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  • To Thrive, Survive, and Prosper as an Ordinary Urbanite
  • William Jankowiak (bio)
Xuefei Ren. Urban China. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013. xx, 218 pp. Paperback $22.95, isbn 978-0-7456-5359-4.

China, one of the world’s oldest agrarian civilizations, will very soon become one of the world’s youngest urban civilizations. In this brief, albeit impressive, overview, Xuefei Ren has provided a much needed comparative framework for understanding the range of the urban scale and, more important, shows how ordinary Chinese are trying to thrive, survive, and prosper. He focuses on fifteen cities and tries, when possible, to include smaller and mid-range cities, where China is seeing its most rapid growth. The country’s rapid urbanization is helping to lift hundreds of millions of rural Chinese out of poverty. At the same time, the new second-tier cities are locked into a ferocious competition and spawning ambitious development plans. Today, it seems as if every Chinese city wants to develop into a world city with an international airport, six-lane highways, and export zones. The concept of integrated growth, however, appears to be a foreign concept. China has 129 cities with a population over one million, compared to nine in the United States. The Chinese urban population is growing at 2.5 percent a year, making it one of the fastest growing rates in the world. Most of this growth is pushed at the local level, beyond the guidance of central government. The result is often wasteful replication as well as exciting creative innovation.

How can we make sense of this enormous social change? Ren argues that the neoliberal model is overly materialistic in its power to explain. It ignores the persistence of historical forces, such as the socialist legacy (e.g., high literacy rates, good education, long adult life expectancy) and its postsocialist institutional arrangements (e.g., creation of township and village enterprises) that laid the structural foundation for China’s economic takeoff. The neoliberal model cannot explain the short period of time in which China has become the second largest economy in the world, nor why other emergent economies—India, Russia, [End Page 38] and Brazil—that also embrace neoliberal policies have not grown at a similar pace.

Ren points out that socialist urban policies were characterized as industrialization without urbanization, while in the reform era urbanization was funded through large-scale capital accumulation. In this way, China’s economic boom is an urban boom, and its economic miracle is an urban marvel.

Ren discusses how urban sites are governed. He notes that Chinese cities are embedded in a complex system of hierarchical and horizontal authorities. He finds that decision-making power has shifted from central ministries to territorial authorities, especially to its municipal governments. The expansion of cities is directly linked to control over rural land. Nearly three hundred counties have been converted into cities, by order from the central government. This resource of power has provided government officials with the ability to undertake massive urban construction that has changed the urban landscape. This process has further resulted in an expansion of the outward acquisition of more land. The relocation of heavy industries from the inner cities relieves population pressure and encourages property development. Together, these policies have produced a hybrid land market with public ownership and private use rights.

Why do Chinese cities look the way they do? An examination in settlement types finds that the state plays a critical role in remaking the city. By pushing policies such as “master plans, sponsorship of international architects, partnerships with private capital, and repression of popular demands” (p. 115), the central government contributed to the creation of numerous satellite towns found on the outskirts of every large Chinese city. The satellite towns serve as entry points for rural migrant workers to transition from the farm to the city.

China’s urban transformation has also resulted in a huge socioeconomic status gap: migrants account for only a third of urban residents. China’s antiquated hukou system turns 221 million migrant workers into second-class citizens in their own country. Migrants live in villages in the city (ViCs) (chengzhongcun) that supply them with cheap lodging and proximity...


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pp. 38-40
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