Xuefei Ren 2013: Urban China. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Article first published online: 23 DEC 2013
© 2014 Urban Research Publications Limited
International Journal of Urban and Regional Research
Volume 38, Issue 1, pages 373–374, January 2014
How to Cite
Wang, Z. (2014), Xuefei Ren 2013: Urban China. Cambridge: Polity Press. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 38: 373–374. doi: 10.1111/1468-2427.12137_8
- Issue published online: 23 DEC 2013
- Article first published online: 23 DEC 2013
A 30-year urbanization process has radically transformed Chinese society, as manifested in ‘the changing governing institution, the redistribution of wealth, and the remaking of citizen rights’ (p. xiii). Xuefei Ren has ambitiously written Urban China, the first comprehensive book about China's urbanization process and its status quo. In it, Ren seeks to answer three fundamental questions. How can we understand Chinese urbanization in the context of global capitalism? How have Chinese urban governing institutions and central–local dynamics changed during the urbanization process? What is the cost of aggressive urban development, and which groups are the most neglected and underprivileged?
In Urban China, Ren has drawn intensively from existing literature on the research trends of modern China and at the same time brought forth vivid personal stories to help non-expert readers become more familiar with issues of Chinese urbanization. Ren has also tactfully blended the latest hot social topics into her systematic analysis, such as Bo Xilai's downfall in the course of Chinese Communist Party reform, dingzihu residents' resistance aimed at achieving greater compensation packages, Wukan's peasants' opposition to land grabs, and the one-dimensional living conditions of Foxconn's migrant workers. Inquiring into the latest issues, however, was not her intention. Ren set out instead to explore China's economic growth through an urban lens, in an effort to explain the puzzle of China's economic miracle. She suggests that the ‘urban bias in policymaking’ (p. xv), at both central and local levels, has contributed greatly to GDP growth while at the same time causing uneven urban–rural development and social disparities.
Divided into six chapters, together with an independent short preface and conclusion, the book is well organized. Chapter 1 introduces the debate about China's rise to prominence and summarizes the country's urbanization process. Chapter 2 (the most fascinating part of the book and a valuable contribution to modern China's urban governance studies) introduces two vital analytical perspectives: (1) the changing governance institutions in general and central–local dynamics in particular; and (2) the hybridity of the retained socialist political tradition and the newly introduced neoliberal enterprising governance. Chapter 3 adopts an ecological approach, depicting an urban landscape in modern China. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 focus on the separate issues of migration, inequality and cultural economy respectively. The content of chapters 4, 5, and 6 is weaker than that of the former chapters because most of it is based on a secondary literature review and on the author's previous work; this repurposing is perhaps the major limitation of the book. However, Ren's latest observations provide evidence of new urban theories and refute outdated ones.
Chapter 2 is the most engaging part of this book, not only because it lays the foundations for understanding later chapters' themes (immigration, inequality) but also because it exposes the roots of why migrant workers and rural residents are the most underprivileged groups. Ren argues this positioning is caused by state strategy; central government adopted the hukou system to ‘concentrate resources in urban areas’ (p. 51) and ‘exploit the peasantry by unequally distributing welfare resources’ (ibid.) between urban and rural sectors. Moreover, as ‘the decision-making power has shifted from central ministries to territorial authorities’ (p. 193), local governments similarly used the hukou system to change village farmers' hukou status from rural to urban in order to take their land as revenues. In addition, city governments have shown great enthusiasm for infrastructure production and large-scale urban renewal projects, and have vigorously engaged in land leasing and housing markets (due to their heavy dependence on these revenue streams as sources of income). As a result, local authorities have engaged in massive land grabs, generating serious social conflicts and a series of protests. Under social pressure, the state has endeavored to balance economic growth and social stability, whereas local governments have focused purely on GDP growth as their primary goal. As Ren states, ‘central regulations have met strong resistance from local governments and have had no substantial effects’ (p. 70). This chapter also examines the changing governing units since the collapse of the danwei system and the emergence of the new socio-spatial institution: community (shequ). Along with the dissolution of majority state-owned enterprises, danwei lost its major social function; instead, the community began to ‘fill the void in social service provision’ (p. 84), using a neoliberal style of governance to a certain degree.
In the complex urban landscape described in chapter 3, the central business district, symbolic architectural icons, remodeled heritage space and building-dense residential communities stand at the core, while satellite suburban new towns, functioning university towns, struggling art spaces, luxurious exclusive villas and isolated manufacturing zones occupy the periphery. The process of ‘making, remaking, and unmaking of urban landscape’ (p. 192) confirms Neil Brenner's (2013) thesis that the urban is essentially a process, ‘one that is integral to the larger dynamics of global capitalism’ (p. 191).
In her overview of migration, inequality and cultural economy issues (chapters 4, 5 and 6), two incisive perspectives should be highlighted. First, in recent labor strikes, second-generation migrant workers with an emerging consciousness of market-economy ideology have begun to pursue ‘interest-based’ protests instead of traditional ‘rights-based’ resistance (p. 134). Second, the booming urban cultural economy has quickly become a new mode of social control, with the ‘resurfacing of state control over cultural production’ (p. 190).
With its abundant literature reviews and comprehensive coverage, this book would be particularly beneficial for any Chinese studies scholars, students, social activists and policymakers in helping to better understand recent developments in Chinese society. In addition, the rich empirical work and critical analysis of the consequences of urbanization not only benefit urban theory development, but also provide policy suggestions for the forthcoming wave of new urbanization in China.