Hsing, Y. T. (2006). Land and territorial politics in urban China. Description and Critique

Hsing, Y. T. (2006). Land and territorial politics in urban China. The China Quarterly, 187, 575-591.


In her article, “Land and Territorial Politics in Urban China,” You-Tien Hsing describes the politics of urban development in China. She highlights the competition between municipal government leaders and central government bureaucrats, or “socialist land masters,” whose administrative functions carry over from the vertically structured tiao-kuai system of the socialist period (p. 576). Such competition results from decentralization policies which granted more authority to local governments in shaping their urban political economy. Urban development rests on the decision making of state officials who exchange land use rights and authorize development projects. The incentives of increased revenue from land use sales and taxation generate competition between government leaders at various levels to increase their “territorial authority” over the city, thus creating a hodgepodge of development companies (many government owned) with contradictory planning strategies and often unlawful development practices (p. 582). While government officials compete for greater territorial control through development projects, residents are often caught in the middle trying to defend their own rights against official corruption and the destruction of their home to new construction (p. 590). Hsing concludes that in decentralized post-reform China, municipal governments must balance between their ambitions for greater territorial control against the authority of socialist land masters and the expectations of residents who often suffer from the politics of development (p. 591).


You-Tien Hsing sets forth a compelling narrative for the politics of land development in urban China. She gives due attention to the effects of decentralization on enabling municipal governments to leverage control over urban development while balancing the interests of socialist land masters with the expectations of the public. She convincingly attaches land ownership rights to the state as enabling state actors to manipulate land development as if they were private owners. However, Hsing could more forcefully argue the point that state land tenure creates the conditions for intra-governmental competition (in place of private competition), and that state land tenure facilitates the disenfranchisement of the public.

State land tenure, more than decentralization of urban politics, sets up conditions in which local governments and state organs compete for control of urban land. The fact that land ownership resides with the state and not with private parties constitutes the premise on which intra-governmental competition can operate. How municipal governments react to the urban land market or to competition from district level officials or from socialist land masters presupposes that the public exists outside of the framework of territorial politics and possesses no agency in determining the outcomes of land ownership. The absence of legitimate private agency creates space for government officials to act with a high degree of unaccountability and  impunity in determining what kinds of projects develop in certain places according urban planning schemes devoid of public input. State land tenure leaves out an enormous sector of the population which consequently finds itself in the path of surveyors and excavators who descend from a detached realm of political power. Exactly how state land ownership facilitates the privileged positions officials enjoy in reaping enormous personal and financial gains from playing the land exchange and development market is not addressed by Hsing.

The disenfranchisement of the public in the development process is another point largely underdeveloped by Hsing. She mentions how residents mobilize to resist unjust reconstruction and resettlement schemes toward the end of her article. She points to the discombobulated political-economic competition among government entities as the cause of unjust development practices which lead to resistance. While her point is not unfounded, a more precise explanation for why residents are placed in the path of unjust development practices is that the state land ownership system excludes them. Even though private parties may buy the usage rights to commercial and residential property in China, they do not enjoy ownership, which prevents citizens from applying leverage against greedy developers enabled by local officials. State land ownership enables government officials to determine the fate of urban development through state ownership rights. It also effectively disenfranchises the public from determining the factors of development or from putting authoritative constraints on developers and government officials. Hsing could have expanded more on this subject as a way to provide both texture and scope to her analysis of urban politics in the city.

Research Suggestions:

The research suggestions I put forth entail discussion on the consequences of state land ownership and the disenfranchisement of the public. Land tenure addresses the issues of land ownership, land use, and economic exploitation of land as a resource, including who benefits from land control. Government agencies and officials benefit the most as state land control creates the conditions in which government actors compete for economic and political gains, often regardless of the consequences to urban residents or even to sound urban planning. Questions I would address are: How might urban political economy shift if private property ownership were introduced into urban territory? What mitigating effects would that have on the power of officials to shape the cityscape in their image? And finally, how does state land ownership frame the power structures and power dynamics within intra-governmental bodies?

The disenfranchisement of the public flows out of discussion on state land tenure. Areas for research include profiling the specific consequences of state land tenure as exercised through the state political economy of development and its effects on citizens standing in the path. How does public disenfranchisement reflect the viability or the sustainability of state land ownership? I would further research what rights the public are forced to sacrifice in order for the will of developers and their government enablers to be done. In addition, what political barriers restrain the public from participating in the development process both in giving input and in taking account of government abuses? Both issues of state land ownership and public disenfranchisement tie into Hsing’s article and these research suggestions would supplement what she has already set forth.


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