The Politics of Urban Development

Since the 1990s, we have witnessed the emergence and rise of major metropolises across China including cities such as Shanghai which has become a global economic and financial hub. Yet, behind the glamour of these economic powerhouses, the concentration of urban growth and resources in these large metropolises has exacerbated regional inequalities. This widening disparity brings considerable political risks to Beijing by fueling social tensions and posing governance challenges. In fact, existing literature has highlighted Beijing’s continued suspicions of overly swift growth as large cities could potentially become difficult political spaces for governance. Thus, Beijing has maintained a historical preference for a mixed developmental model of active diversification and balancing of urban and industrial growth. Given these challenges and Beijing’s political preferences, why do we still observe uneven urban development patterns in contemporary China?

Kyle A. Jaros, Associate Professor of Political Economy at the University of Oxford who studies the politics of subnational development and central-local relations in contemporary China, explored this inherent dilemma in China’s urban development and the politics behind government policies in this area. More specifically, he examined the political drivers of uneven development patterns and policies that prioritize development in certain places while neglecting others. Jaros conducted detailed case studies of Jiangsu, Hunan, Jiangxi, and Shaanxi provinces; completed 13 months of field work; interviewed main actors including local officials, urban planners, businesspeople, experts at local policy institutes; and analyzed Chinese-language sources. 

His main finding is that provincial governments have played a leading role in determining the extent of metropolitan bias - favoring the largest, most economically advanced urban areas at the expense of reinforcing spatial and social disparities. Indeed, provincial authorities’ perspectives and interests in urban development differ considerably from those of Beijing. To subnational authorities, big cities embody evidence of economic dynamism and prosperity and their policies’ effectiveness. Provincial and local officials and party secretaries have limited tenures. Thus, they are incentivized to focus on developing large metropolises for their personal career advancements. Building large cities has also served as a key strategy for provincial authorities in inter-province competitions for human capital and other resources. Subnational officials subscribe to the spatial trickle-down notion that a developed metropolitan center would help outlying areas. 

In the case of Hunan, the in-land province struggled with losing human capital to other nearby regions and coastal cities. In response, officials in Hunan province have focused on the development of its major city of Changsha which was a part of the provincial party secretary, Zhang Chunxian’s strategy of continued prioritization of advantageously placed areas. This metropolitan-oriented development model has been commonly implemented across various provinces. This strategy requires provincial cohesion and coordination between provincial policy elites. In Hunan, provincial officials maintained their cooperation and support for Changsha’s urban and industrial development despite shifts in the state’s priorities and city-level resistance in the 2000s.

By highlighting the key role that second-tier actors such as provincial officials play, Jaros’ work helps us rethink development politics in contemporary China. This framework also applies to the most recent urban development initiatives under Xi Jinping. For instance, the development of the Xiong’an new area, which is one of Xi’s signature initiatives, has been spearheaded and coordinated by provincial officials. Jaros’ presentation was based on his new book, China’s Urban Champions: The Politics of Spatial Development. To learn more about his research, please click here.

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