Jian Liu: Impacts of Urban-Rural Dual System on Spatial Development


On Thursday, November 17, 2016, Jian Liu, associate professor of urban planning and design at Tsinghua University School of Architecture, delivered the latest China Talk Series lecture on whether the challenges facing rural China can be addressed through the field of urban planning. Prof. Liu spoke to an audience of approximately 30 students, faculty, professional practitioners, and guests.

Prof. Liu began her talk by highlighting the massive scale and complexity of urban-rural dynamics in China. Every year, 16 million people migrate from rural to urban China, which explains the large scale of construction in the country. This trend has caused a large increase in the number of cities and towns in China over the last 30 years. At present, approximately 12 cities are built every year.

This in-migration to urban areas has caused a number of what Prof. Liu termed “urban problems.” Indeed, the huge increase in the size of cities has caused what is known locally as the “urban disease.” Symptoms include high price of real estate, congestion, pollution, and social inequity. This last symptom is manifested in spatial segregation between different groups as well as lack of access to welfare benefits for the poor and migrants without local Hokou.

On the other hand, a “rural disease” has taken hold in the areas outside China’s cities and towns over the last several decades as a result of mass urbanization. Economic development in rural areas is stagnant due to the lack of driving forces, leading to a low quality of life. The flow of population to the cities has created a dumbbell demographic structure with high concentrations of women, children, and the elderly in rural areas. Radical changes in social structure in rural areas has led to a collapse of community. In the most extreme cases, entire settlements are completely emptied out and become “hollow villages,” as they are known locally.

After outlining the basic dynamics of the urban/rural relationship in China, Prof. Liu went on to discuss the concept of the rural and urban systems. In English and in some national contexts, Prof. Liu posited that the urban/rural relationship is a duality. In China, however, the two terms and two realities are not fixed because of the complexity of the underlying spatial and administrative determinants.

The entire country is comprised of provinces, which are divided into municipalities, counties, or towns. These divisions of jurisdiction, however, do not necessarily correspond to densified, urban areas. For instance, the master plan for a densely populated urbanized area might not comply with or acknowledge jurisdictional boundaries. This leads to cities overtaking areas that are under rural jurisdiction, meaning that the boundaries of densified urban areas do not correspond to the formal urban and rural jurisdictional boundaries.

The land ownership regime in China is another layer of the urban/ rural divide. Urban areas are owned solely by the state, whereas rural areas are owned collectively by residents. In cities, the land is administered by the city itself, whereas in the countryside, the land is administered by local collective economic organizations. In cities, land can be traded, whereas in rural areas, only agricultural land can be traded (not construction land). There is no map showing the complex border between these different types of land ownership. Any map of ownership would be further complicated by the fact that many urban, built-up areas contain fragments of collective ownership that have been swallowed by the expanding city border.

Prof. Liu pointed out that given these jurisdictional particularities, the higher a territory is in the spatial hierarchy, the more power and rights its inhabitants enjoy. For instance, when the household registration and social welfare systems were formalized in the 1950s, they were meant to keep people in the countryside. However, in today’s urban-oriented China, rural residents coming to the city cannot access the same welfare benefits that urban dwellers enjoy, but they are attracted to the city’s economic promise nonetheless. The only way a rural resident can gain access to urban residency is by going to university, serving in the army, or being a government employee.

In 2015, it was estimated that there were 247 million rural residents seeking to obtain urban residency. A large portion of this population is considered “amphibious,” meaning that individuals migrate between the city and countryside on an annual basis to tend to crops during the harvest season and work in the city in the off-season. This large-scale annual migration poses a challenge for urban planners who want to design social service programs for those in need.

For a long time, planning only occurred in cities in China. Indeed, the City Law promulgated in 1989 limited urban planning administration to urban areas alone. The urban-rural planning law was subsequently promulgated in 2008, which expanded urban panning administration to rural areas as well.

Despite this expansion in the reach of planning, disordered construction at the urban fringe prevails. The green belt around Beijing, for instance, has been completely overtaken by peripheral construction. On the other hand, urban villages, which are part of rural counties, have been swallowed into the middle of dense, urban fabrics. In these areas, multi-family residences are built on collectively owned rural land, which is in fact an illegal practice given the ban on trading developed rural land. In effect this means many properties on the urban real estate market are in fact not legally allowed to be so.  Prof. Liu also mentioned the phenomenon of spontaneous rural development in the far urban hinterland, by which outlying villages near cities quickly develop due to their proximity to the urban center. These areas have very few services and often witness the destruction of rural cultural heritage. 

Planning practices first started to spread from the cities to towns and villages in the 1990s to help address the negative affects of urban growth on outlying rural areas. Rural planning in China follows the principle of “three concentrations,” which aims to optimize land use by concentrating industrial development to industrial parks, farmers in densely settled residential area, and farm lands in open cooperative farm holdings.

A plan along these lines has been completed for 94.1% of towns and villages, but the implementation of these plans has encountered great difficulty. This is in part due to the fact that rural plans are implemented by urban planners who have no experience with rural issues. Until now, such planners only considered spatial structure, never taking into account the issue of land ownership. When a plan is implemented, therefore, landowners become angry with the lack of provisions for equitable distribution of land ownership, which devolves into drawn-out negotiation processes. On top of these challenges, rural plans suffer from weak guidance and insufficient implementation.

In this vein, Prof. Liu highlighted a positive example of land readjustment as a tool to revitalize struggling towns. Land readjustment is seen as a tool to attract investment and boost development in troubled areas. In Gaoliying near Beijing, Shunyi District, Prof. Liu and her team developed a new plan that readjusted the town’s land and then distributed it to various parties at the local and district levels. Moreover, a township joint-stock company of collective-owned construction land was set up to trade the land on behalf of the collective owners.

This case study project in Gaoliying was proposed to the government, but in the end was not accepted. This might have been in part because the planners involved in creating the plan wanted to go to talk to the villagers to determine the best way to distribute land ownership through the readjustment process, but the government denied them permission. Prof. Liu speculated that this is probably because the government did not want villagers to start a participatory planning process and envision their community in a different way. 

Prof. Liu closed her lecture with a positive view towards future reforms. The New Urbanization Policy will include household registration reform, allowing farmers to obtain urban Hokou. In addition, there is a proposal to make collectively owned developable land tradable on land markets. If farmers can use their land more efficiently on real estate markets, they would be able to use their one major asset for economic self-betterment.

Following Prof. Liu’s lecture, Prof. Brent Ryan of DUSP raised several points of interest from the talk in his role as discussant. He first pointed out some uncanny similarities between the Chinese and post-Soviet model of land jurisdiction. Prof. Ryan argued that the inability of state-driven planning systems to deal with contemporary issues of planning in China rests in the ambiguity of the “half-market” economy; the state-driven system which worked relatively well in the past is now lacking the mechanisms to deal with a new economic, political, and social environment.

Prof. Liu responded to this comment by stressing that China has been a unified state for a very long time, making the idea of top-down planning a natural choice. However, when the market liberalized in the 1980s, new ideas emerged on how to run the market and the state system as a whole. The hybrid system that developed, while containing many flaws, is in fact versatile because it can lean towards more centralized or liberalized modes of intervention depending on the problem at hand.

Prof. Ryan then questioned whether the state of planning and the planning profession in China is similar to that in the post-Soviet countries, where it is characterized by a lack of correspondence between plans and reality, lack of plan implementation, and lack of knowledge among planners of what is going on outside the major cities. Prof. Liu responded that the education of new planning professionals is a huge challenge in China, which must be met in order to address the issues described in her talk. However, she explained that most graduates of professional programs work in cities, given the important role and prestige assigned to planners and the visibility of planning interventions in China’s large cities.    

Prof. Ryan closed the talk, summarizing that the critical balance in urban planning is among state action, planning action, and citizen action.  He concluded that planning will always be an inexact science, and that Prof. Liu’s lecture gave insight into the balance of these factors needed to address pressing issues in contemporary China.

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

In the past decades, while undergoing the unprecedented process of rapid urbanization, China has seen significant achievements and critical challenges as well in urban and rural development, among which the enlarging disparity between the urban and rural areas, along with the sustained expansion of the urban areas and the remarkable declining of the rural areas, is one of the facts which endangers the balanced urban-rural development for healthy urbanization. Undeniably, this is, to a considerable extent, due to the urban-rural dual system which dated from the planned economy period. Starting with the definition of urban and rural areas in Chinese context, this lecture firstly decodes the urban-rural dual system from the perspectives of jurisdiction, household management, and land management and analyzes the problems of spatial development it brought about at the macro level. It then takes the towns and villages in the metropolitan area of Beijing as example, to probe into the difficulties and trends of rural development at the micro level, and concludes with some thinking on the role of rural planning in rural regeneration.

Jian Liu received her bachelor degree in architecture and master's and Ph.D. in urban planning and design from Tsinghua University in 1991, 1994, and 2003, respectively. She is a Registered City Planner in China, Associate Professor of Urban Planning & Design at Tsinghua University School of Architecture, Managing Chief-Editor of China City Planning Review, and currently Fulbright visiting scholar at Graduate School of Design Harvard University. Her research focuses on urban and rural planning, urban regeneration, planning institution, and international comparison. She has published several books either independently or in collaboration with others, both at home and abroad, and her papers are also frequently seen in some well-known journals of urban planning, such as disP The Planning Review, China City Planning Review, City Planning Review, and Urban Planning International.

Recommended reading list:

  • WEN, T., Evolution of Rural Institutions in A Half-Century. Northern Economy, No.8, 2003, P12-16
  • HE, X., The Logic of Land Property: Where China's Rural Land System to Go. China University of Science and Law Press, Beijing, 2010
  • XIA, N. & Daixia WANG, An Analysis on the Reform of Rural Land Circulation and Urban-Rural Planning. Urban Planning Forum, No.3, 2009, P82-88
  • DANG, Q. & Dingqing ZHANG, Self-organization in the Development of Urban-rural Relations and its Significance in the Rural Planning of our Country. Urban Development Studies, No.3, 2014, P119-124
  • GUO, X., Qilong ZHAO & Guangbi LI, Changes of Rural Land Property System and Transformation of Rural Space: A Case Study of Southern Jiangsu Province. City Planning Review, No.8, 2015, P75-79