blamed as a source of inefficiency, messiness, and ecological destruction that threatens the healthy development of the city; and villages are portrayed as incapable of planning or managing their own transformation without top-down intervention.

The conceptualization of village transformation as a problem produced by the divergence of unplanned bottom-up transformation from the norm of top-down planning inevitably constrains the possibilities for planning and policy intervention. Not only does top-down/bottom-up create a false choice between two mutually constituted patterns of transformation, it also predetermines the outcome in favor of top-down solutions. The result has been a tendency to cleanse peri-urban China of bottom-up settlements in favor of new towns and new villages.

On the Term "Village-in-the-City"

If you are familiar with Chinese urbanism, you know about “villages-in-the-city” (chengzhongcun). These are villages, predominantly found in China’s south, that have been “swallowed up” by the city. In most cases, the village’s rural land has been expropriated by the municipality, but villagers have retained their housing construction land. The formally planned city extends around the village, but the village remains intact, institutionally insulated from the municipality and its planning regime. Land use intensifies within the village, often generating a densely packed and finely grained spatial form that is distinct from the broad boulevards and superblocks of the surrounding urban fabric. Villages-in-the-city are a product of China’s dichotomous system of urban-rural governance, and among most Chinese planners they are perceived as an aberration.

Huanggang, a village in the city of Shenzhen, is one of the most extreme examples of this phenomenon I have ever seen. It is located right on Shenzhen’s central axis, and it has taken full advantage of its strategic location. In the words of one Shenzhen planner, Huanggang is “even more urbanized than the city.” 

Huanggang's ancestor hall, overlooked by high-rise apartment buildings

Huanggang's ancestor hall, overlooked by high-rise apartment buildings

See my chapter on page 34!

See my chapter on page 34!

I recently published a chapter on Huanggang in an edited volume entitled Villages in the City: A Guide to South China’s Informal Settlements. The book goes on sale today at your neighborhood Amazon store, and it includes several wonderful contributions, including chapters by Margaret Crawford, Marco Cenzatti, and the volume’s editor, Stefan Al. There is also a collection of really interesting visual analyses of Shenzhen’s villages.

My contribution to the volume investigates Huanggang as a potential source of urban renewal and spatial revalorization for downtown Shenzhen. The argument “flips the script” of China’s urban renewal discourse, which usually assumes that it is the municipality that must renew and revalorize the village. I encapsulate this inversion with the term “city-in-the-village” (cunzhongcheng).

The chapter begins with an exploration of the term “village-in-the-city,” including its oxymoronic logic and its implicit normativity. I’ve excerpted the first few paragraphs below:

Rooted in the urban-rural dualism of the nation’s administrative system and catalyzed by rapid urbanization unleashed by post-1978 reforms, China’s “urban villages” have been decades in the making. As these villages became more widespread in the late 1980s, scholars and policy- makers began to refer to them as “villages inside the city” (dushi li de cunzhuang). This phrase, descriptive and matter-of-fact, reflected a relatively non-normative discourse, which treated such villages as isolated “phenomena” (xianxiang) that needed to be better understood. Attention focused on both the positive and negative effects of urbanization within such villages, while the potential challenge they posed to cities remained a distant future possibility.

By the mid-1990s, this possibility had become reality, and urban villages were identified as an urban “problem” (wenti) in need of a solution. This change coincided with the emergence of the neologism “village-in-the-city” (chengzhongcun), which inscribed the newly pejorative view of urban villages into the very language of the discourse. Through its concatenation of the characters for city (cheng) and village (cun), the new term de-emphasized urban villages’ functioning as villages per se and instead highlighted their role as contradictory, illogical, and aberrant pieces of the city. Attention turned away from the internal logic of these villages and towards their negative influence on the surrounding city. 

This shift in focus is reflected in the metaphors and imagery that are still used to describe “villages-in-the- city,” particularly their portrayal as “malignant tumors” (duliu) in the city’s organic body. They are “dirty, messy, and inferior” (zang luan cha) spaces that degrade the city’s “form” (xingxiang) and harbor urban ills such as crime and vice. This “infection” adversely influences the city’s healthy development, including land use efficiency, land values, safety, urban competitiveness, globalization, modernization, sustainability, and capital accumulation.


Why Talking About Chinese Urban Policy Is Hard: A Response to English-Language Coverage of China’s National Urbanization Plan

In my last post, I outlined my perspective on China’s new national urbanization plan. I tried to put the plan in context, outlining its motivations, structure, and challenges without getting bogged down in the details (which I plan to tackle in the coming weeks). The post was motivated, in part, by the fact that this kind of balanced review has largely been lacking from English-language blogs and media reports addressing the plan. Some of this coverage has included insightful analysis of Chinese urbanization, but very little of it has engaged with the urbanization plan as a systematic piece of policy.

Most English-language coverage has focused on just one or two specific issues, talking past the plan in order to rehearse well-established critiques of Chinese urbanization.

As an integrated policy platform, what is the national urbanization plan trying to achieve, how does it propose to do so, and why? Instead of answering these fundamental questions, most English-language coverage has focused on just one or two specific issues, talking past the plan in order to rehearse well-established critiques of Chinese urbanization. Meanwhile, little of the plan’s content is actually discussed beyond its ambitious (though not particularly meaningful) numerical targets. These shortcomings highlight some of the reasons why talking about Chinese urban policy is hard, including both the speed and scale at which Chinese urbanization takes place.

Missing the Forest for the Trees

If you were to skim the articles and blog posts on China’s national urbanization plan, you might be led to believe that the State Council had actually released several different urbanization plans. According to Jamil Anderlini of the Financial Times, China released “a plan for a multiyear round of state-led infrastructure construction.” According to Ian Johnson of the New York Times, the plan is China’s “first attempt at broadly coordinating one of the greatest migrations in history.” According to the Economist, it’s “a more ‘people-centered’ plan for urbanisation … focused on making cities fairer for migrants.”

Technically, all three of these claims are correct. China’s national urbanization plan calls for substantial investment in new infrastructure, the migration of tens of millions of rural residents to cities, and the provision of services and welfare to tens of millions more migrants already living in cities.

The plan is a complex web of interdependent policies, making it a kind of Rorschach Test for China watchers—you see what you want to see.

But each of these articles also misses the bigger picture. What’s really significant about the urbanization plan is that it combines all of these initiatives (and many more) in one integrated policy framework. To be fair, these articles do all gesture at the wider implications of the plan, but only briefly. And when the Times chose to title Johnson’s article, “China Releases Plan to Incorporate Farmers into Cities,” it obscured more than it revealed.

Why is the comprehensiveness of the urbanization plan important? As I argued in my last post, Chinese urban policy is like a gigantic game of Jenga—move one piece, and the whole thing could come crashing down. Want to bring more migrants into cities? You need to build more infrastructure and provide more services. Want more infrastructure and services? You need change how development is financed. Want to change development financing? You need to improve protections for rural land rights. And so on. The urbanization plan is China’s first effort to systematically rearrange the Jenga pieces—not one at a time, but altogether.

As a result, the plan is a complex web of interdependent policies, making it a kind of Rorschach Test for China watchers—you see what you want to see. Ian Johnson has been writing a series of articles for the Times on rural-urban migration in China, so he saw the plan’s implications for migration, which are significant. But in the process, his readers missed out on the larger story.

Missing the Trees Too

A corollary of this tendency to focus on one aspect of the plan is the tendency to miss all the rest. The most common instance of this is to simply talk past the plan, using it as an excuse to explore some facet of Chinese urbanization without actually discussing how the plan proposes to address it. Some of the most rigorous responses to the urbanization plan fall into this category.

For instance, an online comment piece for Nature goes through an exhaustive list of policy challenges facing Chinese urbanization but then only briefly mentions a few of the measures the urbanization plan proposes in response. Similarly, half of Adam Tyner’s wonky (and I mean this in the best possible sense) piece for The Diplomat focuses on how to strengthen rural land rights without ever mentioning that the urbanization plan calls for precisely such an initiative. And Michael Lelyveld’s article for Radio Free Asia extensively discusses the environmental implications of the plan without really considering the environmental protection measures the plan proposes. By not seriously engaging with the pieces of the plan relevant to the issues they raise, these articles imply that there is something important missing from the plan. In fact, the urbanization plan directly addresses all of the issues raised in these three articles.

These authors might respond that the plan simply doesn’t say enough about the issues they raise. While it’s true that the urbanization plan is thin on details, this is not the point of the plan. China’s National Plan for a New Form of Urbanization is a programmatic national policy platform. As discussed above, it’s meant to provide a comprehensive framework through which to integrate the various policy initiatives of the central state. Were it to provide exhaustive detail on each one of these initiatives, the document would be impossibly long and unwieldy.

The desire for more detail is understandable, but it also betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the Chinese policy process. Like other areas of Chinese policy, urban policy is iterative, moving from broad consensus among the national ministries and other central state stakeholders to specific policy initiatives at the local level. This process allows for policy implementation to be tailored to local contexts, including the parallel development of multiple local policy experiments to see which approaches work best. It also accommodates the intensive bargaining and negotiation that accompanies the development of all Chinese policy. This is especially true for a comprehensive national policy framework like the urbanization plan, so it’s not shocking that the plan has taken multiple years to come to fruition, a fact more than one Western news outlet has remarked on with surprise.

Tilting at Windmills

All of this pales in comparison to the news outlets that have criticized China’s urbanization plan for leaving out crucial issues that it, in fact, includes. For instance, The Economist criticizes the plan for not doing enough to help the hundreds of millions of rural-urban migrants who will still be left without urban household registration, a problem the plan addresses by calling for the gradual equalization of welfare and services for all citizens, regardless of registration status. Businessweek criticizes the plan for leaving out reforms to the land tenure and fiscal systems, both of which are included. Ian Johnson, in his article for the New York Times, suggests that the plan can only succeed if reforms to China’s tax and land systems are implemented—both issues are included in the plan. Similarly, the piece by Jack Maher and Pengfei Xie for The Nature of Cities claims that the plan’s success will depend on tax reform, improved land use governance, and better environmental protection measures, all of which the plan addresses.

But the real culprit here is the New York Times Editorial Board, which wrote a brief but pointed opinion piece criticizing the national urbanization plan for overlooking crucial challenges facing China’s urban development. If you actually read the national urbanization plan, you’ll find that every point raised in the editorial is explicitly addressed by the plan, which makes me wonder if the Times Editorial Board did, in fact, read the plan. It’s worth enumerating these points in detail:

  • The editorial claims that China’s target for increasing the percentage of the population with urban household registration—45 percent by 2020—is too low, still leaving the majority of rural-urban migrants without access to basic public services, such as education and health care (this is similar to the argument put forward by The Economist above). This would be true, except that Chapter 7 of the national urbanization plan calls for municipal governments to provide public services to their long-term populations, including all rural-urban migrants, and not just the registered population. This includes access to education, healthcare, and employment services, as well as the provision of low income housing for migrants. The plan also calls for the eventual integration of China’s urban and rural social insurance programs so that all people can access similar coverage regardless of registration (the much more trenchant problem here is the increasing marketization of social welfare in both urban and rural areas).
  • The editorial also calls for the increasing marketization of rural land, another worthy objective that is already addressed in Chapter 20 of the national urbanization plan. The plan calls for the clarification of rural property rights, including rights to occupation, use, income, alienation, and financialization (i.e. mortgage) for contracted agricultural land. It also proposes to experiment with giving villagers financial alienation rights over housing construction land. Most significantly, it calls for allowing rural collectives, the grassroots economic organizations that technically own China’s rural land, to be able to sell and rent collective land with the same protections and at the same prices as state-owned (i.e. urban) land. This includes establishing a formal market for rural property rights.
  • The editorial suggests improving the compensation standards for rural land that is expropriated by the state, an issue that is also addressed in Chapter 20 of the plan. In addition to proposing strict limits on the scale of rural expropriation, the plan proposes improving the system for sharing compensation monies and insists that all compensation schemes should ensure the long term viability of rural households.
  • Finally, the editorial claims that the plan calls for construction of an untold number of new towns, undoubtedly resulting in further urban sprawl. New towns may be built, and there will likely be some sprawl as a result, but Chapter 15 of the urbanization plan explicitly calls for strict limits to be placed on the construction of new towns. New towns are only to be allowed in situations where urban functions and populations are too dense and where existing urban areas are at risk from natural disasters. Instead, it calls for the redevelopment of existing development zones and reinvestment in existing urban areas.

It’s also worth noting here that there is a serious error of fact in both the Times editorial and Ian Johnson’s piece: both claim that all land in China is owned by the government, while rural residents only have use rights. This is only half true. All urban land is owned by the Chinese state. Rural land is owned by rural collectives, which are not technically part of the government—they are ambiguously defined social and economic organizations that are supposed to represent villager interests. (They often don’t succeed in doing this, but that’s another story.) The distinction is important, because one of the best ways to protect the land rights of rural residents is to improve protections for and governance of collective ownership. This is precisely what is proposed in the urbanization plan.

The Magic of Big Numbers

Instead of thoroughly reading the urbanization plan, it seems that most commentators in the English-language media took the shortcut of just reading the plan’s numerical targets. Businessweek marvels at the price tag of $6.8 trillion. The comment piece in Nature translates a table of numerical targets from the plan. Pretty much everyone regurgitates the projected changes in urban population, both in terms of absolute numbers and as a percentage of total population.

This isn’t so surprising. After all, the numbers are impressive, but they are also relatively meaningless. China is notorious for juking its urban population stats. If state leaders want 60% of its citizens spending more than half the year in administratively urban areas by 2020, I’m sure their subordinates (and particularly local government leaders) will find a way for the numbers to reflect this, whether or not it is actually the case. Indeed, it’s problematic enough that media reports have taken China’s statistics for its existing urban population at face value. China’s urbanization rate should be taken as a point of political rhetoric, not as a scientific fact.

What would be much more revealing are specific numerical targets for implementation of the plan at a local level. But these will require extensive central-local negotiation and may not even exist yet. Even if they do exist, the state is unlikely to make them public.

Is the Plan Really That Good?

The short answer to this question is, No. There are good reasons to criticize China’s national urbanization plan. But a lack of comprehensiveness is not one of them. Indeed, the most important contribution of the plan is its effort to integrate the many dimensions of social, economic, and political transformation involved in urbanization into one broad policy framework. Though many of the specifics have yet to be worked out, the plan covers most of the key issues. Claims to the contrary are unlikely to find much traction.

As the authors of the Nature commentary point out, and as I argued in my last post, local implementation is going to be problematic. As Adam Tyner suggests, top-down, centrally directed developmental policy is almost guaranteed to go awry, a là the Great Leap Forward. I’ve labeled the state’s persistent penchant for urban-rural engineering “methodological urbanism.” Until the Chinese state finds a different conceptual framework for structuring its policy, it’s unlikely to escape the sharp dualism it has inscribed in Chinese society. Finally, as the New York Times Editorial Board insists, there is “a lot more work to do.” I heartily agree.

Why Talking About Chinese Urban Policy is Hard

The problems encountered by the English-language media in covering China’s national urbanization plan are symptomatic of a larger set of challenges facing anyone who attempts to talk or write about Chinese urban policy: scale and speed.

The real rubber meets the road at the local level. Truly incisive coverage of Chinese urban policy needs to proceed from the bottom-up, a daunting challenge as Western media outlets increasingly pull back from their foreign bureaus.

China is a huge, complex country. This makes it difficult to dig into the details and easy to be overawed by the unprecedented scale of its urbanization. It’s therefore tempting to tell the story through numbers and skip over the nitty-gritty. But those numbers are an old story, and they are often misleading. The real action is precisely where the hardest work is—in the details. This is particularly the case when it comes to local implementation. Because China is so big and so diverse, national policy is often thin on details. The real rubber meets the road at the local level. Truly incisive coverage of Chinese urban policy needs to proceed from the bottom-up, a daunting challenge as Western media outlets increasingly pull back from their foreign bureaus.

Another implication of China’s size is that policy formulation tends to move slowly, particularly when compared to the rapid pace of development and urbanization. The two seem out of sync, with the Chinese state constantly floundering and hopelessly out of touch. It is therefore easy to get impatient with the state’s policy process—they are never doing enough and never with enough urgency. (But then, look at the US Congress.) If the national urbanization plan does nothing else, it demonstrates that the Chinese state is, in fact, deeply cognizant of the challenges facing the nation’s future development. They may be running in place, but at least they are starting to run.

China’s National Plan for a New Form of Urbanization

In March of this year, China’s State Council released the country’s first national urbanization plan. This is an historic document, with profound implications for China’s future development and its role in the world. But three months later, there is still relatively little coverage in the English-language press, and much of this coverage has been misleading, vague, or just plain wrong. China’s Xinhua news service carried a brief announcement when the plan was released on March 16th; the New York Times quickly published two articles—one in their series on urban-rural migration and an editorial criticizing the inadequacies of the plan; Nature later carried an opinion piece that largely talked past the plan; and there have been a smattering of blog posts, mostly in the eco-press. (Stay tuned for a more detailed critique of this coverage.)

The lack of attention isn’t so surprising. As far as I can see, no English translation of the plan has been published. Moreover, Chinese government documents can be thick, labyrinthine, jargon-filled, and sometimes nearly incomprehensible without the proper context. The national urbanization plan is no exception.

Hailong Village in Chongqing. Will grassroots village development be supported under China's urbanization plan?

Hailong Village in Chongqing. Will grassroots village development be supported under China's urbanization plan?

I’ve finally had time to wade through the 50-page document, and it’s chock-full of fascinating insights. It’s well worth the read for anyone with a passing interest in where China is headed under the new Xi-Li regime. How China urbanizes over the next 20 years is going to change everything from global warming (ever thought about how much carbon is produced from all that concrete?) to the price of bread (Chinese land policy is explicitly linked to national aspirations of agricultural self-sufficiency). The path of Chinese urbanization could even tip the scales toward or away from military conflict with China’s regional neighbors and, by extension, the US (without stable livelihoods, unrest among China’s massive rural population may force the state to blame foreign scapegoats). Meanwhile, the national urbanization plan seems to suggest that the Chinese people are in for at least another ten years of city-centric policies (see below for a further discussion of the Chinese state’s persistent methodological urbanism).

Over the next couple of months, I will be writing a number of posts on the ins and outs of China’s national urbanization plan. Check back here for discussions of rural land rights, household registration reform, welfare provision, food security, regional urban systems, urban planning, sustainability, surveillance, villages… Got something you want me to cover? Leave a comment and let me know.

To start, here’s a few high-level impressions of the document as a whole:

1. Everything old is new again

In many respects, this is the first effort by Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang (now in their second year as China’s top two leaders) to publicly articulate an integrated policy platform. If the “Chinese dream” is the Xi-Li contribution to China’s series of leadership slogans (including Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji’s “moderately prosperous society” and Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao’s “harmonious society”), then the “new form of urbanization” proposed in the national urbanization plan is the next iteration of China’s national policy platform. This is the Xi-Li equivalent of “scientific development,” the policy framework that dominated the Hu-Wen era.

The “new form of urbanization” proposed in the national urbanization plan is the next iteration of China’s national policy platform.

Like previous regimes, Xi and Li are using the national urbanization plan to simultaneously affirm the continuity of China’s leadership and distinguish their policies from those of their predecessors—China is still urbanizing, but it’s a “new form” of urbanization. Moreover, the national urbanization plan provides a broad framework through which to integrate the wide variety of national policy priorities. Just as every policy referenced “scientific development” during the Hu-Wen era, expect to see more and more policy documents invoking China’s new form of urbanization—more on this below.

How have Xi and Li departed from the legacy of their predecessors? First, China’s demographic calculus has changed. China’s widely publicized urbanization rate always used to be measured by the percentage of the population living in administratively designated urban areas for more than half of the year (what is known as the “long-term resident population” or changzhu renkou). This is the figure that led China’s leadership to triumphantly announce that China had become more than half urban in 2011. These metrics haven’t gone away, but the new national urbanization plan gives more play to the proportion of China’s population with urban household registration, emphasizing the significant gap between the urbanization rate and the household registration rate. This shift is in part a repudiation of the urban triumphalism of past regimes. But it also recognizes that a significant portion of the Chinese population has not fully shared in the benefits of China’s rapid development. The national urbanization plan suggests that the state may finally be prepared to turn its attention to the equity and inclusivity of Chinese urbanization.

More substantively, this involves the state pivoting away from policies that have privileged rapid spatial and economic development without proportional improvement to social welfare. To use a phrase that has become popular in Chinese discourse over the past several years, this means the “urbanization of the population” (shiminhua), not just the urbanization of the built environment.

This means the “urbanization of the population” (shiminhua), not just the urbanization of the built environment.

It’s also worth noting that Xi and Li did not use the generic term for “urbanization” (chengshihua) but a more specific term that concatenates the characters for city and town (chengzhenhua). This signals a shift away from large and super-large cities that have characterized China’s development over the past twenty years. Instead, the national urbanization plan calls for development to focus on smaller cities and towns, as well as satellite cities in the major metropolises. This term harkens back to the 1980s, when a similar debate raged in Chinese policy circles over whether to privilege the development of large cities or small cities and towns. By the 1990s, the bigger-is-better faction had won out. The Xi-Li plan suggests (and not without some reason) that this might have been a mistake.

As this parallel suggests, not everything in the national urbanization plan is new. In fact, much of it is based on re-articulations of past policy, including the “develop the west” and “urban-rural coordination” programs. In particular, the plan adopts many elements from the various local experiments in urban-rural coordination. Again, this is consistent with past national policy frameworks—the rhetoric may change, but the Chinese state values continuity and stability over all else.

2. There’s something for everyone

As a national policy framework, the national urbanization plan must be catholic in its scope, providing a conceptual apparatus through which the various domestic policy priorities of the Chinese state can be combined and integrated. As a result, the plan is something of a grab bag, including issues as diverse as migration, land, food security, environmental protection, technological development, industrial upgrading, social welfare, etc.

This explains, in part, why the plan took so long to be prepared, approved, and released—a point that has been repeatedly emphasized in the English-language coverage. As the plan developed, all the various ministries fought to get their piece of the pie, ensuring that the initiatives central to each ministry would be prioritized going forward. This is consistent with the “fragmented authoritarianism” model of the Chinese state, whereby policy evolves from protracted bargaining between different state actors, each of which pragmatically bargains for more resources and powers.

The wide range of the urbanization plan is also driven by the deeply rooted interdependence of China’s most pressing policy issues. For instance, integrating rural migrants into urban society, one of the principal objectives of the plan, touches on almost every aspect of China’s economic and political system. Accommodating hundreds of millions more urban residents will require the construction of housing and infrastructure, the efficient provision of education and health care, new economic growth to provide employment opportunities, and more effective mechanisms for managing, predicting, and planning for the needs of this growing population. It will require better methods for managing newly vacated rural land, for supporting those who stay behind, and for sustaining China’s food supply through agricultural modernization. All of this will also threaten environmental sustainability. The list goes on. Without mature market institutions to guide these transitions, China is faced with the challenge of rearranging the interlocking pieces from the top-down. It’s not so much a game of dominoes as a massive game of Jenga.

In this respect, urbanization is a particularly rich concept around which to orient a national policy framework. Cities bring together the full spectrum of a society’s problems, making them tangibly manifest through encounters with our fellow inhabitants. Like “scientific development,” which promises a cure-all for society’s diverse challenges through the universality of science, urbanization speaks to our hopes for a better future.

It’s not altogether surprising that Xi and Li chose urbanization as the guiding principle of their policy framework. After all, Xi wrote his PhD dissertation on rural marketization (a.k.a. urbanization), and Li has been pushing the “new form of urbanization” idea for years. But urbanization is also something all Chinese citizens can relate to and internalize as part of their lived experience.

3. These are aspirations, not realities

Like most Chinese policy (and much Chinese law), the national urbanization plan is programmatic—it lays out a set of objectives that may or may not be realized. Their impact will depend on how the policy is interpreted and implemented by local governments. The plan designates the powerful National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) as the organization responsible for plan oversight and implementation (the NDRC also led the plan’s formulation). But more than a few national policy programs have been subverted by the intransigence of China’s local governments. Many of the goals laid out in the national plan may be laudable, but there’s no guarantee they will actually be achieved.

Many of the goals laid out in the national plan may be laudable, but there’s no guarantee they will actually be achieved.

To facilitate implementation, the national urbanization plan calls upon local governments to develop their own local urbanization plans and policies according to the framework laid out in the national plan. In effect, it creates a new planning apparatus parallel with the existing economic, land-use, and urban planning systems.

The national urbanization plan therefore involves an implicit critique of China’s existing planning systems. Instead of enabling top-down coordination of local state actors for the achievement of national policy priorities, planning has largely been captured by local governments—particularly China’s powerful municipalities—as a tool for local development. This is especially true for urban planning, which, despite legal and disciplinary upgrades over the past several years, has struggled to escape its role as a technical function of local developmentalism.  

China’s central state has tried this strategy before. For instance, the strengthening of land use planning in the 1990s reflected a broader recentralization effort. By instituting a parallel planning and management system for land use control, the central state sought to restrain local developmentalism and urban planning overreach. But the land use planning system, which still depended on local governments for financing, has achieved relatively little impact. As a result, the central state has increasingly pushed to re-integrate land use planning into urban planning. In its place, the effort to regulate local developmentalism now seems to be shifting to urbanization planning.

The success or failure of the national urbanization plan will thus come down to the institutional relationships that operate at the local level. The plan calls for the development of a cadre of “urban management experts,” but it’s not clear where these experts will be situated—it says nothing about the creation of a new bureaucracy for urbanization planning. Preliminary reports suggest that the NDRC is already using this initiative to establish a more robust presence in China’s local bureaucracies. If the NDRC is successful in consolidating control over urbanization planning, this could go a long way toward ensuring its efficacy in guiding local government decision-making, but it could also end up producing a new power silo in a bureaucracy that is already dangerously fractured.

As with past national policy programs, we’re likely to see a piecemeal rollout, with a variety of policy experiments implemented in different localities. Successful experiments get nationalized, while failures go back to the drawing board. Think of it as China’s version of Race to the Top. As these experiments are rolled out, we will learn more about how the national urbanization plan might actually effect national change.

4. Methodological urbanism

Mostly, I think the national urbanization plan is a good thing. High-level support for what amounts to a national social development agenda should help China to course correct away from the inequity and “GDP worship” that has characterized the last couple of decades. But there are plenty of potential pitfalls along the way. After all, China has a long history of creating humanitarian disasters through the implementation of well-intentioned national development programs (think Great Leap Forward).

Most importantly, the national urbanization plan suffers from what I refer to as “methodological urbanism”—the tendency to see the world through the lens of the urban-rural dichotomy. By implementing a national urbanization program, the Chinese state will inevitably be forcing people to fit into state-defined, urban-based forms of living. Instead of finding ways to better support people in the hybrid lives they already lead, national urbanization will require their displacement and disruption.

National urbanization could end up creating a permanent Chinese underclass, with millions of families perpetually stuck in subsistence-level welfare-dependence.

As they leave their existing support networks and livelihoods behind, these people will become even more reliant on social welfare and insurance schemes. If these new state-led support structures are not ready and waiting for them on the other side of this process, national urbanization could end up creating a permanent Chinese underclass, with millions of families perpetually stuck in subsistence-level welfare-dependence. Even if China’s leaders succeed in eliminating urban-rural inequity, they might still end up reproducing a two-class society. This is something nobody, least of all the Chinese state, wants to see.

For more on this and China’s current experiments in household registration reform (on which much of the national urbanization plan is based), see my recent article in the Journal of Urban Affairs. Stay tuned for more detailed discussion of specific parts of the national urbanization plan in the coming weeks.