Category Archives: MA China Development Studies: Urban China

Smith, R. (2015). China’s Communist-Capitalist ecological apocalypse. Description and Critique

Smith, R. (2015). China’s Communist-Capitalist ecological apocalypse. real-world economics review, 71, 3-4.


In the article, “China’s Communist-Capitalist Ecological Apocalypse,” Richard Smith discusses the environmental challenges faced by China in light of its break-neck pace of unregulated industrial development. Smith points to the consumption-based, neoliberal economic model driving China’s growth as both unsustainable and responsible for straining the resources of China’s diverse ecosystems. To give a sense of the global scale of the problem, Smith notes how China “consumes 32 percent of the world’s” cement, ore, fossil fuels, and biomass, mining these resources not only from the mainland but also from other countries. The pace of industrial development has come at the expense of public health as rural communities in particular are poisoned from factory waste and cities are shrouded in toxic smog. The culture of consumption and governmental support for sailing growth fuels the crisis, argues Smith. Not only is industrial production directed toward superfluous construction projects, but government oversight of the development project has gone hand in hand with political corruption. The overall situation, in Smith’s view, looks bleak. He offers his suggestions for an “emergency plan” to evade the collapse of the ecological and economic systems currently under stress. Many of Smith’s suggestions entail down-scaling industrial sectors as well as restoring the political and ecological autonomy of regions already “plundered” by Han Chinese activities. Ultimately, Smith places the onus on the Communist Party and advocates for grassroots movements as the primary mechanism of reform and remediation.


Smith’s evaluation of China’s environmental situation is broad and sweeping, highlighting the environmental challenges along with political and cultural complicity. He writes with journalistic alarm and revolutionary zeal, using facts and cases to weave his argument for the direness of the national plight. Smith’s article touches on almost every conceivable aspect of China’s development and progresses with an energy commensurate with the ghastly appearance of the picture he illustrates. The article is primarily polemical, arguing from the standpoint of criticism over the failures of the Chinese political and developmental models. It is also pessimistic. In its pessimism and polemical ardor, the urgency of the issues which Smith attempts to capture drains away as the credibility of his argument falters on the overcharged discourse of its emotional appeal. While Smith’s article represents the unspoken fears and concerns likely harbored by many China-watchers, analysts, and scholars, it misses the opportunity to seize a serious and sober readership that might otherwise rally around the issues he raises.

The polemical nature of Smith’s article launches his argument into an emotional dimension. Immediately, the reader must decide if the hyperbolic language he uses (e.g. “demonic,” “criminal behavior,” “cynical disregard,” “plunder,” “breathtaking,” “ill-conceived boondoggle,” etc.) is justified and if it doesn’t reflect an inherent bias that skews his presentation of the state of affairs. If readers already agree with Smith’s basic position, then his polemics likely reinforces their sentiments and may even spur them to action. If readers either don’t agree with his polemics or come to the article without an existing knowledge base, then Smith offers few handles for them to get on board with his cause. In fact, his style would likely foment skepticism and drive away the readers he might most hope to win over.

Where Smith excels in providing data-backed evidence for his arguments he fails by couching the same arguments in editorial rants and colorful interpretations rather than allowing the data to stand out and speak for itself. For example, he notes how “12 of the planet’s 20 tallest towers” are expected to stand in provincial cities by 2020, then ridicules the skyscraper and housing construction model as atrocious and redundant. He has a good point about over capacity and redundancy, but framing it in charged language distracts from his point by overlooking the underlying economic, social, even historical reasons behind such construction. Were Smith to frame his criticisms with a thorough analysis of the underlying conditions of the supposedly grotesque issues in his article, he could offer more neutral reasons for concern and criticism. Such concerns would ideally balance out with a reflection on the silver lining or reasons for optimism. Smith’s credibility would be better established and more effectively serve to win readers to his side, thus achieving the overall objective of stopping the madness of China’s development schemes and working towards responsible solutions.

Research Suggestions

My research suggestions entail orienting the writing in a more credible presentation of the issues Smith addresses. The flow of the article is logical. Smith lays out his argument in successive sections that end with suggestions on how to remedy the serious problems confronting China. In order to frame the content in a more objective manner and to appeal to a wider base of readers, many of whom I would anticipate might disagree with Smith’s basic approach, I would first trim out the editorial, polemical language, then set up the issues with more critical distance that allows the facts to speak for themselves. This would also require balancing out a pessimistic or negative interpretation of the facts with reasons for optimism, a feature Smith almost entirely overlooks.

Within the first few paragraphs, one gets the sense that Smith’s article does not offer an objective presentation of the content. His hyperbolic language frames the writing as a rant rather than a scholarly analysis. Reworking the language to filter out emotional appeals would create a more objective and academic thought-environment. Rewording the headings is a key step in this process. After cleaning up the language, I would suggest beginning each section with a fuller presentation of the data Smith only briefly touches on. I would make qualifications and highlight potential shortcomings of the data, also including sources and perspective on their broader implications. I would then go into multifaceted interpretations of the data, suggesting what they most likely suggest but nonetheless leaving the discussion open ended to allow for dialogue and debate. The basic content and material Smith has used to compose his argument are largely sufficient. I would add more data and change the way he talks about the issues and how he frames them for the sake of credibility.

Whyte, M. K. (2011). Myth of the Social Volcano: Popular Responses to Rising Inequality in China. Description and Critique

Whyte, M. K. (2011). Myth of the Social Volcano: Popular Responses to Rising Inequality in China. The People’s Republic of China at, 60.


In “Myth of the Social Volcano: Popular Responses to Rising Inequality in China,” Martin Whyte discusses popular views in China over income inequality based on a 2004 survey he conducted in the mainland. Whyte explored the hypothesis that anger and resentment toward the Chinese government over social and income inequality would be widespread and building toward a critical point of mass protest movements, a situation he termed the “social volcano scenario” (p. 276). Whyte gives some background to this hypothesis: While Maoist socialism focused on social equality and devalued economic growth, the market era switched priorities to focus on economic growth at the expense of social equality. To see the shift, China’s Gini coefficient rose from .29 in 1981 to .53 in 2006, indicating serious levels of inequality in the market-reform era (p. 275). The rise in the Gini coefficient should correlate to mounting pressure in society, eventuating in an eruption of discontent.

However, Whyte’s survey findings challenged those assumptions. Whyte actually found relatively positive attitudes towards the inequalities of the market-reform era, especially among the peasantry. The reason for the relative lack of discontent owes itself to the background of the socialist period. The socialist period restricted peasants to a degree that left them bereft of economic and social mobility. Urban respondents to the survey actually expressed slightly more pessimistic views, however, probably due to greater exposure to the realities of inequality in the city. While inequality was relatively scarce during the socialist period, the rigid bureaucratic structures which confined most Chinese to a miserly fate offered nothing by way of attraction for those surveyed in 2004. According to Whyte, the opportunity for mobility and the rewards for skill and hard work in the reform era gave many Chinese a much more positive outlook than the social volcano theory would have predicted.


Whyte’s findings in the 2004 survey are intriguing. His rationale for explaining why the original hypothesis of the “social volcano scenario” was wrong also appears sound. Contrasted with the rigid bureaucracy of the socialist period, the social mobility and economic opportunities afforded in the reform era appealed enough to the average Chinese that they could abide with the reality of inequality. With the socialist period fresh in the minds of the Chinese surveyed in 2004, their attitudes were likely shaped by the relative comparison of the “old days” with their current experience in the more open economy. The attitudes captured by Whyte’s survey therefore reflected the impressions of respondents based on their experiences as well as their perceptions of both eras. It would be interesting to learn Chinese attitudes towards inequality as a countrywide phenomenon without the presumed internal comparative analysis that shaped their positive views. What did respondents think of inequality as a moral or sociological phenomenon independent of their own situations? Did their attitudes as recorded in Whyte’s survey reflect lack of awareness of the extent and meaning of inequality in China? Whyte’s research is thus limited by inadequately parsing out Chinese understandings of inequality. He could have framed his survey by first establishing common underlying assumptions, especially between peasants and urbanites, and also by distinguishing respondents’ experiences from their perceptions of inequality.

While the “social volcano scenario” may not have erupted as expected, as Whyte concluded, social unrest and political resistance have nonetheless surfaced across China. Civil unrest in differing sectors is a response to the same systemic shifts or structural problems that give rise to inequality. Deconstruction of state-owned enterprises, for example, led to massive unemployment in the 1990s, along with the loss of many social welfare benefits to workers. Land expropriation from peasants, migrant labor abuses in factories, environmental contamination from industrial polluters, mass-scale corruption, etc. are other factors that have led to broad unrest as a result of decentralization and marketization. Such phenomena occur within the same political and economic systems in which income inequality has reared its head since the Open Door policy. It is unclear whether the survey respondents understood this connection.

Whyte’s 2004 survey did not capture whether or not Chinese associated the relatively positive attitudes they indicated toward the phenomenon of inequality with the negative attitudes they likely held toward corruption and other systemic injustices mentioned above. Would their attitudes change with clearer understandings of the bigger picture of systemic problems that have arisen in the reform era? Perhaps Chinese attitudes towards inequality would be different if they understood its connection to other forms of social unrest or political resistance. Therein lies a deficiency and an opportunity in Whyte’s survey research. He could have elucidated a more nuanced understanding of Chinese attitudes towards inequality through personal experience as well as a phenomenon arising out of conditions which have resulted in widespread discontent in other sectors.

Research Suggestions

My research suggestions entail parsing out more nuanced dimensions of Whyte’s research. First, it would be helpful to assess Chinese understandings of income or social inequality in order to contextualize their responses. If, say, urban and rural Chinese fundamentally understand inequality in different ways (which they likely do, based on their unique experiences), then there is no longer a one to one correspondence in their survey responses. Their attitudes would reflect different concepts of inequality based on different experiences. A common denominator between them should be established before generalizing about Chinese attitudes towards inequality. Consciousness of inequality would need to be established and assessed before the common denominator could be determined and subsequently evaluated in the survey.

Additionally, I would suggest that Whyte establish criteria for gauging Chinese attitudes towards inequality as an objective phenomenon independent of their personal experiences or memories of the socialist past. This would include possibly giving examples of income inequality in other countries for respondents to evaluate, thus establishing critical distance with the topic. Looking at other countries would be a way of separating respondents from their own situations and would reveal their deeper concepts of social justice. Establishing criteria for inequality as an objective phenomenon would also help Chinese to see the connection between inequality and other forms of social injustice manifest in the same political economic systems. Attitudes towards land expropriations, for instance, could be connected to attitudes towards income inequality. These research suggestions would offer a more nuanced, critical apprehension of Chinese attitudes towards inequality.

Sargeson, S. (2013). Violence as development: land expropriation and China’s urbanization. Description and Critique

Sargeson, S. (2013). Violence as development: land expropriation and China’s urbanization. Journal of Peasant Studies, 40(6), 1063-1085.


In “Violence as Development: Land Expropriation and China’s Urbanization,” Sally Sargeson looks at development as an inherently violent endeavor, what she terms “violence as development” (p.1064). Sargeson argues that urban development, especially as it entails land expropriation from villagers in the path of expanding urban footprints, entails violence as its core driving mechanism, its modus operandi. She contrasts her thesis with other explanations of violence as demonstrating game theory or as constituting political “differentiation” between villagers and authorities (p. 1081). These theories overlook the integral role of violence in the development process. Sargeson’s article gives background on how land use regulations have changed since the 1970s into the 2000s, enabling urban governments and developers to take greater control of land development as a means of garnering enhanced revenues and of growing municipal economies (p. 1067).

Sargeson states that “between 1990 and 2008, governments expropriated” an estimated “4.2 million hectares of rural land” (p. 1068). Sargeson goes on to note that such expansive expropriated territory is likely to have resulted in the dispossession of “some 88 million” rural residents from their land in the same period (Ibid). The figures do not necessarily mean all expropriation has been violent, as many rural residents willingly acquiesce to compensation packages. However, time and again case studies from around China suggest forced and violent land acquisition has resulted in the abuse and even deaths of significant numbers of rural residents, as well as violent retaliation from villagers. Sargeson highlights the complexity of violence as development in stating how it involves “many different actors, purposefully engaged in a wide array of brutal, administrative, pedagogic and practical urbanizing tasks” (p. 1074). The very means of economic growth and urbanization in China is fraught with violent exploitation of the rural underclass.


Sargeson’s thesis of violence as development is both explanatory and compelling. Violence as development explains why disparate regions and municipalities across China have followed a similar path of economic development. Violent actions do not merely arise haphazardly as random instantiations of exasperation or aggression coming from state or civic actors. Rather, violence is systemic and represents the very structural mechanism which has enabled China’s economic growth. Sargeson wisely situates violence within the core of the Chinese economic system, noting how the astounding economic transformation has been built on land seizures, sales, and subsequent redevelopment. However, I would contend that Sargeson’s treatment of violence as development excludes a necessary discussion on the humanitarian crisis which has evolved out of violent development.

The prevalence of violent development constitutes an alarming humanitarian crisis in China. Any discussion focusing on the attributes of violence on such a grand scale as in China deserves commentary on the ethical implications that structural violence has on the political economy of the country and for society more broadly. The crisis entails not only the dispossession of people from their land in an unjust manner, it entails the dispossession of the humanity of the dispossessed. As Sargeson adeptly explains, the materialistic forces of economic development unleashed and perpetrated by aggressive state actors subjugates the rural peasantry to violent exploitation. Violent exploitation, in turn, forces the dispossession of peasant claims to livelihood, their historic and cultural ties to the land, even their “social, familial and self-respect” (p. 1081). The purposeful denial of peasant’s rights to these claims and the identity derived from such claims constitutes the violation of their human rights. The fact that little legal or political recourse exists for the dispossessed highlights the inhumanity of the political economic system on top of its innate violence. Therefore, the agents or functionaries of the political economic system are complicit in the systematic violation of peasants’ human rights. While the point of Sargeson’s article was not to elaborate on the humanitarian situation resulting from violence as development, she hardly addressed the topic.

        The central government has direct responsibility in altering legal and political frameworks in order to address the structural problems that enable municipal officials and developers to justify their violent developmental schemes. Greater protection of peasants’ rights is also the onus of the central government. It could be argued that the institutionalization of secure property rights for peasants is the only way to adequately protect peasants’ human rights in view of land expropriation. On the other end, Chinese society is broadly implicated in its quiescence on the humanitarian crisis by not organizing to mitigate the inhumane forces oppressing a large segment of the population. That said, complicity rests primarily with the government since Chinese state hegemony severely hampers civil society from exercising its capacity to organize and advocate for structural changes that might liberate the oppressed. Violence as development represents structural problems touching on the role of state and civil society. Sargeson addresses only the side of the structural problems pertaining to the definition of violence as development. She should have drawn more attention to the implications of violence as development as constituting a humanitarian crisis.

Research Suggestions

        My research suggestions entail two primary areas of investigation. One is the definition of the humanitarian crisis, which entails framing violence as development as a humanitarian crisis. The other area is exploring the implications this has on state governance and civil society. Defining the humanitarian crisis means exploring the definition of terms such as humanity, humane, etc. What constitutes humanitarian discourse in the Chinese context? What is humane and what relationship does that have to policy decisions based on materialistic economic principles? What structural problems are merely problems common to all governance systems and which ones play an active role in implicitly or explicitly violating human rights in the context of Chinese development? These questions lay the groundwork for the next area of investigation.

        The second area of investigation centers on the implications that violence as development discourse has on Chinese civil society and governance. Given the authoritarian hegemony weilded by the Party-state, expectations for civil society to act and mediate systemic abuses cannot be too high. This raises the question of what ethical base civic action in China has to work with and to what extent that ethical base requires citizens to organize in defense of human rights. The biggest player implicated in the humanitarian crisis of violence as development is, of course, the Chinese state, whose modus vivendi is misplaced to secure the control of the Communist Party rather than to ensure the protection of citizens’ rights. Is there space at all for discussion on such highly sensitive political themes in China? Now that the wave of urban development is ebbing in its intensity, would relevant political reforms make a difference? These questions present opportunities for further research and a more comprehensive treatment of the discussion on violence as development raised by Sargeson.

Yan, H. (2013). What If Your Client/Employer Treats Her Dog Better Than She Treats You? Market Militarism and Market Humanism in Postsocialist Beijing. Description and Critique

Yan, H. (2013). “What If Your Client/Employer Treats Her Dog Better Than She Treats You? Market Militarism and Market Humanism in Postsocialist Beijing.” pp. 150-173, in Ann Anagnost et al (eds) (2013) Global Futures in East Asia: Youth, Nations, and the New Economy in Uncertain Times. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford Univ Press


In her essay, “What If Your Client/Employer Treats Her Dog Better Than She Treats You? Market Militarism and Market Humanism in Postsocialist Beijing” Hairong Yan uses the Beijing Fuping Professional Training School run by economist Mao Yushi as a case study for analyzing the transformative effects neoliberal market principles have had on labor discourse in post-socialist China (p. 153). Neoliberal economic philosophy plays significantly into the objectives of the schooling program for migrant women in preparing them for domestic work in Beijing. Students are taught to see their labor as a commodity to be exchanged in the open market which acts as the final arbiter in determining their labor quality—and therefore their success or failure (p. 158). The neoliberal transformation of “weak-powered” rural migrants requires adoption of a militaristic approach to entrepreneurship (e.g. self-discipline and competitiveness) and cultivation of a positive attitude no matter how demeaning the work might be (p. 160).

The Fuping school, argues Yan, promotes the values of “market humanism,” which creates a binary identity composed of the commodified “thinglike you” with the self-determining “bosslike you” (p. 167). While their neoliberal education is meant to empower the migrant women through enhancing their competitiveness in the open market, it invariably subjects them “to the power and agency of elites to govern, discipline, and shape” their personhood (p. 171). Yet, neoliberal principles run counter to the tendency of rural migrants to see themselves as revolutionaries opposed to the class-based oppression embodied in market humanism. The Beijing Fuping Professional Training School embodies the contradictions of the reform era in its relationship to labor, capital, and humanism.


Hairong Yan’s analysis of the Beijing Fuping Professional Training School presents a creative, intriguing interpretation of the intersecting worlds representing distinct phases of China’s development. Her article highlights the difficulty in maintaining a space for genuine humanistic development in view of the utilitarian market humanism of the neoliberal order. Yan’s narrative is compelling, even though the narrative comes out a bit convoluted as it breaks in and out of discussion of disjointed topics (such as militaristic entrepreneurship, market humanism, and voluntarism) at points without obvious transitions. Beyond the slightly disjointed structure, two main frailties of her argument stand out: the limited scope of Yan’s case study, and her subjective interpretation of what is happening at the Fuping school.

It could be argued that Yan’s discursive rendering of the political economic and philosophical elements at play in the Fuping school is overly deductive. While insightful, her analysis remains a stand-alone case based not on broad empirical evidence from a network of similar educational enterprises but rather on one case study in one region of China. This leaves her argument vulnerable to questions over its applicability to the overall Chinese situation as well as of her argument’s defensibility. Yan could have based her analysis on a broader set of case studies evaluated on a common set of criteria, such as identifying the neoliberal principles at work in each school, surveying student attitudes directly, identifying why migrants come for training, and tracking trends in student growth before and after training. A broader empirical basis for Yan’s work would lend greater credibility to her philosophical analysis.

The interpretation Yan offers regarding the role of neoliberalism in the Fuping school is subjective. While neoliberal principles may factor into the global context in which the training program is situated, the school itself may lie far enough isolated from neoliberal market forces as to negate the applicability of the neoliberal principles around which the program is designed. The founder, Mao Yushi, advocates for neoliberalism and incorporates neoliberal principles into the school’s curriculum—but that does not necessarily mean the students either internalize neoliberal formation or that their future employment and success results from neoliberal training. It remains a possibility for students graduating from the school to be completely impervious to its ideological principles and yet still attain success. The inherent contradictions embodied in the school’s design combined with migrant rurality, provide an interesting case study; however, a more relevant discussion Yan could have offered might be based around how the Fuping school demonstrates the irrelevance of neoliberal training for migrant women in achieving their objectives.

It could also be argued that the underlying economic principles undergirding the Fuping school are not necessarily neoliberal at all, despite its design. Instead, the school may simply represent a pragmatic effort to fulfill the demands for job training needed in view of employment opportunities previously unavailable to migrant workers. The economic framework which the school fits into may be better described as solidly neoclassical. Perhaps the underlying contradiction lies not between market humanism and rural labor, but rather between neoliberal ideology and neoclassical practice. Yan’s work could have focused on a broader set of case studies to support her argument. And she could have outlined competing interpretations of the Fuping school’s existence in order to set her analysis apart.

Research Suggestions:

My research suggestions follow the above outline of the weaknesses in Yan’s overall argument. I would explore other, similar cases of schooling offered to migrant women that prepare them for transition into the urban economy. Important questions would be: what factors do such training centers have in common? What industries do they prepare migrants to work in and how do their curriculums represent departures from the socialist past? What can we conclude about the existence of such training centers as responses to the demands of the transitioning economy of the reform period? Answers to such questions would help exhibit the Fuping school within the broader trends showcased in China’s political economic affairs.

I would also explore other possible interpretations of the philosophical and political-economic matrices which characterize the Fuping school. Despite Mao Yushi’s favorability toward neoliberalism, does the school truly showcase a neoliberal model? Does the focus on neoliberalism mask the true nature of the institution as one governed by neoclassical economic principles or perhaps by something else? What are the other economic or philosophical arguments that might offer viable alternative interpretations to the situation unfolding at Fuping? These questions remain unanswered.

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.

Murphy, Rachel (2004). Turning peasants into modern Chinese citizens: “Population quality” discourse, demographic transition and primary education. Description and Critique

Murphy, R. (2004). Turning peasants into modern Chinese citizens: “Population quality” discourse, demographic transition and primary education. The China Quarterly, 177, 1-20.


Rachel Murphy, the author of “Turning Peasants into Modern Chinese Citizens: ‘Population Quality’ Discourse, Demographic Transition and Primary Education,” highlights the role of the traditional Confucian concept of suzhi in modernizing Chinese society. Suzhi carries the idea of self-cultivation for the purpose of improving society, or raising “population quality” (p.1). Murphy positions the notion of suzhi as the axis around which national development takes shape. Under the guidance of the “party state”, suzhi has been co-opted into a nationalistic social improvement campaign with two primary objectives (p.4). The first objective is to raise economic competitiveness by raising suzhi primarily through public education. Communities or groups seen as “backward” or possessing a low level of suzhi, such as rural farmers, are given particular attention in social development programs. The second objective is to gradually shift the onus of responsibility in achieving social welfare and economic stability from the state onto individuals in the post reform period. Murphy uses Rivercountry, Jiangxi province as a case study in explaining how suzhi improvement campaigns unfold in the countryside and the effects they have on the mentality of rural people, from primary school children to parents and teachers. She concludes that the “ongoing self-improvement ethos of suzhi overlaps with identity formation as a process of becoming, and is a metonym for the continual modernizing and “coming into being” of the nation” (p.20).


Rachel Murphy’s main objective in explaining suzhi as a key mechanism of modernization appears to be well founded, especially in light of the examples she gives citing the cultural discourse around suzhi, demonstrated in the Rivercountry case study. She opens a window on the complex world of cultural tradition, personal ambition, unequal class relations or opportunities, and economic dreams which are manipulated by state propaganda. While Murphy’s overall case for the central role of suzhi improvement campaigns in China’s modernization explains the country’s developmental trajectory, two main research opportunities stand out: namely, a lack of explicit defense of the term modernization, and lack of commentary on suzhi improvement as a form of ideologically monopolizing propaganda.

Murphy cites on page one that modernization is about “school modernization, state retreat from welfare provisioning, and the promotion of economic competition,” among other things (p.1). However, in positioning suzhi in the modernization universe, Murphy leaves out explicit government rhetoric (i.e. slogans, policy statements) pertaining to its “modernization teleology” (p.4). For example, Murphy fails to outline why the central government has chosen the particular objectives of national improvement that it has. Nor does she explain how much of the modernization project owes its characteristics to Chinese traditions versus how much to the government’s political craftwork. Providing explicit background on modernization as a state-directed project would lend greater clarity and rationale to putting suzhi improvement at its center.

Secondly, Murphy does not explicitly touch on how suzhi improvement campaigns act as a mechanism of monopolistic state control over how the population develops (economically, socially, ideologically), as evidenced through wide ranging propaganda. Monopolistic state control is continually exercised by placing pressure on communities to expend immense amounts of time and resources on their children’s academic study as a way to raise population quality under the guidance of curriculum built around strong nationalistic motifs (p.17). Intrusion into personal life via “regulating fertility, encouraging good parenthood, removing children from the village and socializing them to be the citizens of a modernizing nation” reinforces the role of suzhi propaganda for the purpose of driving the nation in the prescribed direction (19). In generating deep concern over the status of the nation’s suzhi, the Communist Party has achieved great success in co-opting the term from its traditional base in Confucian thought and placing it into the state controlled “modernization teleology.”

Propaganda serves as the chief vehicle for popularizing suzhi ideology and framing it in nationalistic terms as a way for the state to obtain greater control over the populace. How does the state-controlled propaganda apparatus influence the creation of dreams and the conception of personal or national destiny? Murphy alludes to this effect without pinpointing it as a major force in shaping the nation’s conscience on matters of personal (or national) success and failure. The primacy of suzhi ideology serves to displace alternative notions of personal value and identity which otherwise (might) exist independently of the state. This ideological hegemony creates a tremendous advantage for the state in exercising monopolistic control. However, discontinuities presumably abound. What forms of subversion exist in which people defy the state-sponsored ideological narrative and opt for alternative ways of being and thinking? While Murphy provides an insightful, well-grounded exposition on her topic, greater attention to the aspects of suzhi improvement that I’ve mentioned could elicit broader and more critical discussion on its role in China’s modernization.

Research Suggestions

The main research suggestions I have for Murphy’s article pertain to the points I highlighted in my critique. First, I would provide more political context for the notion of modernization; what it means to government leaders and how they talk about it publicly. The way the state frames modernization explains a lot in terms of how the notion of suzhi influences people’s decisions and perceptions of themselves in time and place in China. Second, I would emphasize the role of propaganda in shaping the national discourse on population quality and its apparent relevance to certain forms of self-improvement in modernizing the nation. The “modernization teleology” which Murphy speaks of could not take root without wide ranging propaganda campaigns to shape the national discourse.

I would further research what alternative ideologies of self- or national improvement compete for the minds of the average Chinese apart from the official propagandistic narrative? This raises questions about the status of civil society in China and reveals insights into which sectors exist autonomously from the state and which sectors might be in danger of disintegration under pressure from the state’s ideological hegemony. Murphy did not necessarily fail to mention these aspects but there is room for broader discussion on them.

Dikötter, Frank (2015). The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957. Description and Critique

Dikötter, F. (2015). The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957. Bloomsbury Publishing USA. Ch 11 “High Tide” pp. 226-242.


Chapter 11 of Frank Dikötter’s “The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957” focuses on the transition of the newly founded People’s Republic of China (PRC) into “high tide” socialism in the 1950s (p.236). This transition entailed collectivization of agriculture in rural communes and nationalization of industry and enterprise across the country. In Dikötter’s analysis, special attention is given to Chairman Mao Zedong’s personal role in shaping the regime politics of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) through this period. Despite his ignorance of economics and state administration, Mao exercised megalomaniacal control over the internal affairs of the Party as the country’s leadership grappled with forming and instituting nationwide socialist policies. Mao displayed acute political skill in manipulating his subordinates, regularly using the rhetoric of dualistic arguments about the “right” and “correct” (or conversely, “wrong”) way of building the socialist project (p.236). He was a master at engineering a climate of fear through public shaming, struggle sessions, and party purges of persons critical of his ideas or uncooperative with his directives in bringing about his vision of China’s future (p.230, 235). By 1956, as Dikötter writes, “most of industry and commerce were nationalised” and Mao Zedong’s grip on power was stronger than ever (p. 238).


Overall, I find Dikötter’s presentation of the history compelling but narrow. Dikötter presents Mao as egoistic, manipulative, conniving, even ignorant, but above all a master politician who shifts the political game in his favor time and again. Mao’s forte resides in his ability to execute campaigns of terror designed to root out adversaries and ideological opposition. His singular power can be attributed to masterful politicking and the obsequious cult of personality which coalesced around him (alluded to on p.239-240). In view of Mao’s spectral shadow over this period of history, it makes sense for Dikötter to organize his narrative of the road to socialism around the activities of this imposing figure. However, Dikötter’s analysis falls short in fleshing out the multifaceted social and historical context within which Mao’s operated. How could Mao rise up to spearhead the ambitious campaign of restructuring an entire nation? What was unique about the post-war political milieu that allowed for a foreign-born Marxist-Leninist political ideology to take over? It is within that milieu where we find the right conditions for the rise of a new regime, and within it the rise of a dictator. This contextual analysis is missing from Dikötter .

Furthermore, Dikötter’s almost exclusive focus on Mao’s role in crafting the destructive policies of high socialism skips over the role of all those people who widely supported him. Who were these people? What excesses or vulnerabilities were they susceptible to within the new political regime? While the picture Dikötter paints of Mao’s unsavory attributes may be accurate, he was certainly not alone in manipulating the inner workings of the CCP power structures to his advantage. The collective, internal dynamics of the Party facilitated decisions and policy-making that drove the socialist enterprise forward—not merely the conniving of one man.

Dikötter also excludes a broader analysis of the existential condition of the nation after decades of devastating conflict. After WW2 and the subsequent Chinese Civil War, what remained of China’s legal and institutional structures which would have been needed to rebuild the nation? The importance of the question is demonstrated in the fact that Western European countries were able to rebuild after WW2 with aid from the Marshall Plan, largely because their legal and institutional infrastructures remained intact despite mass destruction of their cityscapes. China’s situation, on the other hand, did not mirror the European circumstance. Whatever political or social structures remained after the Communist takeover were apparently inadequate in regulating the forces at work in the post-war power vacuum that allowed the Communists to seize absolute control. This could be a crucial area of research that would illuminate the chaotic struggle of the Maoist period, if only Dikötter had embarked on that journey in chapter 11.

Dikötter’s presentation of the rise of high socialism through the commandeering ambition of the dictator fails to grapple with the multifaceted political, historical, and cultural circumstances within which the socialist project unfolded. Whether my critique holds or not, Dikötter did not provide adequate context to situate the socialist project in a broader historical stream; nor did he illuminate the unique conditions which allowed Mao to rise. All that said, Dikötter nevertheless provides an insightful, instructive view into the internal workings of a political regime that saw the rise of a tyrant with its devastating consequences for the nation.

Research Suggestions:

The main research suggestions I have focus on positioning the narrative in a broader historical context. The main areas I would research are twofold: 1.) The state of China’s development, including its institutions and the economic situation, after WW2 and the Communist Revolution. 2.) The internal organization of the CCP after the Revolution, including its administrative structures and the preparedness of professionals to take on the immense administrative and nation-building task before them.

After researching these areas and laying out a background that positions a figure like Mao in his historical moment, I would explore why the socialist project was seen as an appropriate response to rebuilding the nation given the circumstances. In other words, was Chinese Communism under Mao an inevitability or an eventuality stemming from decades of war? Perhaps the best explanation for the subsequent history lies in the surrounding post-war circumstances rather than in the CCP regime’s fitness to lead. These areas of further research would expand the historical narrative in a more holistic manner.