China’s Urbanization: The Next Challenge (Challenge for Whom?)

My advisor recently invited me to be his guest at the University of Virginia’s opening ceremony for their new China Office in Shanghai. Then, at the last moment, he bailed on attending. This was fine with me, as it wouldn’t be my first conference solo-mission. Though, as I was scanning through the email invitation on the train to Shanghai in the morning, I noted that it was a good thing I had decided not to go with jeans. First, because it was being held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, and, second, because it said in big bold font at the bottom ‘Business Casual Attire is Requested’.


The Waldof

After climbing the marble staircase and winding my way through a dark, wood-paneled hallway clogged with black suits, I collected my name tag and headed for the courtyard where I sat outside regretting my brown shoes and reading the lineup of panel discussions.

Just based on the conference title, China’s Urbanization: The Next Challenge, I was skeptical that any of the information would resonate with my personal philosophy on rural community development. Despite my advisor’s good intentions, I secretly felt a little offended he had invited me. Having actively tried to question the nearly universal assumption that modernization, whether state-led or via market reforms, must involve a rural-to-urban flow of people and resources, I assumed I would not be finding a like-minded cohort in attendance. As I read the lineup of topics, I felt the chip on my shoulder grow heavy:

Panel I: Architecture

Panel II: Business and the Economy

Moreover, stuck inside the conference schedule was a promotion for the ‘Shanghai Investing Summit’, which read:

“In an uncertain global economic and political context, investors are challenged to understand new opportunities and manage risk across national borders…The landscape for global investment promises great opportunity for those who can identify it, whether you seek to understand the implications of the full range of proposed global free-trade deals or individual countries’ free-trade zones.”

When I see things like this I feel like I’ve stumbled upon the contemporary version of cold war propaganda. My inbox and social media newsfeed are disproportionately flooded with articles about the climate crisis, and the political, social and economic crises sloshing around the globe the more that land, labor, and money are treated as full commodities guided only by the pockets of global investors and the IMF/World Bank rules of free trade. ‘Whoa! Look!’ The voice in my head says, ‘There’s still real people out there who don’t acknowledge the contradiction of economic growth based on long-term ecological decline, nor the involvement of the West and global elites in the creation of many of China’s social and environmental problems.’

Needless to say, this was not going to be a ‘let’s deconstruct modernization, the state, and the market’ conference. Two of the first topics to be mentioned were land-use efficiency and urban hukou reforms[1].

As one speaker commented:

We have to have a careful consideration of how to use the land more efficiently…density of the city is most important…how to provide public housing inside the city is much more important than providing public housing anywhere else.”

And another said:

“…in the coastal mega cities in China, now there are two types of residents, residents with hukou and residents without hukou…if you live in the city and you don’t have the hukou registration you have problems: you will be biased against, you will have lower income, it is difficult for you to participate in higher-income professions, and these people are generally unhappy, and their trust level is significantly lower…

Western media outlets have also addressed these issues from an efficiency angle and rights-perspective, with little mention of the highly polarized debate surrounding these problems.

Take, for example, what Ian Johnson[2] from the NYT had to say last Spring:

“…Another is reforming farmers’ land rights. Land is owned by the government, with only usage rights available to be bought or sold. Giving farmers more rights over their land would make it harder for bureaucrats to confiscate rural land.

Or, in contrast, what The New York Times Editorial Board[3] had to say just a few days later:

Because the Chinese government owns all the land, rural residents have only the right to use the plots that they farm and cannot easily sell or transfer those rights to other people. That keeps many farmers tied to their land. The government should make it easier for farmers to buy and sell usage rights in a transparent market.”

Like Ian Johnson said, on the one hand, maybe rural farmers don’t want to give up their collectively-allocated land (no, rural land is not owned by the state, but village collective governance is a problem he just decided to ignore), and private land rights will protect rural farmers from local officials who expropriate it for development projects and then force them to move into urban high rises.

Or, on the other hand, some, like the NYT Editorial Board, claim that with market-oriented land reforms (aka privatization of land), farmers will no longer be tied to the land that has been allocated to them through their village collective. They will then be free to sell their land on the open market, and, along with a loosening of urban hukou restrictions, they can enjoy the benefits of full urban citizenship while receiving the market value price of their land.

At the heart of the crossroads over the trajectory of China’s rural reforms is the transitory nature and status of many rural migrant workers who have collectively-allocated land in the countryside, but jobs in the city. China’s outdated land policies are screwing up all the land-use efficiency problems because rural migrants hold onto their land while working in the city, so farmers that stay in the countryside can’t consolidate their plots to make big farms. Meanwhile, the urban hukou policies are screwing up all the labor efficiency problems because many migrants can’t change their rural hukou to become full urban citizens.

No matter whether these rural citizens/migrant workers want to sell their land and move to the city, or keep their land and stay in the countryside,  market-driven land reform and urban hukou reforms seem like the appropriate solutions because (hypothetically) under a private land rights institution they could more easily defend their land from rapacious local officials, so they would probably be more willing to invest in it to create large-scale farms. Moreover, with urban hukou reforms, they could sell their plot, receive the full market price of their land, and then change their hukou to urban and enjoy the benefits of full urban citizenship. Land privatization and urban hukou reforms could solve both the land and labor efficiency problem while protecting farmers from land seizures by local officials.

The problem is that if a rural citizen sells their land and changes their hukou from rural to urban, they may never get their rural land back no matter what job they might find in the city or how high the cost of living might rise. Meanwhile, land privatization is inextricably tied to economies of scale. If land were privatized so the state (hypothetically) can’t push farmers off it, then agribusiness, farm employers, and local elites will push them off it via competition and vertical integration. This sort of development is often viewed as ‘just’ because it happens through the market rather than by the state.

The paradoxical condition of rural migrant workers is not to be taken lightly. A fundamental reason why China weathered the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and 2008 meltdown is because when factories laid off rural workers, or rural migrants otherwise couldn’t gain enough income through their jobs in cities, they still had their collectively-allocated land and rural communities to fall back on as a basic source of subsistence and security.

Collective land ownership continues to play an important role in protecting rural residents from the state and from market volatility. It is the base for farmers to engage in collective action against unjust land seizures by local officials. If land were privatized, they would each have to defend their land on their own, and it would be much less likely that anyone would hear their plights in the face of official abuse, natural disasters, or market fluctuations and manipulations.  Plus, rural citizens’ collective land ownership rights buffer them from transnational corporations and global investors who are yearning to bust through that barrier to exploit their land and labor.

Not to mention the increasingly apparent environmental consequences that result when rural citizens’ last source of security and subsistence – their land – is sucked dry for everything it’s worth.

At the end of the conference, I felt the chip on my shoulder slowly dissolve when the final speaker came to the podium with these comments:

We need to break down dichotomies, we need to break down theories of dialectics and contradictions. What were some dichotomies that need to be broken down and synthesized? The dichotomy between city and agriculture. The dichotomy between rich and poor. The dichotomy between where you live and where you work. The dichotomy between planning and markets. The dichotomy of many kinds, between private and public spaces. The list goes on and on, and I think that is a very interesting way of thinking about a testing pattern of growth for what other countries and societies might look like…The US also has to get its act together and manage our contradictions better… These are not just Chinese problems, but new strategies of dealing with the contradictions of growth and development.

 [1] In China urban land is owned by the state, and rural land is owned by the collective. Citizenship is divided between urban and rural via the ‘hukou’ or household registration system. Under the hukou system, all of your government benefits (public school, health care, social security) are determined by the town or city in which your hukou is registered. As an urban citizen in one of the big cities like Beijing or Shanghai, your benefits may be way better than those of a rural citizen. However, as a rural citizen, you are allocated a plot of land through the collective as a basic source of security and subsistence.  Rural migrant laborers (about 1/3rd of the population) and rural industrial workers are second-class citizens in these big cities because they are excluded from the benefits of full urban citizenship while working in cities, but they have the security of their land and rural community to fall back on should they lose their urban jobs, which as a migrant laborer or industrial worker can be insecure and exploitative.

[2] Ian Johnson. ‘China Releases Plan to Incorporate Farmers Into Cities.’ The New York Times. 17 March 2014.

[3] The New York Times Editorial Board. ‘Urbanizing China’, The New York Times. (23 March 2014)


About elenakayes

The key to understanding exists at the nexus where self-interest and practice meet power and policy; I explore this nexus through participatory field research.
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