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  • History in China's Urban Post-Modern
  • Helen F. Siu (bio)
You-tien Hsing . The Great Urban Transformation: Politics of Land and Property in China. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, 256 pp.
Li Zhang . In Search of Paradise: Middle-Class Living in a Chinese Metropolis. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010, 272 pp.

Building upon decades of global market flows, population migrations, digital technology, and accelerated interconnectedness, the twenty-first century is facing remarkable urban transformations (Harvey 1990, 2005; Sassen 2001; Holston 1999; Brenner 2004). In 1800, 3 percent of the world's population lived in cities. In 2008, that figure reached over 50 percent (Population Reference Bureau 2011). These transformations are most evident in the emerging nodes of an interreferencing urban Asian renaissance (Roy and Ong 2011). Eight of the world's ten megacities (those with populations over ten million) are in Asia. In postreform China, which is conscious of its rising power and eager to catch up with worldly pursuits, city building has reached the scale, intensity, and audacity of a revolution (Campanella 2008; Ren 2011). What characterizes this dramatic urban transformation in China? Who are its major players and winners, and who is marginalized or excluded? What cultural meanings and lifestyles are visibly forged? How are these processes intertwined with nationalistic aspirations, social divisions, and political contestations? What analytical insights and theoretical reflections can we gain [End Page 245] at this historical juncture from an urban postmodern linking China, Asia, and the rest of the globe? These are some of the issues in the minds of Asian scholars across the disciplines. I hope this review will provide an opening for us to engage in multiple conversations, hence my citing the works of many colleagues.

Zhang and Hsing have well established records of research in postreform urban China that explore the empirical and theoretical concerns of anthropology and human geography (Zhang 2001, 2002, 2006; Hsing 2006a, 2006b; Hsing and Lee, 2009). Reviewed here are two timely books addressing questions that urgently need answers. Both books privilege the issue of urban space: the power play and cultural meanings attached to its acquisition, ownership, and control, and the institutional and discursive strategies arising from its contestations. Hsing and Zhang engage a critical scholarly tradition on the social life of things, the semiotics of materiality, and the constructionist qualities of boundaries and identities (Appadurai 1986; Bourdieu 1984; Gupta and Ferguson 1992; Lefebvre, 1991). They join other China scholars in treating space not as a passive repository of social content, but as a series of material and symbolic forces that interact with regional histories, livelihoods, subjectivities, and political contestations (Cartier 2009; Oakes and Schein 2006; Siu 2005; Wang 2005). The two works also complement each other. Hsing turns to laws, regulations, and institutions related to commodifying land and property that have triggered a new wave of local state-making and territorial civic actions. She offers a view of macro political economy across regions. Zhang takes a close-up look at identities forged out of consumption practices in a few city neighborhoods. Perceiving that the privatization of housing since the 1990s has driven new regimes of living and sociality, Zhang devotes her attention to the aspirations, cultural styles, and agendas of increasingly assertive homeowners whom she characterizes as an emergent "middle class." Together, the two authors highlight the complex dynamism and contingencies of what Michael Herzfeld terms, on the back cover of Zhang's book, "wholesale spatial restructuring of Chinese society and subjectivity" and capture processes of creative destruction in every imaginable dimension.

Hsing conducted her research from 1996 to 2007. Beginning in coastal cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, she extended her sites to capitals of inland provinces such as Changsha, Zhengzhou, and Chengdu, and [End Page 246] supplemented this body of data with interviews in Jinan and Nanjing to examine diverse state and societal actors. She observes that "the new theater of accumulation and distribution" for China's political economy has moved from industrial development to urban construction. Urban expansion builds on acquisition of farmland and, at times, on forceful dispossessions of rural and inner-city residents by local governments. This shift in policy priorities has been complicated by a...


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