The Internal Logic Of Spatial Production Of Beijing

By: Chang Liu


[edit] Policy Sprawl is an attempt at understanding the urban formation through complex interplay of agencies, from the top-down to the bottom-up negotiating with governmental policies at various scales. Pitting the governemental interests and local interests in a continual tug-o-war that characterises the Chinese polity for centuries, the article attempts to unravel some of the idiosyncracies of the emerging Chinese urban landscape. The article takes a historical look at some of the major policies affecting urban formation and delve into specific cases to examine the how some of these policies act on a local level with often unexpected spatial ramifications. [end edit] - Chang Liu (Translation needed)

The level of ambition in China to tackle serious problems ranging from the environment to the economy and social inequality to rapid sprawl are, at least at top level government, can simply be called impressive.
To implement the goals at local levels of government is however a mammoth challenge in itself. Looking at the issue of rapid urban expansion the forest of guidelines and policies has become so dense and often self-contradicting they are impossible to implement correctly. The policies are sprawling, indeed it can be argued the rules aimed to prevent sprawl are in fact augmenting and urban sprawl.


0.0 Beijing: Impressions and Contradictions

Slightly to the north of the Forbidden Palace, in the heart of Imperial Beijing, stands the hill of Jingshan. It was created using construction spoil from the building of the palace itself, and at 62m in height, once offered the tallest vantage point in the surrounding low plain. Looking back from its summit, the spatial logic of the ancient city is suddenly revealed. Golden roof tiles shimmer conspicuously atop the palace buildings. Beyond them stretches a careful reticulation of small lanes and grey siheyuans* (the traditional courtyard buildings), all aligned on a powerful north-south axis. This dry gridded perfection is detailed with a myriad of swaying leafy canopies, balancing nature against order. A series of major roads carve the program into squares, and traffic is ferried along perimeters, while the parcelled hutongs* within all face inwards, and retain a neighbourhood sense of calm. The resulting fabric is the spatial expression of a Confucian ideal: hierarchical order in the context of cosmological harmony. However, if you raise your eyes a little beyond this eloquence of roofs and paving, you find the vista obscured by a ring of encircling dust.



In the midst of this perpetual cloud something extraordinary is taking place. In stark contrast to the western cliché of monotonous suburbia, it is along the urban periphery, past the 4th ring road, that Beijing is at its most spatially heterogeneous. Residential towers with facades clean out of the plastic wrapping rise up out of a disordered screen of one storey constructions. Migrant enclaves scrap with peasant housing in between sudden blazing walled communities. The air is busy with the beeping and bustle of 24/7 street vendors, steamy restaurants, sidewalk kitchens, and sleazy hairdressing salons.i Authentic features of lively rural townships are thrown into paradoxical juxtapositions with urban high rise and five lane arterials. You speak to a local of Dahongmen, on the southern route out of Beijing, and he tells you that ten years ago this was a rural village of fewer than ten households. Such contradictions and astounding pace of change is just a brief glimpse into the countless complex spatial consequences of China’s simultaneous social, economic and spatial restructuring since the reforms of 1978.

1.0 Introduction

The current debate on the issue of sprawl is central to any contemporary understanding of the post-Fordist / Keynesian / metropolitan etc. city. However, while there is no shortage of literature dedicated to it, there has been little agreement as to the causes, characteristics, effects, and methodological approaches to sprawl. But what continues to be implicit in any attempt to define a particular spatial expression as “sprawl” is a presupposed idea of an axiomatic “norm”. This norm tends to be conceived of along the lines of a compact monocentric city, handed down in some form or other from the ancient urban settlements of Mesopotamia (the Greek polis also comes to mind). It is characterized by a clear distinction between the urban and the rural, and by smooth density gradients, a single center, and a diversity of uses and outputs.

There are several problems associated with this assumption when looking at China.

– “Ideal” cities of the past did not experience population hyper-expansion as brought about by the onset of industrial revolution. Most studies on sprawl tend to ignore rapid population growth and the inevitable demand it makes both for more space, and for a changing socio-economic relation to space.
– Ancient Chinese cities, and Beijing in particular, have experienced a greater degree of planning than more organically-developed European cities.

– Developments in transportation, manufacturing methods and economic transactions mean that the function of the urban and the rural are overlapping in areas that did not exist in the past.
– The ideal of a monocentric compact city does not take into account the fact that in recent decades urban patterns in many cities across the globe have been growing towards polycentrism. The result of this is that certain standard measures of sprawl, such as travel time to a geographic city center, become misleading when applied to polycentric contexts.
– By overemphasizing spatial features in the identification of sprawl one tends to categorize all discontinuous program as sprawl. This is not really useful in China where often leapfrog developments are part of a national strategy for engineering rapid urban expansion.ii Thus any static-shot assessment of sprawl becomes inadequate, as discontinuous sprawl-like tissue may in fact be an early stage in the creation of an effective new district (cf. speedsprawl*). Furthermore, due to the unique policy environment in China with regard to the definition of urban and rural land, urbanization tends to happen on an in-situ basis in the villages, often creating discontinuous arrangements (cf. splatter pattern*).
– Because of the many ways in which sprawl deviates from classic urban form, it has developed a host of negative connotations which make objective observation and assessment difficult.

In the post-reform era Beijing’s rapid urban growth has blurred the boundaries between healthy urban development and urban sprawl, increasingly challenging pre-reform conceptions of the urban and the rural. The government was faced with the immense task of turning a soviet-style centrally-planned economy into a competitive market driven economy. The execution of such a change had to be accompanied by a radical transformation in the spatial organisation of cities and their populations. Legislation restricting labor mobility (the hukou* system), which defined the pre-reform era, was accordingly relaxed, but in a staggered and often grey fashion. Alongside this a series of experiments relating to the ownership and use-rights of land were introduced, through which the government developed a pragmatic and sometimes ad-hoc approach, creating and amending urban policies as they saw fit. This has resulted in a definition-resistant state of flux for the urban realm.

The persistence of a strong party-State since the economic reforms of 1978 has rooted and integrated itself into the Chinese market economy. As such, the “institutional amphibiousness” of China’s State-market relations has blurred the boundaries between the public and the private sectors of society. The Chinese State can be viewed as ‘an ensemble of diverse economic actors’1 : government officials often behave as entrepreneurs, corporate management teams, silent partners and investors in the market economy.2 Such activities are commonly found in East Asia and have been referred to as the ‘developmental state’.3 Globally, there has been a transition from the Fordist regime of accumulation* to a post-Fordist economy. Accordingly there has been a transition from the traditional role of the Keynesian welfare state (under which governments operated as management teams, intervening in the market only in times of failure) to a post-Keynesian workfare regime or neo-liberal ‘entrepreneurial state*’ 4, with governmental institutions actively facilitating and participating in market-level economic competitions on various institutional levels.

A pragmatic and ad-hoc governmental approach to urban policy has resulted in a definition-resistant state of flux for the urban realm

Under such dynamic conditions two distinct positions from which the urban environment is being shaped have emerged in China. One is the conspicuously organic, bottom-up process of in-situ rural urbanisation and peripheral urban development triggered by rural migration to cities. The other is the state driven development, where the urban government’s practice of expropriating rural land at the urban periphery for development has precipitated an inevitable clash between two opposite and sometimes opposing processes of development. The human cost of such conflict is well publicised in western media, where a number of land disputes have ended up in violence on a scale not seen since the “incident” of Tiananmen Square.

On a spatial level, this environment has created a wealth of interesting and diverse landscapes, typologies and unique social relationships, including:

semi-urbanized villages* (SUV)
rural urban syndicates* (RUS)
floating villages*
ethnic migrant enclaves*

These spatial phenomena are economically significant as they cunningly fill the gap left behind by the inadequacies of the state-lead formal economy, at the same time as pushing the boundaries of legislation and spatial capacities. Although some bear the trappings of shantytowns, they provide the essential services and cheap labor that allow their adjacent formal development to function more efficiently. It is therefore necessary to be very flexible and innovative in identifying sprawl in the highly dynamic contemporary economic and policy environment of China.

To describe this simultaneously induced and self-conflicting developmental pattern and the policies which have shaped it, it is necessary to understand the institutions and processes which have generated those policies.
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2.0 The Chinese Political Economy, Territorial System and Administrative Hierarchy

Despite the cacophony of technological progress that marks modern China, aspects of the systemic and structural logic that sustained the vast Chinese Empire remain remarkably intact. It is here that many western observers fail to gain a deeper insight into the inner workings of China by focusing on the material transformations and superficial phenomena without adequate understanding of Chinese culture. Contemporary developments in Chinese cities are often simply interpreted as belonging to a process of “westernizing”. In accordance with this so the interpretation runs they are operating within a clear teleological framework whose logical product is the convergence of spatial form with western cities.

It is undeniable that in recent years the forces of global capitalism have left their mark on Chinese cities, manifesting themselves in a multitude of familiar spatial typologies — the gated community, the shopping mall etc., and, arguably, urban sprawl. In this light the convergence theory appears credible. However, implicit in such a view is the idea that local urban forms undergo transition to superior western norms, and as such globalization equates to homogenization. This is a conspicuously western view, based on overemphasizing the immediately recognizable elements of a “foreign” city, and in the act of foregrounding them, concealing the complex local reality. In many cases spatial typologies which are ostensibly global can be produced by a number of distinct local processes.5 Thus even when these forms do appear, they work on a significantly different level from spatially similar counterparts in the west. In China, globalization and its spatial consequences are strongly mediated by local forces and processes embedded in China’s cultural, historical, economic and political systems. This sections looks briefly at some of the more important macro systems and their influence on spatial production.

‘[Chinese culture and social formation take] its primary structure and dynamics from the interplay of tributary modes of production (TMP* ) and petty-capitalist modes of production (PCMP* ).’6

2.1 The Chinese Political Economy

Marx’s ‘Asiatic mode of production*’ heavily influenced the way in which China’s past economy has been perceived by the West and had a marked effect on the thinking of the Chinese Communist regime itself. Due to Marx’s limited knowledge of China he wrongly combined China’s indigenous economy with the Indian subcontinent, where the social formation was dominated by a tributary mode of production (TMP* ) and a hierarchical class structure. Marx misread China’s indigenous economy as belonging to a pre-capitalist ‘natural economy’, where ‘subsistence producers locally trade small quantities of surplus goods as a convenience rather than for profit’7 . Recent work by anthologists and historians has shown that a petty capitalist mode of production (PCMP* ) existed in China since the Song Dynasty (960-1270 AD), where mass production of commodities for profit, lineage based corporations, waged labor, printed money and even private property all began to flourish. In short, China had a PCMP* in operation from a bottom-up level for at least a thousand years, and its has shaped much of the evolution of Chinese culture.

The American anthropologist Hill Gates interprets Chinese culture and social formation as taking ‘its primary structure and dynamics from the interplay of tributary modes of production (TMP* ) and petty-capitalist modes of production (PCMP* ).’8 Under the TMP* , government bureaucracies integrated themselves into economic production both as a tribute extraction system and a production management system. This led to the stratification of the Chinese society, in turn naturalized by Confucian ideology. Under the PCMP* , where the logic of profit-making predominates, counter-ideologies and practices contended against tribute extraction. The TMP* , i.e. the government, saw the PCMP* ’s activities as a way to increase its revenue. At the same time it sought ways to control and even on occasions curb it, regarding PCMP* as a potentially destabilizing mechanism operating within the established order. The dynamic interplay between the two modes polarized each other. ‘Where extremes of authoritarianism came to characterize Chinese officials, exaggerated commoditization characterized the general populace’9 . Such features have persisted into the twenty-first century, shaping many of the dynamic and idiosyncrasies of the Chinese economic miracle and the modern Chinese identity.

The Communist Revolution continued and reinforced the TMP* while failing to eradicate the PCMP* (which the Chinese Communist Party mistook as capitalism proper), as witnessed by the persistence of black markets in the pre-reform era , surviving even the Cultural Revolution. Since the economic reforms of 1978, the PCMP* has blossomed. Within the space of ten short years township and village enterprises (TVEs* ) proliferated, driving much of the Chinese economic growth.

Hill Gates sums up the underlying strain in the Chinese social economic structure better than anyone else: ‘For the last thousand years, petty capitalism offered an additional, non-tributary sphere of economic action to many, probably most, Chinese people […] Chinese commoners sought economic niches left vacant by the TMP* , acting with clever dishonesty towards its principles and practices, ingeniously recycling for their own uses the sanctity accorded to such key institutions such as patrilineal kinship. Petty-capitalist practice in China began and remains secondary, subversive, contorted, dangerous — and liberating.’ Such a relationship is as true of China today as it was a thousand years ago, and many of the emergent spatial forms in China are a result of this dialectical tension.

2.2 The Cultural Legacy of the Chinese Territorial Administrative System

China has its own unique territorial system which remains strikingly well preserved from its ancient origins in the Qin dynasty (265-420 AD). The basic territorial administrative unit — the xian* — was first introduced by the Qin as part of state land reform. Since then a general ‘two level structure dominated the imperial territorial administrative system in the relation between the imperial capital and the provinces’ . The sheng* , or province, was introduced in the Yuan dynasty (1260-1368 AD), being a unit constituted by a collection of smaller xian* . In the Imperial era the local or xian* administration had relative fiscal and administrative freedom. However, they were obliged to channel resources upwards to the central Government in a tribute based pyramidal fashion without expectation of any (financial) return. This lack of material recipricocity created a great deal of contention between local administration and central government — the two spheres of real power in the administrative hierarchy of China. Together they formed the cultural / conceptual framework for the Chinese territorial administrative system over the last millennium, persisting beyond the Communist Revolution under the guise of the central state, as supreme manager, and the jiceng danwei* or grass-roots working unit, as the lowest-level operator. This dichotomy has prompted the remark that ‘between these two (central and local) spheres of real power […] there was much administration but little authority.’11

2.3 Territorial Administrative Structure in China

Once in power the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) integrated its governing regime into the existing territorial administrative hierarchy with minor alterations. Five main territorial administrative tiers formed the hierarchy of the government. They were, in descending order of scale and political power:

1 The central state in Beijing.
2 The provinces (sheng* ), which were the four municipalities (zhixia shi*) — Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing — and the autonomous regions ( qu* ), which were autonomously governed areas of ethnic minorities.
3 Cities (shi*), counties (xian* ), and county level towns (chen zhen*).
4.1 Towns (zhen*) and townships (xiang*).
4.2 Villages (which come under the direct jurisdiction of their county or xian* )

On a sub-urban level, large cities were often subdivided by districts (qu*), which were in turn further divided into streets or neighborhood offices (jedao banshichu*) and residents’ committees (jumin weiyuanhui*). These were the lowest effective reach of the state and state surveillance.

In terms of organizational structure, there were many similarities with the Soviet Union. Both shared a strong vertical imperative; however the ‘Soviet Union was more hierarchical in its organization, whereas the Chinese state structure has emphasized both “horizontal” (shuiping) and “vertical” (chuizhi) features of structural organization.’12 This meant having a wide range of bureaucracy at every level of the administrative hierarchy. As a result, ‘governing institutions in China, like administrative units, are also typically understood in terms of rank at the province level, prefecture level, county level and so forth.’13 On the one hand this structure arguably provides greater political and territorial control, but given its bulk and complexity presents sizeable organizational and jurisdictional problems.

Since 1978, the city level administrative hierarchy developed into a compellingly complex system with four administrative ranks within the scope of being defined as a city.

i. Centrally administered municipalities
ii. Province level cities
iii. Sub-province level cities
iv. County level cities

In addition to this classification by administrative ranking, cities are also defined by their administrative characteristics or legal status. This forms a parallel organizational parameter, itself broken into three categories.

Province level cities
Cities with districts (sub-province or prefecture-level)
Cities without districts

Thus a city may rank only as a county level city (class iv), while possessing the status of a city with districts (class b).

Furthermore, there are currently six different categories of special status for select cities. These include, among others, the four municipalities (Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing), the special economic zones (SEZs*), coastal open cities, and cities designated to experiment with new economic programs.14 This complexity is a result of the ‘state periodically changing the criteria for defining administrative units, especially cities […] in order to promote political and economic goals.’15 An example of such territorial fluidity is that while in 1978 only 2,173 towns existed, in 2000 there were 20,312. These were for the most part “upgraded” from townships by a process of definition tweaking.

3.0 The Legacy of Maoist Era Beijing (1949-1978)

Cities in China are popularly referred to as “post-socialist” — a description which, though in many ways inadequate, is not without a grain of truth. The socialist command structure and planned economy of the Maoist era created a context for urban development which was notably distinct from its market-driven counterpart in the west. Although much of this has been since been dismantled on a policy level, its physical legacy remains, with the consequence that developmental patterns in the post-reform era have taken place upon foundations and infrastructure laid in the pre-reform era. Therefore, revisiting the pre-reform logic of production (both socio-political and spatial-economic) helps a great deal in understanding post-reform urban conditions.

3.1 Tugai* and the Introduction of Land Tenure System*: Radical Departure from the ‘Feudal Past’

The CCP regarded private land ownership as one of the main systems of exploitation of the peasant proletariat. Their mandate therefore, in their destined role as facilitators of the class struggle, was its definitive eradication. Soon after taking power in 1949 the CCP embarked upon the implementation of a series of radical policies aimed at a comprehensive overhaul of the manner in which land was distributed and managed.

The regime instigated a land reform program called Tugai*, by which land was confiscated from rich landlords and either held by the central state or allocated to local groups. ‘By 1958, all land was either state or collectively owned. Urban land was state owned, whereas farmland was collectively owned with a few exceptions.’16

The new Constitution banned all land transactions and land was allocated to danweis* free of charge. The consequence of this was that, although there was a system of land tenure, without the possibility of land exchange, land value was effectively nullified. It dropped from commodity status, and use patterns changed accordingly.

3.2 danwei* Based Unitary Urbanism and its Spatial Impact on Beijing

In order to facilitate the transformation of the pre-1949 market economy into a soviet-style planned economy, the CCP nationalised all urban institutions and enterprises and reorganised them into administrative work units called danweis* . All city dwellers belonged to a particular danwei* , which would provide them with a job and a home, both within a special danwei* worker compound (a dayuan* ). The city was composed of these cellular compounds, each owned by the various danwei. This made up the CCP’s vision of a hive-like city, where every individual was directly organized within a collective, involved in some form of state-directed productive enterprise, and set within a clearly defined hierarchy centred on the CCP.

Although the different danwei* performed different functions they were organised in a similar manner. What they provided for their workers was not just the assurance of work (the iron bowl* — a Chinese euphemism for a job for life) but they also organised living space, leisure, health-care, food provision, education, entertainment etc. — danwei* with better revenue even had their own sports grounds and theatres. But the central concept was that every danwei* supplied its workers with all the amenities needed to live comfortably. In reality, the fact that different danwei’s* had different budgets and operational costs meant that working for one danwei* or another would lead to very different treatment and status. Nevertheless, this organisational structure, in conjunction with a newly introduced urban residency permit or license called hukou* , effectively eradicated the need and capacity for labour mobility within Chinese cities.

Throughout and after the land collectivisation programmes of the 1950s, the State proceeded to allocate collectivised land to danweis* free of charge (the land tenure system*) and for an indefinite period. Although the danweis* had full land-use rights* they did not own the land or have any power to make land transactions (constitutionally banned). The location and amount of land allocated to a danwei* depended on its political connections as well as the political environment in which socioeconomic functions and productions were planned and organised. In effect many danweis* were able to pick and choose where, what and how to build. With the disappearance of the land market and the free allocation of land to danweis* , the previous need to build on economically favourable land (especially for large value-added sectors like retail) in order to optimise economic performance (which is a major contributor to urban compactness in cities with land-markets) was dissolved.

During the period between 1958 (end of major land collectivisation) to 1965 danweis* began to engage in the large-scale construction of offices, workstations, factories, warehouses and in particular dormitory-style 5-6 storey residential blocks, all in a relatively low density inefficient manner. The potential impact of this upon the city’s transport infrastructure was not felt at the time as there was little need ever to travel outside the danwei* , and car ownership was virtually non-existent. It was during this period that Beijing experienced its first wave of rapid urbanisation and expansion, and also its first taste of sprawl.

The central government, under the guidance of Soviet advisors, undertook the transformation of old city (the area delimited by the old city walls, where the Second Ring Road now lies) into a new administrative and productive centre. They issued clear directives to danweis* to build new constructions inside the old city, but in actual fact most of it ended well beyond. This apparent contravention of central government decree was the result of a myriad of conflicting policies.

In May of 1954 Dong Zheng, the head of the Beijing Institute of Building Affairs, delivered a report highlighting the problems which dogged the Soviet proposal of building inside the old city. He said, ‘Since the liberation, two thirds of new build has taken place outside of the old city — the furthest constructions standing 16km from Tiananmen. This contradicts our “compact development” principle “to expand from near to far, from inside to outside.” Objectively there are many practical problems.’ Chief among these as noted by Dong Zheng was the problem of demolition and relocation. He said in the report, ‘in 1952 the Bureau of National Political Affairs issued a directive stating new constructions must not affect the livelihood of existing citizens. But Old Beijing has a building density average of 46%, rising in certain areas to 70%. It is impossible for the demolition of old neighborhoods not to affect ordinary citizens. Secondly, danweis* are reluctant to spend the money, time and effort required to deal with this difficulty and prefer to build on the periphery of the city.’ In the same report he also pointed out, ‘danweis* applying for building permission usually demand large tracts of land which are appropriate and have good views. They also want to save money and time: they don’t want to get involved in neighborhood demolition, and would rather be allocated land that is immediately buildable, with large reserves for potential future development. As a result, new constructions take place throughout the surrounding area, and the city has become like a scattered game of Go.’ ‘Up to the end of 1953 only a third of the new buildings have been located within the confines of the old city. Many of them are hidden in hutongs* , leading some people to remark that they “don’t know where all the new buildings went to.”’17


ATTRIBUTE PICTURE TO City Journal p.125]]]

This is not without irony since among key reasons for adopting the Soviet proposal to transform the old city were cost and compactness. It was reasoned that building within the old city would minimize expenditure by utilizing existing infrastructure. However, given that complications around building in the old city led to the widespread dispersion of new construction, the actual demand for new infrastructure proved to be massive. As the city spilled over its old walls it ran out in all directions all at the same time along low density curves. This marked the beginning of Beijing ringing*.

The consequent urban form we have now is endearingly referred to by Beijing locals as tandabing*, which translates literally to spreading of the pancake. This spreading was further exacerbated by the fact that danweis* had no economic incentive to return allocated land they did not need (officially this was against the law, but was widespread and remained unpenalized). Vacant disused lots were simply walled up and left, while further building might go on around or beyond them.

The contradiction of government plans and the built reality as executed by the danweis* is a good example of the central vs. local duality at the heart of the Chinese administrative system. Although the central government had ultimate decision making power, due to the lack of intermediate levels overlooking the spatial organisation of the city, its ultimate form was determined much more by the collective behaviour of local organisations. Each of these received the centrally formulated directives, and yet interpreted and carried them out according to their own discretion. The failure to build the compact city in pre-reform China partially lies in the institutional structure of a millennia old dichotomous governing relationship.

3.3 dayuan* (The Big Yard) – The Spatial Manifestation of the danwei* Unitary City

Once the initial phases of reordering and construction had seized Beijing, the dayuan* , or literally big yard, emerged as the predominant unit of sub-city level spatial organisation. These were the spatial manifestation of the danwei* — the physical worker compounds (complete with housing, schools, etc.) which the various danwei* set up and ran. A single danwei* could be managing a number of dayuan* , but each dayuan* would itself function as a complete entity within the urban context. The city was thus cellularized into walled up discrete pockets of land, each of which would have their own internal circulation, and a limited number of exits and entrances onto the boulevards running between them. Traffic would be forced to circumvent these blocks, which given their size (up to 80km2) significantly hampered flow, and led to a street pattern of infrequent but very large roads. Moreover, the power maintained over them by the individual occupying danwei* lent little cohesion to the city as a whole. Even into the 1990s the dayuans* accounted for 88% of total land use in Beijing, and due to the political influence enjoyed by certain danwei*, became a major headache for urban planners.

In the pre-reform era with institutionally limited worker mobility it was conceived to be “natural” that danweis* built their individual hive like units. The benefits were to protect the inner peacefulness and autonomy of the neighbourhood from through traffic, and to help foster a sense of community and territorial danwei* identity. People often referred to themselves as belonging to a particular dayuan* — for instance it was not uncommon to hear people say they are from the Petroleum dayuan* , meaning they work for or are the relatives of someone working for the Ministry of Oil and Petroleum. As mentioned before, different danweis* varied significantly in prestige and wealth, and so association with one or another was a means of identifying social status in a largely homogenous society.

The imperative to facilitate better circulation in the post-reform era of greater mobility has led to the construction of many routes which cut through these dayuans*. Nevertheless, the basic format of larger roads at lower intervals persists, and makes its impact felt upon current traffic conditions. Compared to western cities like London and Paris, Beijing has very similar road to built environment ratio of around 23%. However it has been estimated that in terms of traffic circulation efficiency Beijing falls behind by as much as 35%. The key to this seems to lie in the fact that Paris employs a much more detailed network of narrow single direction traffic lanes. These are thought to be much more efficient — avoiding flow obstructions caused by cars turning left, and greatly reducing the deadtime required to allow pedestrians to cross.

3.4 Industry Fetishization and Its Post-Reform Ramifications

‘Only when we revitalize and develop INDUSTRY in our cities, turning cities of consumption to cities of production, can the people’s regime be consolidated.’18
Mao Zedong

The American educated architect Liang Sicheng recollects that once, soon after the CCP’s triumph, he accompanied Chairman Mao to Tiananmen to discuss the future plan of Beijing: ‘once atop Tiananmen Chairman Mao pointed south and remarked, from now on there will be a forest of chimneys to the horizon […] I wasn’t convinced. I thought to myself, China being so big, agricultural and industrial production doesn’t necessarily have to happen in Beijing […] It should preserve its historical city structure and architectural style and atmosphere.’19

[[[INSERT PICTURE: Liang New_Admin_Centre.jpg - ATTRIBUTE TO City Journal p.88–89]]]

Liang made several proposals to the administration advocating the relocation of the administrative centre to the west of Beijing, thus preserving the city’s historic core. However, in spite of his tireless efforts, the regime, with the help of Soviet advisors, began to remold the city along the lines of Stalinist industrialized monocentricism. The first principle was the ‘Transformation of cities of consumption to cities of production’ — i.e. the city becomes an opportunity to organize industry, and align it to state production quotas and redistribution systems. The second was that ‘The capital of socialist countries must also be a major industrial base.’20 The ascendant thinking at the time was that in order to secure the predominance of the urban industrial working class21 , their number (as a percentage of the city) must be ensured, and large-scale industrialization must proceed. Furthermore it was determined that Beijing must be the economic centre of China, and only then would it be fit to be the capital.22 Once Mao gave Liu Ren, then deputy party secretary of Beijing, a real scare by asking him after watching the 1953 National Day parade ‘Should we relocate the capital?’ He apparently felt that there weren’t enough workers in the parade.

Under a climate of prioritizing industrial development, resources of capital and labor were channeled into heavy industry to the detriment of all other sectors including agriculture, housing, and the urban environment

Political slogans of the immediate post 1949 period ran ‘production first, living second’ and ‘when production grows an inch, livelihood grows an inch’. Under such a climate of prioritizing industrial development, resources of capital and labor were channeled into heavy industry to the detriment of all other sectors including agriculture and the urban realm, creating a huge imbalance as compared with trajectory of most developed countries. The root of this problem lay in the regime of accumulation* in under socialism. Once the state had demolished both the consumer market and the land market it had to assume the role of producer, purchaser, planner, and redistributor, not to mention investor. In the absence of a land market, or any real way of capitalizing on land value, investment in housing or urban infrastructure offered virtually no return. These options therefore presented themselves as a significantly unattractive areas in which to reinvest surplus. A severe lack of investment in urban infrastructure and housing ensued, resulting in poor quality housing across the city, and a general deficiency in infrastructure. In the 1980s many low-rise areas still shared public taps and toilets (a single facility with running water and WCs in the centre of run of housing). This persisted into the early nineties, and is still common in parts of Beijing today.

Balanikov, one of the Soviet advisors, pointed out in his report of 1950, ‘Beijing doesn’t have major industry, but the capital city should not only be a centre of culture, science and artistic activity but also a major industrial city. Right now the industrial worker population only accounts for 4% of the Beijing total, while in Moscow the figure stands at 25%. In this respect Beijing is a city of consumption: too much of the population is not working class but made up of merchants.’ In the same report, against Liang’s plan of relocating the administrative centre and creating a dual centric city, he advocated building the administrative organs inside old Beijing, centering on Tiananmen. Again from the 1950 report: ‘First create a major traffic route or a square, for example Tiananmen Square, already full of historic significance, for the purpose of parades both military and domestic and also for national day celebrations. This will further increase it’s significance. The square therefore should be the centre of the city.’ This meant large parts of imperial Beijing had to be torn down, provoking a response of disgruntlement to open hostility from Liang (who was the pre-eminent authority on ancient Chinese architecture). The Liang camp subsequently came to blows with Soviet advisors over their respective plans for Beijing. Liang pointed out that the Soviet advisors didn’t realize the ‘historical and architectural value of the old city.’ Unfortunately the regime at the time saw the old city as a vestige of ‘feudalist’ values and went along with the Soviet proposal, with dire ramification for the historical identity of Beijing.

Mao’s personal preference must have had huge leverage in the ultimate decision to follow the Soviet plan over Liang Sicheng’s proposal. One of the most significant and lamentable alterations to the old Beijing cityscape was the demolition of its once magnificent city walls. In the Nanning Conference of January 1958 Mao remarked, ‘The buildings in Beijing and Kaifeng [an older imperial capital of China] make me ill-at-ease.’ He went on to note that ‘The value of “antiques” is a matter of perception: if one has to cry [referring to Liang Sicheng’s stubborn refusal to go along with city wall demolition] about the demolition of a city-gate and the creation of new openings, then it is a problem of political awareness.’ At a stroke Mao undermined the architectural expertise of Liang and made the problem a political one — a field in which he had ultimate jurisdiction. The outer city wall was razed during the ‘50s and the main city up-rooted in 1965 to make way for the Beijing underground and Second Ring Road.25 The destruction of the city wall was driven largely by Mao’s personal misguided notion of the old. In his memoir, the deputy chief of the Beijing Planning Bureau recalls that even though many top ranking officials including the then Mayor of Beijing publicly supported the demolition of the city walls, this was mainly to get in line with Mao. In private they were very chary, and were seeking out alternative plans.

[[[INSERT PICTURE Liang_citywallpark.jpg - ATTRIBUTE TO City Journal p.110]]]

Over this period heavy industry came to produce 63.7% of the total revenue in Beijing, and 120 out of 130 industry departments were located within the city bounds. This was an unprecedented phenomenon, unique amongst capital cities of the world. As a result the total number of chimneys in Beijing peaked at a staggering 14,000, producing considerable pollution.26 Industrial land use rose to as high as 20-30% of total land use. This compares to 5.3% in Hong Kong, 6% in Seoul, and 5% in Paris.27 The industrialization of Beijing is now generally considered to have been a misguided failure. Wang Jun reports, ‘Beijing under a lack of water and mineral resources over-pursued rapid industrialization, resulting in many difficult problems, and due to the Beijing-Tianjing dual economic development formulae, it also led to the recession of Tianjing.’

[[[INSERT PICTURE: Beijing_Landuse.ai - ACCOMPANIED BY THE TAG <Beijing Land use pattern 1991>]]]

Mao Zedong and the Communists’ fetishization of heavy industry are still very much felt in the post-reform period. In 1991, 13 years after the end of Maoist era, a large percentage of industry was still located in the city centre. This even though in 1983 the central government and Ministry of State Affairs issued a paper which clearly defined Beijing as ‘the national administration and cultural centre’, and stated ‘no more heavy industry will be located in Beijing in the future.’ In 1999 the Beijing City Council made the decision to start relocating factories, and over the following 6 years 134 polluting industries were moved out of the city centre.28

3.5 Sino-Soviet Split, Strategic Military Planning and the Construction of the Beijing Underground

Throughout the planning and construction of Beijing the question of strategic military advantage also loomed large. Towards the end of 1950s the Korean War came to an end, and the relationship between China and the Soviet Union became distinctly sour. Nuclear war was, in many people’s minds, just over the horizon, and responsive strategic planning became an imperative.

Sino-Soviet relations moved through suspicion and mistrust to a full break down in 1960 amidst personal animosity between Mao and Khrushchev, and a series of territory related disputes. Following the border incident between China and the Soviet Union in 1969, the government mobilised the masses to dig anti-air shelters all over Beijing. The proposal to build the Beijing underground was presented to the central government as first and foremost a military strategy, and secondly a transport option. Equally, the motivation to build roads at excessive widths came as much from a military as an architectural perspective — the idea being that they would then serve as emergency landing strips and make shift helicopter pads. Cables were buried beneath the asphalt to prevent exposure and easy destruction. It was further reasoned that in the event of a nuclear strike on Tiananmen, generous road widths could help prevent the spreading of fire.29

4.0 hukou* System: Labour Mobility and the City

Water flows down to lower places, but people flow up to richer places
— old Chinese proverb

4.1 Historic Roots

Like many other administrative practices in China, the hukou* system is derived in its current form from organizational structures already centuries old. It traces its roots back to the baojia* system — a form of household administration and population registration that first gained popularity in the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD).30 The baojia* system essentially acted as a means of state surveillance down to an impressively micro-level — grouping households into packets of 10, then 100, then 1,000, and encouraging mutual surveillance on each successive level. The system was adapted and reused by proceeding dynasties all the way through to the Guomindang’s (or Kuomintang’s) Republic of China. This history of a political administration which permeates all levels of life was not lost on the CCP. Soon after the 1949 the Maoists began planning the more “scientific” hukou* system as their own update upon the baojia*.

4.2 The Role of the hukou* System in the Pre-Reform Era

The hukou* system was first implemented in 1958. Its purpose was to provide a residential license or permit system which would ensure that people were only able to work and live in those places designated to them by the state. It effectively segregated the rural from the urban, and reduced all labor mobility to that which was organised officially. The benefits included a greater degree of precision as to where and how the population were located and managed. One major disadvantage was that in creating this rural / urban schism, the supposedly “classless” society was rigidly separated out, with people living in large metropolitan centres enjoying the best access to services, followed by smaller city dwellers, and so on all the way down to the village. Those who held an urban hukou* were employed by a danwei* , and put into direct contact with better education, free health care, higher incomes and cheap public accommodation, subsidized food, a pension, a job for life and so on. Those who held a rural hukou* on the other hand were effectively excluded from all of these. The irony being that while the CCP were demolishing the old city walls, and other historic emblems of segregation, new invisible walls were being erected in their place.

The hukou* system of population management was integral to the CCP’s regime. Having abolished consumer demand, the state was itself responsible for product distribution, profit and surplus, and the reinvestment of that surplus. This meant economic growth and indeed shrinkage was entirely reliant upon the State’s ability to channel surplus into new means of accumulation. Factories had to rely upon the state to purchase their products, and as excessive production could lead to state over-accumulation of products which, without market consumerism, could not necessarily be easily converted back into capital; there was a serious threat of the disappearance of state investment into unhelpful quantities of whatever it was the factories were producing. Because living-standard-driven rural to urban migration could easily lead to a scenario of uncomfortable pressures piling up upon the state to redistribute enhanced levels of production, it became increasingly important to control this kind of movement. The hukou* system effectively prohibited the migration of individuals, and by maintaining a rural-urban dichotomy, the CCP was able to manage closely the behavior of the industrial sector of the economy.

4.3 The hukou* System Post-1978

‘Large labor markets are the only raison d’être of large cities’
— Alain Bertaud

The role of the hukou* system is extremely complex in post-reform China. Virtually all bottom-up spatial-development around the urban periphery is in some way influenced or directly attributable to the hukou* system. Furthermore, its continuing hand in the rural-urban dichotomy is increasingly presenting difficulties of a political nature to the CCP. Since the hukou* system inevitably blocks most forms of self-determined access to socio-spatial, political and economic advantages, it is unsurprising that many of the new spatial entities we see emerging upon the urban fringe, including migrant villages and SUVs* , have formed as a result of a strategies to circumvent its restrictions. Much of the lowest strata of China’s new urban phenomenon can be seen as an expression of hukou* resistance, and facilitated — if impaired — rural to urban migration.

Virtually all bottom-up spatial-development around the urban periphery is in some way influenced or directly attributable to the hukou* system

The split between the rural and urban economies, enforced by the hukou* system in the pre-reform era, has been in part maintained by its persistence post-1978. A dual market remains in terms of access to goods, the prices of goods, services, and, most importantly from the perspective of migration, wage difference. A poor month’s pay in the city can match that of a year’s income in the village, and as such presents an enormously strong attractor. Moreover, given uneven pricing, what this money represents to a migrant when taken home makes it even more appealing. By taking advantage of ambiguous property rights31 in rural areas, what appears in the city to be a very low wage can, via remittances, be building a large house in the village (a symbol of prestige in rural China).

In 1985 the state relaxed the stringent restrictions around working in the city in 1985 by introducing temporary registration. However, gaining the right to settle in the city remained elusive, and in many instances — not least in Beijing — city authorities still engaged in waves of migrant expulsion.32 The hostility of the local authorities to migrant settlements, coupled to the altered hukou* system, has created in China a unique pattern of temporary migration. Unlike the industrialization which occurred throughout much of the west during the 19th century, where entire families relocated to cities, in China most migrants are single, aged between 18 and 30, and come to cities to work for a period before returning home to their original towns and villages to marry. This type of rollover migration* has been cited as one of the contributing factors to the continued success of the TVEs* , where money and skills gained in an urban environment return to rural settings, and engage in what could traditionally be regarded as more urban activities. It has also greatly contributed to the astounding rate at which rural China is urbanizing in-situ.33

[[[INSERT GRAPH: floatingpopBJ.xls *SOURCE?*]]]

Since the latter end of the 1990s, further relaxations to the hukou* system and a rising private economy have resulted in an increasing number of rural migrants finding employment in cities without the need even of a temporary urban hukou* . These migrants have been characterised as a floating population* — arriving and starting work within a context of impressive economic liberalization, and without official registration. The jobs come mainly from construction, house keeping, and the restaurant / service sector. By 1998 the floating population* in Beijing numbered around 3.2 million — roughly 30% of total population.34

Thanks to housing reforms and illegal constructions, there are an increasing number of ways for members of the floating population* to stay in the city for more extensive periods of time. Subsidized public housing and access to free services (healthcare, education etc.) is still not available without an urban hukou* . However, such rules are showing signs of being relaxed, and in 2005 official channels opened up for the rural population to settle permanently in the city. This still involves transferring to an urban hukou* , and is usually achieved through the purchase of an urban property (above a certain price, of course) — a route still out of reach for the vast majority of rural migrants. For those unable to gain an urban hukou* there are 3 practical housing options. The first is an SUV*: accommodation in housing provided by peasants in villages close to urban areas. In the 1997 migrant population census in Beijing this accounted for 13.65% of the migrant population. The second option is cheap housing in the inner city. The housing reforms of the mid-90s saw the privatization of public housing, and an emergent housing market has been able offer accommodation to migrants. This comes usually at a higher rate than in an SUV*, but has the advantage of better access to a wider range of employment opportunities. In 1997 it accounted for a further 13.71%. The third option is housing provided by employers, and includes the floating villages* created by companies to house their workers (often either near a factory, or on or near construction sites). Although free to live in, these developments tend to be extremely crowded,35 and often poorly provided for. Nevertheless, this has been the predominant form of migrant housing in Beijing, accounting in the 1997 census for over 60% of migrant population.

Migrants in China pose a paradox. On the one hand they are the driving force behind China’s renewed cities — both physically building most of the new constructions, and supplying the workforce behind much of the economic growth. On the other hand, their living situations are often squalid and unsanitary, and the result of their often ad hoc en masse settlements are significant strains upon the urban grid. It is a cruel irony that they are generally regarded by the city authorities as a blot upon that magnificent new urban fabric to which they themselves have contributed so much.

4.4 Case Study: Migrant Enclaves* in Beijing

The Chinese State has a long history of treating (private) business, particularly southern Chinese business (the basis of entrepreneurialism in China), as a source of fiscal income rather than as an engine of wealth. This led to harmful practices of excessive taxation and favoritism, breaking the rules of fair competition. Without the state reliably enforcing property rights and fair market practices, the Chinese entrepreneurial culture has over the centuries evolved a strong sense of trust in kinship and local connections as a means of organizing economic activities and transactions — effectively bypassing the state, and embedding market mechanisms in socially constructed networks. This continues today, where we see place of origin and kinship connections playing a major role in the formation of migrant communities and business networks. Often entire migrant villages are composed of migrants from a single region in China who are engaged in one type of business. Beijing in particular has witnessed the emergence of several such ‘villages’ or enclaves over the years. Due to fiscal, environmental and a whole host of other reasons they are much despised by the local authorities, who have tried to get rid of them with varying degrees of success.

Perhaps the most prominent amongst these migrant enclaves is Zhejiangcun, where its the Zhejiang migrant population is predominantly involved in the apparel industry. Zhejiangcun is located outside the Fourth Ring Road on the southern urban periphery. With a peak population in 1998 of 80,000, it is one of the largest migrant enclaves in China. The built environment is dominated by two to three storey apartment complexes, migrant compounds, and older one storey courtyards organised in a very dense fashion amongst narrow alleyways and streets. Most of these constructions have been built by the local rural population, whose freedom to engage in what has been an extraordinary transformation of a formerly quiet peripheral settlement has depended largely on a unique institutional loophole in the policies relating to rural and urban land.

Since 1949, by constitution all urban land is State owned and all rural land is ‘collectively’ owned. Thus two different processes govern urban and rural land, and the urban authorities have no right to build on rural land. Since the economic reforms of 1978, through extensive land reform and the development of legal frameworks, urban land transactions have been relatively well facilitated and protected by the law and state. However, no such framework has yet been put in place for dealing with rural land.

The introduction of the household responsibility system* has meant that individual households are able negotiate land-use rights with local authorities for an extended period of time. In order for cities to expand beyond their previously defined territory they are obliged to expropriate37 land from farmers, who are in turn given fixed rate compensation. Expropriated land has to be designated ‘urban’ in order for authorities to gain the right to build upon it.

This means that rural land which lies along the urban boundary, and yet has not undergone expropriation or conversion, is effectively outside of any urban planning, regulation or legal process. According to policy, with a rural hukou* a household can build up to 3 fangzi (which roughly translates as building). With such a vague definition, a fangzi can mean anything from a one room shed to a 3 storey mansion, and in the absence of anything more precise from the state, it has been left to the discretion of local rural authorities to decide what is fitting. This gap in state regulation has been much exploited by the rural population on the urban periphery for the purposes of building extensive dormitory style complexes to rent to migrants. The large scale success of these operations have allowed a great many peasants to give up agriculture and become property developer-landlords. The local rural authorities have overseen this process with absolute complicity, benefiting from vastly increased tax revenues, and, in a number of cases, actually investing in such constructions themselves. The unrelenting stream of migrants has facilitated the spread and profitability of such schemes, and these ‘rural’ administrative areas have witnessed a sudden flurry of low rise development.

In the midst of this rural concrete blossoming, the local administration has had to fulfill only a fixed tax quota (see 5.2 Fiscal Reform for more detail), leaving a significant volume of revenue leftover for reinvestment. In the case of Zhejiangcun this has led to the development of a huge entertainment complex among the new apartment compounds and dormitories. The nearby urban authority, which confusingly also has a degree of jurisdiction in the area, has tended to view such developments as sprawling ghettos, and makes periodic threats to demolish them. However, in reality little is done as they have to reach into their own pockets to pay for demolition, and do not stand to gain any real financial reward for doing so, not to mention the increased the risk of civil unrest. In rare cases rich migrants have even ‘illegally’ leased land from peasants and built apartment complexes or big compounds to accommodate fellow migrants from Zhejiang themselves. This has resulted in some courtyard style two storey complexes with central atriums, drawn from the architectural vocabulary of Zhejiang province itself.

Illegal activities and increasing environmental strain have prompted many quarters including the media to complain, culminating in 1995 in a violent confrontation between the local urban authority, bearing renewed demolition plans, and the inhabitants of Zhejiangcun. Some demolition did take place; however many Zhejiang migrants simply moved to the next village out. Since then relations have much improved and Zhejiangcun is now semi-officially recognized — or at least the local urban authority turns a blind eye. Part of this recognition lies in the success of the Zhejiangcun apparel business and subsequent reinvestments made by Zhejiangcun business leaders in new ventures in rural municipal Beijing. To the delight of the local urban authorities, these have generated significant employment opportunities. Many other migrant enclaves did not have such luck.

During the fall of 2005, DCF conducted a series of fieldtrips around Zhejiangcun and witnessed first hand some of the extraordinary successes of the local rural population. Interviews were conducted, and among stories we encountered one of the most striking was that of Mr. Wang and his long standing friend and neighbor Mr. Qiu. They were both brought up in the area and have been living there for over 40 years. However, although their homes border each other, Mr. Wang falls into a different municipal district and has an urban hukou* , while Mr. Qiu holds a rural hukou* . They described how just over ten years ago, in 1995, the area surrounding Dahongmen, where Zhejiangcun is now situated, was a wheat field with only ten households in the vicinity. All them were one storey courtyard dwellings. Today the difference between their homes tells the story of how migrants have changed the fortune of their lives. Mr. Wang still lives in his courtyard house with his family and his daughter’s 8 dogs, under the shadow of this neighbor Mr. Qiu’s massive 2-storey complex, complete with huge plasma screen TV, mahogany paneled interior, chandeliers, massive terrace, garage, and attached section of flats for letting, which Mr. Qiu tells us he designed himself. He explained the reason for building a 2 storey compound so high: current local policy sets a 2 storey cap on new constructions, and yet with no regulation in place to define how high each floor can be, and cognizant of the local authorities’ capacity for change, Mr. Qiu gave each floor generous ceiling heights with a mind to a possible subsequent conversion to three shorter floors, thus future-proofing the building for a potential 50% gain in letting space. In pre-reform China having an urban hukou* meant an automatic privilege, but as we have seen the table have indeed turned, at least for Mr. Qiu.


However, despite rapid urban construction and the urban lifestyle which inhabitants of Zhejiangcun are now wont to lead, due to the lack of formal infrastructural investment many roads remain unpaved, clean tap water has to be collectively shared, and sewage and drainage systems are all left wanting. Such are the characteristics symptomatic of villages close to urban centres, although not all of them have migrant populations originating predominantly from one particular part of China. They are collectively referred to by the scholars Deng and Huang as Semi-Urbanized Villages (SUVs* ).

4.5 RUSs* (Rural Urban Syndicates) and Missed Opportunities

Due to the rapid urban expansion of Beijing, with increasing frequency official development projects (mainly residential) come within close proximity of SUVs*. This clashing of top-down and bottom-up developments has sparked new possibilities for urban relations which suggest ways in which rural migrants might be integrated into the official urban fabric. The resultant urban interaction has been colloquially referred to as Chenxiang Jiehebu, which roughly translates as Rural Urban Syndicate (RUS*). These are two separate modes of urbanization driven by completely different processes. However, when they meet at the urban periphery a very interesting dynamic is created, and often a form of symbiotic mutualism is developed by which the SUV* component of the RUS* responds to the needs of the often underplanned official development with a vibrant informal economy. The influx of a newly enriched Chinese middle class enjoys the benefits of local services, and the flow of migrants is rapidly assimilated into a recirculation of urban wealth. However, the relationship is not regulated and often leads to vice and crime (gambling, aforementioned hairdressing parlors etc.). Moreover, due to population explosion and the lack of infrastructure on the SUV* side, these developmental clusters can also lead to rapid environmental degradation. Consequently the local administration is prone to regard such developments as ‘eye-sores’ and sprawl, and strategies adopted to deal with them are rarely significantly more enlightened than wholesale bulldozing.

This a lamentable end to the RUSs*. Although they do exhibit all the civic defects outlined above, they are also dynamic, lively, and fleeting, and provide customized responses to the gaps and incoherencies endemic in official developmental plans. The SUV* component provides a flexible resource base from which missing services naturally spring forth from — for example, a migrant on a moped with a covered shell, who offers you cheap fast transportation for short range journeys. These convenient caddies supply an effective patch for the wide areas in between transport terminals, and by occupying a comparatively small area of road space, alleviate traffic, as well as bringing a much needed liveliness and diversity to the rather austere uniformity of new urban developments. There is a massive potential for these emergent spatial forms to evolve into healthy and integrated urban tissue given the right infrastructural investment and regulation.

5.0 Decentralization, Land-Use Reform and Fiscal Reform: Towards a Postmodern Heteropolis

‘It doesn’t matter if it is a black cat or a white cat, so long as it catches mice it is a good cat.’
– Deng Xiaoping38

In 1978, two years after the turmoil and devastation of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) came to an end with the death of Mao Zedong, the pragmatic new leader Deng Xiaoping commenced the instigation of a massive administrative, economic, and spatial restructuring of the ideologically driven political system leftover from the Maoist era. Inefficiencies ‘nurtured’ under the socialist mode of central planning became apparent, and extensive reorganisation was undertaken on all fronts to make way for a new regime of accumulation*. The transformation of the cities from sites of production to sites of consumption had to be made, and to facilitate urban ‘growth engines’ the territorial administrative system was rescaled to privilege the urban. State power was decentralised, and fiscal responsibility localised. Market institutions were set up on all levels and TVEs* emerged. Land use reforms rescaled urban administrative relationships and made land use more flexible. A legal framework for land transaction was established. The adoption of the ‘open door’ policy in 1979 ended China’s decade long isolation from the West and consequent engagement with the global economy. On a domestic level, the state policy of cities leading xians* firmly placed the urban realm at the centre of new strategies for growth.

5.1 Cities as the Driving Engines of Growth

In 1982 the then Premier Zhao Ziyang explicitly promoted city-led development. Such an openly pro-urban policy found support on all levels. Soon after that, in 1983, the State Council passed the policy of letting ‘cities exercise leadership over xians*’ and there followed the wholesale abandonment of collectivized communes and daduis*. Since then, understanding the new advantages available to cities, many counties have pushed urbanization in order to gain city-status. In 1988 alone 47 xians* were redefined as cities; in the year before that 29 made the changeover. The total number of cities has been on the increase ever since. This shift taking place on the administrative and official levels of recognized cities corresponds well with bottom-up activities, where the post-1978 blossoming of TVEs* has led many rural townships and villages out of the orbit of the rural economy, and increasingly involved them within networks of economic production and consumption which operate beyond the boundaries imposed by traditional divisions between cities and xians*. Thus the process of their economic expansion was taking place via a series of transgressions of outdated administrative models, and with economic expansion now at the forefront of the political agenda, it was clear that it was the models that needed to change. The extensive rescaling of the previous sheng* , xian* and xiang* three tier administrative hierarchy firmly placed cities at the helm not only as the driving engines of economic growth, but also as centres of political influence (on the down side this lead to a further weakening of the already neglected rural sphere). The act of reconfiguring the administrative hierarchy and making the tiers more permeable is clearly a means employed by the Chinese state to adjust its spatial practices in order to propel economic development and better channel the flow of resources.

City-level administrations enjoy special financial and fiscal rights. The direct result of this has been competition among the different xians*to attain city-status, which is achieved largely through urbanization and investment in urban infrastructure as well as attracting investment. Such intra-governmental competition has played an important role in the rapid urbanization of rural China, and in furthering economic growth.

In China, space is no longer a derivative outcome of the regime of accumulation* but is actually the ‘state strategy and solution to the sustenance of the new regime of accumulation.’41 In other words, in China, urbanization and urban restructuring — i.e. the handling of space, and the definitions and privileges applied to it — is the primary means by which government institutions of all levels push for economic growth, and contest for political territory.

In China, space is no longer a derivative outcome of regime of accumulation* but the means by which that regime is fed and furthered
562 563 561 553

5.2 Decentralisation, Multi-Scalar Urbanisation, and Meso-Level Socio Spatial Convergence

In the pre-reform era, although the ‘local’ enjoyed relative spatial freedom in its carrying out of central government orders, it was denied the opportunity to expand on its own initiative. Seeing as the fiscal system was organised in a pyramidal order focused on central government, without grants distributed through the central administration, there was little local institutions could do in terms of medium to large projects. This accorded with the socialist regime, as without a consumer marketplace to respond to unplanned demand, unplanned expansion could place unwanted pressure on the state redistribution system, while offering little by way of financial gain to local administration. Thus there was little incentive for spontaneous local expansion, and in order to facilitate growth advanced planning conducted via the state was wholly necessary.

With the introduction of the market in 1978, the state was required to take on a different role, disarticulating its policies from many spheres of direct action, while simultaneously engaging with the market on all levels throughout the hierarchy. Financial responsibility and decision-making power was gradually released to lower levels, and horizontally distributed to less central bureaucracies of the state hierarchy. With the state emphasis on the city as the driving engine of economic growth, and the state policy of ‘cities leading xians*’, more local administrations began to implement their own policies and techniques for fostering urbanisation and economic development. This resulted in an environment of “total urbanisation” on multi-scalar levels. As such, the Nanhai xian* (in Guangdong Province) local administration coined the slogan ‘driving forward on five wheels’ (wugelunzi yiqizhuan), meaning simultaneously at the scales of county, township, district, village and individual. Appropriately enough, Nanhai xian* is now a city. In the case of Beijing, this spatial competition between different qu* or districts has led to a number of similar development zones being built simultaneously in different locations. Thus while Chaoyang District along with the municipal administration is loudly publicising its CBD, Xiecheng District is busy constructing with its massive Financial Street.

On a local level, and within the context of the village, both the danwei* and the individual have embraced the possibility of forging new social and economic connections across different tiers. This has been facilitated largely by mass migration to cities and towns. The dual process of a top-down disarticulation of state centralised power and bottom-up socio-economic participation has brought about an inevitable meeting in the middle. This meso-level of organisation finds it most compelling expressions along the urban fringe.

To witness the effect of having multiple scales of actors all flexing their spatial muscles simultaneously one only has to look to the profuse spatial heterogeneity and fragmentation occurring at the urban periphery of contemporary Beijing. There, within the same square kilometer you can find luxury entertainment complexes equipped with pools and tennis courts hard up against migrant enclaves*, motorways, middle class gated communities, makeshift garages, supermarkets, brothels, alleyway complexes, enclosed dayuan* army residences, one storey courtyards, temporary retail stalls where some migrants also live in, busy retail streets for both high and low ends of the consumer spectrum, hospitals both official and unofficial, and a whole host of floating villages*.


5.3 Evolution of Land-Use Rights and the Re-Emergence of a Chinese Land Market

Foreign investment has flooded in since adoption of the ‘open door’ policy in 1979. The Chinese Government had to revise its long-standing land tenure* system in order to accommodate an increasing demand for land. In order to experiment with the market economy the Chinese Government instigated a series of special economic development zones (SEDZs) along the east coast to attract foreign investment in the early 1980s. Initially there were only four: Shenzhen, Shantou, Xiamen, and Tianjin. Many policy experiments took place in these SEDZs before the results were rolled out on a national scale. To allow foreign companies to gain access to land a land leasing system was introduced, and companies were allowed to lease government owned land for fixed periods of time. The state retained ultimate land ownership, and thus land-use rights and ownership were effectively separated, opening up the possibility of a land-use rights market. This system, eventually adopted across the country, closely resembles Hong Kong’s land leasehold system, where again foreign investors can gain access to land by leasing it for a certain period. Investors are asked to pay up-front for land-use rights, fees and rents42 .

Over the following decades land-use systems have been evolving in China. One of the first things the administration did was to introduce a land-use fee* on foreign enterprises and joint ventures. The bureau of land administration, established in 1986, is responsible for and in charge of land policy reform, land allocation and acquisition, the monitoring of land development, comprehensive land-use plans, and the implementation of land laws. In an attempt to develop the land market in China, the Land Administration Law was passed in 1986, legalizing the private use of state-owned land by private companies and individuals. In 1991 the State Council pronounced ‘The Provisional Regulation on the Granting and Transferring of Land Rights over State-Owned Land in Cities and Towns’, setting the concrete legal framework for land letting, transferring, rent, and mortgage and land-use rights.43 Interestingly the Constitution had banned any transference of land-use rights in 1982, which was amended in 1988.

In 1989 land-use tax* was introduced, and all danweis* and individuals were obliged to pay tax for the use of land in cities, towns and industrial and mining districts.44 The rate of land-use tax depended on city size and profitability. In 1993 a land value increment tax* was introduced. Under the new legislation parties and individuals involved in transactions of land-use rights gained a net profit of more than 20%. This policy, effectively encouraging the transfer of land-use rights, was aimed at the massive spatial inefficiencies left by the Maoist era. Creating conditions which made it profitable to transfer unused land, it optimized land use and promoted urban and economic development.

The new legislation gave the danweis* an incentive to hand their accumulated excesses of land either back to the state, to developers, or to develop the vacant plots themselves, prompting increased land-use efficiency in existing danwei* owned areas. More efficient land-use patterns emerged across Beijing as ‘land-value’ based on land rent began to demarcate urban function. Traditional retail centres like Wangfujing and Xidan witnessed a renaissance as a result.

As the state maintained land ownership it also monopolized land supply. Although the market managed the resale or transfer of land-use rights, and so to some extent determined their value, the initial sale of land-use rights, and therefore the volume made available to the market, occurred solely through the state. This mixed system of a relatively free market operating within constraints laid down by an ultimately dominant state is the basis for China’s current “socialist market economy”.

5.4 The Fiscal Reform, “Zone Fever” and Green Belt Retreat

In the pre-reform era central government controlled almost all revenue and expenditure. Between 1949 and 1953 44% of the total fiscal revenue went to the central state. After 1978 various reforms led to a fiscal contracting system whereby local government only had to hand-over a fixed quota or a percentage of their fiscal revenue to higher-level government. This contract was subject to adjustment and negotiation. Effectively, this gave local government an incentive to stimulate the local economy as this would now generate more revenue for themselves. However, such concessions stipulated the fiscal revenue to central government. In 1994, the central government introduced a tax assignment system to increase central government’s share of the tax revenue. As a result, the central government revenue increased from 22% in 1993 to 55.7% 1994.

The local governments’ greatly decreased share of fiscal revenue meant that many were spending more than they where able to bring in. In order to make up for the shortfall local governments had to increase financial gain within their jurisdiction. Since revenue in cities came mainly through tax upon enterprise, facilitating business growth and attracting investment became a top priority. This made local governments overly keen on developing transport and communications infrastructure, often at the expense of social infrastructure like parks. The most profitable means to extract revenue from land in China is through the sale of land-use rights, and so the local administration pursued a course of supplying new development land through the highly contentious process of development zoning and the subsequent expropriation of rural land. This was facilitated by the state exercising eminent domain* over the use and conversion of rural land.

The incredible rate at which these development zones* were created in the 1990s has been referred to as ‘zone fever’. According to Hok-Lin Leung, a scholar on urban planning, ‘every administration, provincial as well as municipal, has bypassed central government to create their own “development zones” and embarked on an orgy of development and competition, each setting up its own tax policies, subsidy schemes and land policies.” Spatially this created a renewed wave of inefficient land use. Many such zones were discontinuous from the existing urban program, and the over supply of land meant many remain sold and fenced in, but undeveloped. This further exacerbated the splatter pattern* witnessed on Beijing’s urban periphery. The central government have recognised the myriad problems with such a developmental pattern and have at times issued directives putting new zoning practice below province level on hold. However, such practices continue unabated, and probably won’t change unless a new precision emerges in the fiscal relationship between central and local government.

Such strong commercial interests surrounding urban development and the strength of the local government sideline any attempts at urban planning beyond those which are first and foremost economically motivated. On the one hand these conditions are very favorable for the stimulation of local level economic activity. On the other however, the longer costs are often hidden. One obvious problem is the erosion of the effectiveness of environmental planning. The official urban plan of Beijing drawn up by the Urban Planning Bureau featured a green belt separating inner Beijing and outer Beijing. In reality, over 80% of the first green belt has been consumed by developers, and second green belt (planned as an amendment for the failure of the first ring) is already 40% gone and rapidly diminishing.

In such a spatially competitive and flexible environment even international businesses can lose out. One such well-publicized example is the forced relocation of Beijing’s flagship McDonald’s restaurant.

‘In Beijing, McDonald’s signed a 20-year lease agreement for what was the world’s largest McDonald’s […] However in December 1995, 2 years into the lease, McDonald’s noticed bulldozers leveling the structures adjacent to the Great Palace. To their chagrin, Hong Kong-based Li Ka Shing, one of the world’s wealthiest men, was backing a commercial-residential redevelopment site two blocks away from Tiananmen Square and this meant Ronald had to pack his McNuggets and leave. Industry experts say that McDonald’s should more or less accept this as a “part of doing business in a country whose rulers have placed a higher emphasis on rapid redevelopment than on contractual niceties.” Though they complained quite publicly and managed to get a weak promise from the administration to receive a future comparable site, McDonald’s appears to understand that this is the risk of doing business in China.’
– Ian Hunter, ‘Big Mac in China: And the Cattle Grew Restless’ Anomalies Project (Stockholm School of Economics & European Institute of Japanese Studies, 1997)

5.5 Rural Land Losses and the Introduction of the Farmland Protection Act

The state’s dominance in the field of land supply has made the expropriation of farmland for conversion into urban land (and the subsequent sale of land-use rights) a highly profitable activity for urban administrations. However it has caused large areas of fertile farmland to be lost to urban development and zoning practices. In 1988 Land Management Law was introduced to impose an annual land quota for the conversion of farmland to prevent excessive losses, and to protect against environmental damage. However, alongside fiscal restructuring and the changing priorities of local governments, these issues only ever attained a certain level of importance, and excessive land conversion continued. Between 1986 and 1995, agriculture lost more than 1,973,000ha to non-agricultural uses. It is thought that this figure, supplied by the China Statistical Bureau, may well be significantly low as it fails to acknowledge the large number of unauthorized transactions. The rapid depletion of farmland has caused alarm amongst top officials, and eventually in 1994 the State Council passed a set of Basic Farmland Protection Regulations, more popularly know as the Farmland Protection Act*. The act strictly forbids conversion of highly productive farmland into construction sites. This however has contributed much to the already discontinuous nature of the development zones and new urban areas set up by local governments. Development plans which encounter protected farmland have simply moved further out and built themselves on the other side, causing higher infrastructural cost and spatially inefficient structures. Beijing’s urban periphery has become a patchwork of agricultural and urban development, prompting the term splatter pattern*.

6.0 Conclusion

The spatial restructuring of the Chinese City is deeply rooted in the changing regime of accumulation, and the changing administrative structures which surround it. This process of transformation is driven by changes in macro-level policies, and by interactions with local social, political and economic forces. Some of these draw deep from Chinese history, exhibiting characteristics which derive from territorial structures centuries old, and the basic central / local dualism at their core.

The constant tension between the TMP* and PCMP* is more pronounced and confusing in the post-reform era as the boundary between the state and the market has become blurred. The transformation of Beijing should not be interpreted as ‘transitional’, which implies a convergence with the spatial pattern of market economy driven cities. Instead, the process of interaction between domestic and global forces, and between top-down and bottom-up processes, is highly vibrant and open-ended.

Under the dynamic environment of policy sprawl, the traditional notions of urban sprawl produced in the west, where state / market, and urban / rural relations are more defined, fails to provide an adequate understanding of the growth of Chinese cities. Policy sprawl is the result of the pragmatic and often ad-hoc approach of the Chinese administration when dealing with new demands on space. By retaining its dominant relationship to land while allowing a degree of market definition and flexibility, the Chinese state has managed to integrate the ingenuity of the local economy into nation wide policies of spatial production. By clearly setting forth cities as the ‘driving engines of growth’ the Chinese Administration opened up an unprecedented wave of urbanization on all levels. This appears to have been the state strategy in facilitating a new political economy.

At the urban periphery where the fastest and the most heterogeneous development is happening, the emergent spatial pattern and its efficiency will be highly dependent on any potential ‘resolution’ between the two dominant competing modes of urbanization and socio-economic interest. These can be characterised as state or formal-economy driven projects, and local or bottom-up developments. At the moment, such ‘resolution’ is the wholesale demolition of the space formed by bottom-up economy. As demonstrated in the case of the RUS*, where rural and urban phenomena developed into a symbiotic relationship, the potential for formal urbanization and local bottom-up urbanization to work together to produce healthy, efficient and lively urban tissue is completely missed by such demolitions. As urbanization continues to be the ‘driving engine’, the most pressing question for Chinese urban policy makers, planners and architects is, how can architecture and planning integrate such a complex emergent forms and make them work for the Chinese economy, rather than allowing them to deteriorate into the shanty towns that haunt so many of the world’s rising economies.

564 566 567 549


i Hairdressers in contemporary China are like massage parlors in the West — often a front for the sex trade.

ii Inconclusively and within no specialized framework, the urban discourse has at various points associated mono-functional developments, low-density developments, out of town retail centers, discontinuous or leapfrog developments and development zones*, gated communities, suburban sleeping towns, brandscapes, ExUrbs, downtown shopping malls, hypermarkets, land speculation, automobile dependency, even suburban growth, over abundance of infrastructure (infra-sprawl*) and new, usually out of town CBDs* with sprawl.

iii The distinction between capitalism proper and petty capitalism is that capitalism expands endlessly through the reinvestment of profit within a context of capital mobility, while the PCMP* ’s heavy reliance on patrilineage means that profit is accumulated, with each member standing to profit from death of successive generations. In addition, profit produced under the PCMP* in China is heavily extracted by the TMP* .


1. Walder, A. G. ‘The state as an ensemble of economic actors: some inferences from China’s trajectory of change’ Transforming Post-Communist Political Economy, Nelson, J.M., Tilly, C., Walker, L. (eds) Washington, DC: National Academy Press (1997) p.432-452
2. Laurence, J. C., Ma & Fulong Wu ‘Restructuring the Chinese City, Diverse Processes and Reconstituted Spaces’ Restructuring the Chinese City, Routeledge (2003)
3. Castells, M. ‘Culture, organizations, and institutions: Asian business networks and the developmental state’ The Rise of the Network Society Blackwells (1996) p.195-205
4. Goldsmith, M. ‘Local government’ Urban and Regional Policy, Brookfield, Pierre, J. (ed.) VT: E. Elgar (1995) p. 49-66,
5. Laurence, J. C., Ma & Fulong Wu ‘Restructuring the Chinese City, Diverse Processes and Reconstituted Spaces’ Restructuring the Chinese City Routeledge (2003)
6. Gates, H. China’s Motor, A Thousand Years of Petty Capitalism Cornell University Press (1997) p.19
7. Ibid. p.19
8. Ibid. p.270
9. Ibid. p.43
10. Fitzgerald, J. ‘The province in history’ Rethinking China’s Provinces Routeledge (2002) p.11–40
11. Shue, V. The Reach of the State Stanford University Press (1988)
12. Cartier, C. ‘City-space, Scale Relations and China’s Spatial Administrative Hierarchy’ Restructuring the Chinese City Laurence, J. C., Ma & Fulong Wu (eds). Routeledge (2005)
13. Lieberthal, K., Oksenberg, M. Policy Making in China: Leaders, Structures and Processes Princeton University Press (1998)
14. Laurence, J. C., Ma & Fulong Wu ‘China’s changing urban administrative system: spatial restructuring and local economic development’ Political Geography (2005)
15. Cartier, C. ‘City-space, Scale Relations and China’s Spatial Administrative Hierarchy’ Restructuring the Chinese City Laurence, J. C., Ma & Fulong Wu (eds). Routeledge (2005)
16. Yang, C., Wu, C. Zhong Guo Tu Di Shi Yong Zhi Du Gai Ge Shi Nian (Ten-Year reform of Land Use System in China) Zhong Guo Da Di (1996)
17. Department of Party History in Beijing City Planning and Design Bureau ‘Building Management Around 1954’ Important Affairs In Party History (1995) p.1
18. Delivered as part of a report by Mao Zedong on 5 March 1949 at the 2nd Convention of the Central Committee 7th National Congress of the CCP in Xibaipo Village, Hebai
19. Liang, S.C. Cultural Revolution Confessions (1968)
20. Wang, J. Chen Ji (City Journal) Sanlian (2003) p. 82
21. According to Marxist theory, to ensure the victory of the urban working class over the bourgeois capitalists in the inevitable class struggle, it is necessary first to ensure their number
22. Wang J. Chen Ji (City Journal) Sanlian (2003) p.60–73
23. Ibid. p.71
24. Ibid. p.82–86
25. Ibid. p.241–255
26. Ibid. p.66–72
27. Bertaud, A. and Renaud, B. Cities Without Land Markets: Location and Land Use The Socialist City The World Bank: Policy Research Working Paper No. 1477 (1995)
28. ‘The Great Relocation of Industrial Enterprises’ Beijing Daily 29 May 2001
29. Wang J. Chen Ji (City Journal) Sanlian (2003) p.291–295
30. Dutton, M. Street life in China Cambridge University Press (1998)
31. Rural land is still ‘collectively owned’ and each household with a rural hukou* can legally build three fangzi, which can mean anything from a single roomed shed to a 3 storey mansion
32. Liu, X., Liang, W. ‘Zhejiancun: Social and spatial implications of informal urbanization on the periphery of Beijing’ Cities 14(2) (1997) p.95–108
33. In-situ urbanisation is not unique to China but has counterparts in other south east Asian countries, where the term desakota is used. The term was coined by McGee, T. (1989, 1991) who identified these morphologies with Bahasa Indonesian, combining the word for village (desa) with that of town (kota).
34. National Bureau of Statistics
35. In the course of field trips we witnessed up to 30,000 migrant construction workers in one of the floating villages* in Wangjing. Workers were crammed within areas no bigger than 80x80m with virtually no amenities.
36. Castells, M. ‘Culture, organizations, and institutions: Asian business networks and the developmental state’ The Rise of the Network Society Blackwells (1996) p.195–205
37. This process has created alarming political tensions between urban and rural areas as compensation rates do not follow market values. This imbalance has been the focus of a wave of recent rural unrest in China.
38. Speaking in 1962 on his views regarding the emergence of private rural responsibility system which proved to be much more efficient than the party doctrine of rural collective communes. This eventually lead to his downfall during the Cultural Revolution, which branded him as a ‘Rightist’
39. Tang, W.S., Chung, H. ‘Urban-rural transition in China: beyond the desakota model’ China’s Regions, Polity and Economy: A Study of Spatial Transformation in the Post-Reform Era Li, S.M., Tang, W.S. (eds.) Chinese University Press (2000) p275-308
40. Ding, R. S. ‘Local Regime Construction’ Contending Series of Social Science, Volume: Politics and Law Cao, J. Y. (ed.) Shanghai People’s Press (1991) p.115–121
41. Laurence, J. C., Ma & Fulong Wu ‘The Chinese City In Transition’ Restructuring the Chinese City Routeledge (2003)
42. Ding, C. Land policy reform in China: assessment and prospects University of Maryland (2003)
43. Valletta, W. The Land Administration Law of China of 1998 and its impacts on urban development. Proceedings of the 2001 World Congress of Urban Planning Shanghai (2001)
44. Ding, C. Land policy reform in China: assessment and prospects University of Maryland (2003)

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  • danwei
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  • density
  • history
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  • splater pattern
  • the chinese dream
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