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How generalizable is the Chinese case? - By visiting Prof. You-tien Hsing

Publication date 28-05-2014

It was a great pleasure to present my research on China’s urban transformation at the Centre for Urban Studies in February this year. At the presentation I tried to theorize the intertwined relationship between urban building and state building. I called this dynamism “urbanization of the state.” During the Q&A, I was asked how I would generalize the Chinese urban experiences. This million-dollar question could be approached from various directions.

How generalizable is the Chinese case?

An arrogant response would be this: given the fact that the urban population in China today is about 710 million, more than one-tenth of the world population, the empirical scale should be grand enough to warrant any model building. Or, I could opt for a post-colonial approach of questioning the question that seemed to suggest China’s particularity as merely a “case,” constantly in need of justifying its theoretical significance and global implications.  Meanwhile, experiences of North America or Western Europe appear to be an unquestionable universal norm. 

But those responses are cheap shots. I think it is important to talk concretely about what urban China studies in the past three decades have contributed to our understanding of the state, the city, and the relationship between them. To begin with, works on China’s highly autonomous and entrepreneurial local states have greatly enriched the existing state theories.  By showing the politics of collaboration, competition and conflicts among state actors (not just the Weberian bureaucrats), the state is no longer seen as a coherent, machine-like “apparatus”, but multiple centers and processes of authority building.  Researches on massive urban projects financed and managed by municipal governments have demonstrated the decisive role of the local state in materializing and territorializing the state power.  The earlier treatment of the local state as a “crisis manager” or an “agent” to the principality of the State is proved too limiting to our understanding of the power dynamics of the state.  While urban theorists have elaborated much on the urbanization of capital with cases from traditional capitalist economies, China’s urban expansion today - with its colossal scale and unprecedented pace that has provoked explosive social contestations - could tell us quite a bit about the co-productive relationship between the city and the state of a statist market economy.  I hope my proposal of “urbanization of the state,” like that of “urbanization of capital,” could provide a reference point for comparative studies of urban dynamics at different times and places.

You-tien Hsing

You-tien Hsing is professor of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley and Distinguished Chair in China Studies. her research and teaching has been particularly focused on the political economy of development in East Asia, especially China. You-tien visited the Centre for Urban Studies mid February 2014 to give a special lecture on the profound impact of global urban experiments that are taking place today. The lecture was titled 'Urbanization of the Local State in China'.