Fulong Wu: Understanding Chinese Cities and Their Implication for Urban Theory


On September 23, 2016, Professor Fulong Wu of University College London delivered the first lecture in the fall 2016 China Talk Series, in which he highlighted unique aspects, challenges, and implications of urban growth in China. Prof. Wu visited the STL Lab from the Bartlett School of Planning, where he is the Bartlett Professor of Planning. He delivered his talk Understanding Chinese Cities and Their Implication for Urban Theory to an audience of roughly 30 students, faculty, staff, and guests.

Prof. Wu began by positing that cities function like glue that binds together social processes. These processes develop, self-perpetuate, and at times face oppositional challenges due to different social experiences. In this sense, these processes represent the emergent associations of urban life.

In this context, Prof. Wu asked what is meant by “emergent cities in China.” He argued that new cities in China must first be understood in their Chinese context; a new theory of Chinese cities cannot be immediately derived from pre-existing paradigms of urban development, such as that of the Global South. Chinese cities must be studied and understood, however, because they are opening up unique possibilities for collective action and change.

To understand Chinese cities on their own terms, Prof. Wu first problematized the ‘urban.’ He pointed out that there is no strict urban/ rural dualism in China. Many classifications supersede the ‘urban’ in China, most obviously the distinction between state employees, the urban population with workplace affiliation, and rural populations living within and on the fringes of Chinese cities. The urban therefore must be located within this nexus of social, political, and economic relations.

Prof. Wu based the rest of the talk on this framework, speaking about the experiences of rural migrants in urban China, existing residents inside cities, and suburbanization.

Rural migrants in urban China face discrimination as strangers in the city, and often live in impoverished urban villages. The expansion of industrial districts into rural areas creates desakota, which is a spatial mixture of villages and cities. The incorporation of villages into the urban fabric transforms rural life, creating three-in-one development, characterized by workshop-warehouse-residence dwellings. This typology is the earliest stage of the emergent Chinese city. Another typology is the factory dormitory, which breaks up traditional social networks and severely regiments the daily life of rural migrants. Urban villages are slowly upgraded over time, creating very dense settlements due to the conversion of low density housing into multi-story, high-density housing on the same footprint. 

Despite the radical transformation of these areas, they can develop an emergent sense of community due to the proximity in which individuals live to each other, as well as the increased necessity for reliance on one’s neighbors during the initial disorientation of urban life. Prof. Wu pointed out that emergent social networks have been confirmed by research on newly urbanized rural populations; as education and home ownership increased within these communities, the new social networks weakened.

Some urban villages end with demolition to make way for new development. This has created pressure on displaced families, who are not always fairly compensated and in some cases are relocated to distant sites. That said, there have been cases of inhabitants being compensated with apartments in newly created residential towers, which, when it happens, creates a millionaire in a second.

Prof. Wu distinguished rural migrants from existing urban residents on account of the latter’s typological diversity, which includes workers’ quarters, university quarters, and gated urban communities. Each typology comes with its own social characteristics. Some more wealthy residents reside in ostentatious gated communities on the urban fringe. In the extreme, replicas of European-style market towns have been created for the new middle class, such as Thames Town in the Songjiang District of Shanghai. While many houses are sold, this is mainly due to speculation, and the developments remain largely vacant.

The trends of social cohesion within urban communities have been the subject of discussion inside and outside of China. The Chicago School of Sociology first spoke of urbanism as a way of life with a concern over the moral order. Recently, Li Zhang spoke in her book In Search of Paradise on the emergence of gated communities in China and their social aspects. Fei Xaiotong, the Chinese sociologist, theorized differentiated associations based on family, religion, neighborhood, and country. Some such associations have shifted recently due in part to urban infill development that has increased residential density and altered dwelling structures to the affect of alienating residents from one another. At the same time, there are efforts to preserve social order in the Chinese city. For instance, the government has tried to develop traditional shequ , or neighborhoods, to maintain social coherence.

After touching on the topic of existing urban residents, Prof. Wu spoke on neoliberal suburbanism in China. He argued that this phenomenon is partially a product of entrepreneurial governance, which encourages the use of land to attract capital and then labor in order to foster economic growth. The devolution of fiscal responsibility in China with concomitant state control over local public sector appointees has led to ‘GDPism,’ by which cities vie with each other within China to attract the most capital. This competition focuses on promoting property development and place branding on cheap rural land, thereby using land sales to generate revenue and recycle profits. This model, which treats the city primarily as a financial enterprise, has created social exclusion and spatial fragmentation.

Prof. Wu concluded his talk by arguing that urban development in China can be understood as an interaction of world-scale development processes and local structures that are creating an emergent and complex urban phenomenon. This can be seen at the intersection of planning for growth versus planning for market, which David Harvey has called “neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics.” It can be seen in the commodification of social services for rural migrants (health care, education) as opposed to the benefits received by those with workplace affiliations in urban China. It can also be seen in the state’s tacit sanctioning and use of informality in urban villages to help control rent prices and ease social pressures. In short, cities in China are areas for development and investment, opportunities for rural migrants, and a financing tool to sustain local and fiscal balance.

Following Prof. Wu’s talk, Assistant Professor Jinhua Zhao of MIT DUSP acted as a discussant to stimulate a wider conversation. Prof. Zhao asked about the growth of planning as a profession in China, which Prof. Wu characterized as a commoditized professional service rather than a public task. Planning has found a new functionality in China due to urban sprawl and intensive development, and largely functions as a method of extracting greater value from real estate development. Prof. Wu compared this situation to the UK and other countries where planners are called upon to maintain spatial order and control negative externalities that could impact the market.

Prof. Zhao and Prof. Wu’s discussion also touched on the issue of informality, which Prof. Wu explained is largely a result of the different land use controls in cities and rural areas. The expansion of cities creates a vacuum in the organization of urbanized rural land, which the government has not shown interest in addressing. Prof. Wu also described how the new interest in property ownership in China has created a new interest in property rights, though there is often no recourse for dissenting residents of urban villages that have been slated for redevelopment.

The forum was opened to questions from the audience, which covered a wide variety of topics, including a question on what is next for Chinese cities from Dr. Yu-Hung Hong, director of the STL Lab. Prof. Wu answered that while there is little that is certain, the potential for a housing bubble and the presence of educated urbanites looking for cheap housing even in urban villages, among other factors, signals that housing will continue to be a huge lever for controlling the economy, with important social and political consequences.  Prof. Wu also answered questions on the policy implications of incrementalism (on which he has recently created a handbook), the lack of concern for social equity in Chinese planning and development, and the inevitability of informality so long as the discrepancy exists between urban and rural land use regimes.

Max Budovitch and Waishan Qiu, graduate fellows in the STL Lab, ended the talk by thanking Prof. Wu, Prof. Zhao, the STL Lab, and the audience for the first of many insightful discussions planned to take place as part of the fall 2016 China Talk Series.

-- Max Budovitch,  first-year DUSP student and STL Fellow


Fulong Wu is Bartlett Professor of Planning at University College London. His research interests include urban development in China and its social and sustainable challenges. He has recently published a book, Planning for Growth: Urban and Regional Planning in China (2015, Routledge). He was awarded 2013 Outstanding International Impact Prize by UK ESRC. He is an editor of International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. He has previously taught at Cardiff University and the University of Southampton.

This talk will review recent studies on urban China and discuss the implication of urban China research for the urban theory. Echoing the recent debate over specificity vs generality of the urban theory, this talk tries to understand the evolution of the concept of ‘the city’ in association with Chinese political economic changes and argues that the concept cannot be properly understood without interrogating the position of the city in its national economy, multi-scalar governance, the institution of land, dynamics of financing infrastructure. The making of the ‘urban’ has been made through transforming work-units into a more territorial-based economic governance – namely the city as an asset for growth. The presentation will discuss the development of new town and science parks as examples to illustrate how urban development has been orchestrated by the local state and how this development is operationalized. The understanding of Chinese cities opens up new possibilities of understanding the urban with a greater attention to governance which involves a wide range of actors in territorial politics. This also requires a more nuanced understanding of the complexity of city planning, because although the Chinese context of planning is quite specific, recent reading of entrepreneurial governance and declining of democratic participation in the West would need to be further interrogated.

Recommended reading list:
Commodification and housing market cycles in Chinese cities
Do rural migrants 'float' in urban China? Neighbouring and neighbourhood sentiment in Beijing
Emerging Chinese Cities: Implications for Global Urban Studies
Failing entrepreneurial governance: From economic crisis to fiscal crisis in the city of Dongguan, China
Housing in Chinese Urban Villages: The Dwellers, Conditions and Tenancy Informality
Informality and the Development and Demolition of Urban Villages in the Chinese Peri-urban Area
Planning for Growth: Urban and Regional Planning in China
State Dominance in Urban Redevelopment: Beyond Gentrification in Urban China