China’s Urban Century: Governance, Environment and Socio-Economic Imperatives

Ren, Xuefei. [Book review of] François Gipouloux (ed.), China’s Urban Century: Governance, Environment and Socio-Economic Imperatives. Pacific Affairs [En ligne], 2017, n° 2, p. 92. pp. 335-337. URL : (consulté le 30 mai 2017).

In the field of urban China studies, most scholarship to date is produced by single authors or a small number of collaborators, and it is rare to see large-scale collaborations involving multiple universities and dozens of researchers. China’s Urban Century is an example of such collaboration. It is a collection of articles resulting from a collaborative research project “UrbaChina: Sustainable Urbanization in China,” funded by the European Union from 2011 to 2015. The research team included scholars, practitioners, and policy makers based both in China and Europe, and representing diverse fields such as sociology, geography, planning, design, architecture, and law. The project is collaborative in the true sense, as most chapters are coauthored by Chinese scholars and their European counterparts.

Four cities are featured in the book to examine key issues concerning urban governance: Shanghai, Chongqing, Kunming, and Huangshan. However, it is never explained why these four cities are chosen, especially in the case of Huangshan, a relatively little-known municipality in Anhui Province. To a certain extent, these cities can represent China’s top-tier, second-tier, and small cities, and can offer excellent cases for comparison. But no comparative analyses are attempted, and the selection of the cities seems to be based on convenience, reflecting the home bases of the Chinese contributors to the book.

The theme and organization of the book are a bit puzzling too. The book does not focus on any single theme, but covers a wide range of disparate topics—perhaps out of a concession to the research interests and professional expertise of individual contributors. These various topics—central-local relations, hukou reform, social housing, eco-cities, etc.—are loosely grouped into four sections, and chapters examining similar topics are placed in separate sections.

The book  is a commendable attempt to jointly investigate a wide range of issues on urban social change in China, but unfortunately this collaborative research effort does not go deep enough to generate new insights. Most chapters offer familiar accounts and confirm what we already know. For example, section 1, titled “institutional foundations,” examines the market reform in hukou, land, and housing sectors. Drawing upon secondary literature and policy documents, the discussion reveals that the dual-track land market has created problems for planning and property development (chapters 3 and 4), that the hukou reform lacks serious commitment to improve the social welfare of migrant workers (chapter 5), and that migrant workers have limited access to the formal housing market (chapter 6). Similarly, in section 2, titled “environmental and social infrastructure,” the contributors discuss the well-studied dilemmas faced by local governments in China, such as conflicts between environmental protection and economic growth, and between historical preservation and gentrification.

Chapter 10, on social housing programs, stands out in the book by offering a compelling story of how housing prices and the demographics of migration have shaped local policies on social housing in Shanghai and Chongqing. Elosua and Ni conducted fieldwork interviews and surveys in a number of social housing projects in the two cities. Chongqing has constructed more social housing units than any other Chinese city, and many of its social housing projects are well equipped with infrastructure and amenities, and have decent access to public transit. However, the interviews reveal that migrant tenants want to move out as soon as they can and purchase their own apartments. This is partly due to the relatively low housing prices in Chongqing—i.e., within reach for skilled migrant workers—but also, the authors tell us that migrant workers resent living with their neighbours, many of whom are resettled local farmers. Compared to Chongqing, Shanghai’s social housing program is minimal. It has only a small number of projects completed and these are mostly reserved for young professional migrants. The social housing projects in Shanghai studied by the authors have few amenities and poor access to public transit. But most tenants expressed a strong desire to stay, as they can take advantage of the cheap rent and also they enjoy living with their neighbours—i.e., other young urban professionals. The study thus reveals the little-known emerging class divisions in China’s new social housing projects.

Instead of trying to be comprehensive, the book could have benefitted from focusing on a smaller number of topics and delving deeper into each of them, perhaps with comparative analyses. For example, it would be a good contribution to the field if the book had illuminated how the various urban planning experiments and policy reforms discussed, such as eco-cities, redevelopment of inner cities, and hukou reforms, are carried out and lead to different outcomes in top-tier, second-tier, medium, and small cities.

Overall, this is an admirable group effort by Chinese and European scholars and institutions to jointly study Chinese urbanism. It offers useful narratives that map the macro trends of Chinese urbanization.

Xuefei Ren, Michigan State University, East Lansing, USA

Monique Abud

Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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Monique Abud

Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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