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  • The Great Urban Transformation: Politics of Land and Property in China by You-tien Hsing
  • Terry G. McGee (bio)
You-tien Hsing. The Great Urban Transformation: Politics of Land and Property in China. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. xiv, 278 pp. Hardcover $80.00, isbn 978-0-19-956804-8.

In the last two decades, China has moved rapidly to reach a level of urbanization that, by various estimates, reached 50 percent by the end of 2010. This figure, [End Page 87] which is often used as a threshold for defining an urbanized society, is subject to much debate because of the methods adopted in Chinese statistical systems of data definition and collection, a fact that Chan Kam Wing (1994, 2007) has been pointing out for almost twenty years. While his revisions would suggest slightly lower estimates of the urban population of China, they make little difference in the fact that China has experienced one of the most rapid urban transformations in the history of the world over the last forty years of the post-reform period. Furthermore, this transformation has involved an unprecedented increase in the population being added to urban areas. UN estimates suggest that China’s urban population will continue to grow, reaching a level of 75 percent by 2050 with an increase of more than 400 million people in the next forty years.

It is not surprising that this great urban transformation has attracted the attention of policy makers and researchers from both within and outside of China. In an era of global economic volatility, environmental challenges, and social transformation, the level of success that China achieves in responding to these urbanization challenges is important not only to China but also to the world at large, particularly the other developing countries of Africa and Asia where similar processes of rapid urban transformation are occurring. The idea that the Chinese developmental experience may offer a model for other developing countries is, of course, very relevant to the Anglo-European concept of the Beijing Consensus to which China, publicly at least, has been rather cool. However, the announcement at the 2012 meeting of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) leaders that discussed the establishment of a BRICS Development Bank that would fund projects in developing nations suggests that the ideas has some validity.

This is the broader context in which Hsing’s valuable book is situated. In this book, the author focuses on trying to provide the answer to two main questions: “[F]irst, how does the state and society shape and become shaped by the urban transformation in post-Mao China?” and, “[S]econd, how does space in the form of territoriality play a role in these contested processes?” (p. 23).

In order to answer these questions, Hsing makes the persuasive argument that “land has moved to the center of local politics in post-Mao China. It now shapes the restructuring of Chinese state power and radically impacts state-society relations” (p. 5). Central to this process is the manner in which land has become increasingly commodified since 1988 while not changing the basic constitutional provision of the state ownership of land. This has encouraged local governments to use land-centered accumulation and the rents from this leased land as a key strategy in local state building. It is further argued that the consequences of these processes are to reconfigure “relationships among the local state, the market and society” (p. 6) that are largely “the result of the distributional consequences of this land accumulation that trigger challenges to the process as the local state’s occupation and domination of territory are hotly contested” (p. 8). This assumes [End Page 88] various forms of resistance in different zones within the expanding urban territory that is the consequence of the urbanization process. Often this process is portrayed as a top-down, linear-driven process from national to local levels, sometimes called “state-led urbanization.” This is perhaps best represented by the idea that various administrative scales from national to local levels make up a form of embedded hierarchy, in which the various administrative scales are nested within national and subnational hierarchies. This facilitates more...


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