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DEVELOPMENT AND RESISTANCE: The Absence of Land Tenure and Environmental Pollution as Primary Factors of Development that Lead to Political Resistance in China. (Images did not load; my apologies).

M.A. In China Development Studies

GEOG7136 – Research Methods and Directed Project


The Absence of Land Tenure and Environmental Pollution as Primary Factors of Development that Lead to Political Resistance in China

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From: Levinson & McDonald, 2014



This paper investigates the relationship between development and political resistance in China. It looks into the connection between significant factors of development that generate social unrest. In particular, lack of land tenure and environmental pollution are highlighted as the main factors which lead to political resistance in the form of protest and litigation. The paper begins with background on these factors, including the relationship between the state and society. Policy suggestions are outlined as a means of ameliorating structural problems in the political and economic system. Most of the policy suggestions focus on policies that would require political reform to implement. The paper concludes with research suggestions and final remarks.


China’s economic development has surged in the past few decades. With the conversion of agricultural land to cityscape and the proliferation of infrastructure projects, old village territories and the continuity of family-land relationships have been disrupted to make way for growing industries and expanding urban footprints. Economic growth and construction have by and large benefited China’s peasant and migrant underclasses by raising the standard of living and opening up economic opportunities for millions of previously impoverished individuals and families. Yet, while economic development has come as a boon to government economies at every level, it has disproportionately enriched the politically connected, often at the expense of China’s poor (Hsing, 2006).

This research looks at the primary factors of development that have led to resistance activities from civil society in the reform era; with particular focus on the absence of private land tenure and environmental pollution (Williamson, 2011). Factors of development in this context are defined as those factors which directly result in the transformation of landscapes and cityscapes through the process of planning and economic growth strategies. The lack of environmental regulation and enforcement results in pollution from manufacturing, construction, and agriculture, while the lack of land tenure results in the vulnerability of peasants to the expropriation of their land. Both situations result in political resistance against government attempts to develop land for new industries and urbanization.


The factors of development that lead to political resistance (as defined by individual and collective citizen responses to undesirable actions perpetrated by authorities) in the reform era may seem obvious on the surface. Official corruption, land seizures, pollution, labor exploitation, among others are all tangible phenomena that have incited resistance in the form of protests, strikes, and vocal criticism of government officials or land developers. However, underlying such phenomena are more basic factors that account for the various problems which eventuate in political resistance. The driving forces behind phenomena such as land seizures, the dispossession of residents from their traditional homes, and the corruption that goes along with those activities boils down to the lack of property rights that might otherwise prevent land expropriation and its associated corruption. Environmental pollution is also a significant factor behind resistance against industrial development and corruption. While weak rule of law and flaws in the political system (such as lack of civic participation or an independent judiciary) also constitute underlying causes of political resistance, they are not directly addressed in this research. Political reforms fit into the possible solutions explored under the Discussion of Policy Responses and Implications section toward the end of this paper. Most of the problems associated with China’s economic development have some basis or another in the political system (Lai, 2010).

The absence of private land tenure in China has generated conditions that have enabled government authorities to make unilateral decisions over land development. Decisions are made to take land away from villagers (expropriation) for sale to developers. Subsequent construction and urban development results directly in the promotion of officials overseeing such deals. The ultimate control over land enjoyed by the state owes its viability to the denial of freehold land ownership rights to private parties (Alsen, 1996). State land ownership has allowed government authorities to enact development schemes which run counter to the interests and livelihoods of citizens while also depriving them of equal opportunities for economic exploitation of the land (Wang, Sun, Xu, & Pavlićević 2013; Sargeson, 2013). Private citizens, such as peasants, are helpless in disputing land expropriation due to their lack of ownership rights. Thus, resistance has come in the form of villager-lead standoffs against authorities over unfair compensation for land expropriation or against corrupt officials who act unilaterally in selling off collectively owned village land to developers (Wu, Zhang, & Webster, 2013; Ren, 2013; Cui, Tao, Warner, & Yang, 2014). Dispossessed peasants cannot, in reality, dispute land seizure on the basis of private ownership and therefore stand at a strategic disadvantage in fighting for their interests.

The prospect of environmental harm from factory building or the presence of industry in general presents another primary factor of development that leads to resistance addressed in this research. Environment here indicates not only the natural surroundings but specifically the land and water systems which directly influence the health and wellbeing of community members (Perry & Seldon, 2000). Once plans for building a factory are completed (often without consultation from affected communities), or once the impacts of factory pollution are fully understood, community concerns arise over the effects of pollution on quality of life. Chinese citizens are voicing their concerns more than ever over the impacts which polluting industries have on their environments and communities. The fact that industries can get away with extensive pollution at the expense of communities adds to the discontent that often boils over in resistance.

Research Questions

This research answers the following questions based on the background given above. Specifically, how does the absence of land tenure create conditions for political resistance in China’s development? How does environmental pollution result in resistance? What would appropriate policy responses look like that could ameliorate such problems and their consequences? Corruption and weak rule of law are notable factors contributing to the problems highlighted in this research. These factors will be folded into the research where appropriate as they relate to lack of land tenure and environmental issues. A section on policy suggestions will address areas in which the government can improve the means of seeking solutions to the problems associated with development. Research suggestions and a conclusion will be included at the end of this paper.

Literature Review

Absence of land tenure

Land tenure is defined by The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) as the system of land governance pertaining to land rights established by different societies usually involving private land ownership protected by institutional mechanisms such as legal and judicial structures (FAO, 2002, p. 7). Williamson (2011) argued that the guarantee of private property rights through land tenure is essential for individuals and communities (and ultimately, countries) to prosper economically. FAO also states how solutions to poverty (and by implication, economic prosperity) depend on the ways in which “people, communities and others” have access to land and its resources, especially in terms of land ownership rights (FAO, 2012, p. iv). Land tenure is the most secure and equitable form of land governance that ensures stable livelihoods and sustainable economic practices. Figure A on the following page shows the different land governance systems distributed across different countries and regions. Notably for this paper, the chart shows how China lacks a land tenure system comparable to the rest of the world. This is the result of China’s land governance system of state ownership.

Figure A: Land Governance Systems across the Globe. From: Enemark, 2004

According to Wong (2014), land use rights and land ownership rights were separated and enshrined in the PRC Constitution in 1988, allowing citizens and government agents the right to lease land and to transfer land-use rights to private parties; these leasehold rights (rights which entail temporary possession through some form of renting) are technically granted for periods anywhere from 30 to 70 years, depending on zoning and parties involved (p. 27; see also Hsing, 2006 p. 581; and Wang, 2013). Under the leasehold system, only the government can claim ownership rights to land. This land governance system has allowed government leaders to more easily leverage their economic and political interests over those of rural and urban citizens.

Hsing (2006) explained how village and municipal governments have taken advantage of the economic potential of land sales and land development in order to grow their local economies. Land development is directly linked to the promotion of officials through China’s meritocratic and bureaucratic political system. Since the inhabitants of village-owned land in the countryside or state-owned land in urban municipalities do not have genuine private ownership claims to the land they occupy (Zerenzhi, 2009), it is relatively easy for government officials to shortchange residents by expropriating land and offering (usually inadequate) compensation for the low “agricultural value” of their land, at the same time reaping handsome profits from the sales of use rights to developers (Cui et al., 2014, p. 2).

Takahashi (2015) calculated the extent of “expropriated average land area per year” at around 1500 km2, with the total amount of expropriated land sitting at “1,922,533 km2 after about 20 years” (p. 41). Figure B on the next page shows the amount of expropriated land in China year on year from 1995 to 2012 in km2. The development and value of all the converted farmland comes at the expense of the peasants who once relied upon it for their livelihoods.

Figure B: Expropriated Farmland Area from 1995 to 2012. From: Takahashi, 2015

Sargeson (2013) noted that “more than 4.2 million hectares of rural land” were expropriated for urban growth between 1990 and 2008, which included an estimated 88 million dispossessed inhabitants who became landless during the same period, and likely many more (p. 1068). Most of those individuals were subsequently forced to find housing elsewhere, often at the expense of losing their communal connections and traditional livelihoods. In a Financial Times article from 2015, it was reported that the population of landless peasants rose from some 40 million in the mid-2000s to over 120 million as of 2015, with roughly 3 million people losing their land each year (Hornby, 2015). The consequence of so much land expropriation is often political resistance in the form of protests. Zhao (2009) stated that in 2006, 17,900 “cases of massive rural unrest” occurred in which 385,000 farmers were involved; 80% of which were related to land expropriation (p. 98). The Landesa Rural Development Institute noted that in 2010, 65% of that year’s 187,000 protests (a figure of 121,550) were related to “land disputes” (Landesa Rural Development Institute, 2012). The combination of land expropriation and corruption has effectively meant that all of the GDP growth and infrastructure development that has come out of the state ownership of land is built upon the exploitation of millions of disenfranchised citizens.

As alluded to above, Williamson (2011) pointed to the work of Hernando de Soto to argue for the importance of land tenure in securing not only the property rights of individuals but also the protection of their human rights from outside interference, especially from the state. Possessing land that is secured by law and backed up by enforcement (i.e. police and law courts)–which private land tenure entails–enables land owning individuals to curtail expropriation activities such as those played out in China’s land-oriented development. Privately-owned land provides collateral to back up bank loans, which is important for establishing fixed assets and other investments, allowing landowners more opportunity to direct their future through economic activity. Private land ownership also forms a community of landed individuals and families with bundled rights, a system which generates greater incentives to more productively and sustainably take advantage of the economic potential of land while fostering social stability.

A broad network of landowners engaging productively under a secure land tenure system balances out the power of government entities. Private land tenure significantly narrows the space in which government leaders can operate in their power to expropriate land or dispossess inhabitants. The absence of such a system therefore stands as one significant underlying factor of development that accounts for resistance activities. As mentioned above, the political resistance and protests that have come out of the systematic expropriation of land–and its attendant corruption–stem from the absence of private land tenure in China’s land governance system. Many alternative scenarios are possible, but one thing is certain: the extent of dispossession and the amount of political resistance would have been greatly reduced–if not avoided altogether–had China institutionalized private land tenure.

Environmental pollution

Concern over environmental problems has risen in recent years with greater public focus on quality of life in the growing middle class. Between 2000 and 2013, environmental protests accounted for roughly half of the protests in which 10,000 or more people participated (Steinhardt & Wu, 2016, p. 62). Environmental problems and associated political corruption are the main driving forces behind such protests. Environmental concerns, therefore, arise directly from developmental processes. Decisions made by political and business leaders result in new construction of infrastructure and industrial facilities, particularly factories, which creates a basis for pollution emissions. The connection between government policies and the environmental problems that result from industrial development is clear. Factories and industrial infrastructure derive from the developing economy while environmental degradation and pollution result from unregulated industrial production.

The rapid pace of development combined with the privileged position of political elites and government leaders open space for corruption, especially by cutting corners on health and safety standards. Since the decision-making behind the construction and subsequent pollution of factories is sealed off from the public, local communities are prevented from managing the risks of environmental problems and seeking potential solutions. The only participatory responses available to the public are thus either acquiescence to the exclusive political system, or resistance. Street protest provides an alternative means of fighting for the public will as “imperfect official channels for public participation” deny the civic sector the right to determine the regulations imposed on polluting industries and the consequences for polluters (Steinhardt & Wu, 2016, p. 62). Figure C below shows the results of a public opinion poll regarding areas of primary concern to the average Chinese citizen. Corruption and pollution come in at the top out of the various problems facing the country.

Image result for china land expropriation chart

Figure C: Poll: Main Concerns of Chinese Citizens. From: Laohu Economics, 2016

Civilians usually end up on the losing end of industrial development because they not only remain outside the business deals between government leaders and the corporations that build and run factories, but the public also suffers from the pollution generated by such factories. The graphs below provide a glimpse of the extent of the pollution problem in China. They provide helpful context for the discontent associated with environmental pollution. Figures D, E, and F show the severity of soil, water, and air pollution, respectively, across China. Figure D on the next page shows the percentage of different types of soil pollution across China as of 2014.

Soil Pollution by Land Use Type

Figure D: Types of Soil Pollution in China. From: Tan, 2014

Figure E shows wastewater discharge from factories over a 12 year period in relationship to the contribution of GDP growth from manufacturing and construction, in billions of RMB. Much of the industrial wastewater produced in China goes directly into community water and soil systems unfiltered (Lerner, 2016).

Industrial Wastewater Discharge vs GDP from Secondary Industry

Figure E: Wastewater Discharge in Relationship to GDP. From: Hu, Tan, & Lazareva, 2014

Figure F highlights the gravity of the air pollution epidemic plaguing Chinese cities. de Boer & Whitehead (2016) noted that one fifth of the court cases brought against polluters in 2015 focused on air pollution.

Image result for china environmental pollution chart

Figure F: Comparison of Air Pollution between U.S. and Chinese Cities. From: McCarthy, 2015

Many cases exist in which street protests results from frustration over environmental pollution. The case of a paraxylene (PX) petrochemical plant (used in plastics manufacturing) in Kunming proves illustrative of the role environmental pollution plays in political resistance. In 2013, the Kunming municipal government planned to locate a PX plant 32 kilometers away from the city center with approval from the National Development and Reform Commission (Steinhardt & Wu, 2016, p. 73). However, two local environmental NGOs mobilized online via websites and social media to raise concern over the project’s environmental impact. Additionally, many people voiced concern over “a GDP-driven local government, a lack of transparency in public policy making, and a perceived irresolvable contradiction between investment in petrochemical industry and Kunming’s role as a tourism destination” (Ibid., 2016, p. 74). Thousands of citizens rallied around the cause, signing online petitions in opposition to the plant’s construction and staging two mass street demonstrations about a month after the issue initially drew public attention. The resistance activity prompted the mayor of Kunming to put the project on hold. The NGOs initially involved were able to mobilize other activists and organizations to form a broad coalition that brought the issue all the way to the central government. Eventually the Ministry of Environmental Protection suspended the project altogether.

The case of the PX plant street protests illustrates how political resistance can result from the prospect of environmental pollution from development projects as much as the actual pollution itself. The initial phase of raising awareness and concern over the PX plant in Kunming took place on virtual platforms building consensus and solidarity amongst concerned citizens. The coalition of NGOs and activist organizations demonstrated the effectiveness of rallying support and building a base when confronting municipal authorities. Street protests demonstrated the gravity of the public’s sense of disenfranchisement from the policy side as well as the severity of grievance and sense of urgency over the prospect of environmental damage and harm to public health. The capacity to organize and resist in differing ways is instrumental for political resistance and provides Chinese civil society with a means of targeting problems in the country’s political economy.

Due to the rise in environmental protests as mentioned above, the Chinese government has responded by strengthening laws and facilitating the environmental litigation process out of public interest. Improved legal channels for seeking mediation on pollution cases facilitates an alternative, legal format for protest against violators. According to de Boer & Whitehead (2016), close to one hundred pollution-related lawsuits were filed in 2015 by “NGOs and public prosecutors” (para. 1). One notable example of the success of such litigation came in 2014 when an environmental group in Taizhou sued—and won—against chemical producers for roughly $26 million USD. Many legal cases target local governments and the companies which partner with them in setting up factories. Problems remain, however, as the majority of China’s environmental pollution continues unfettered and unpunished, while contamination continues to plague soil and water resources. In fact, the presence of 450 “cancer villages” across China–villages in which chemical factories have left behind hazardous environments resulting in high rates of cancer among local populations–demonstrates the gravity of the problem and the fact that environmental contamination and its effects will likely persist (Göbel & Ong, 2012, p. 38). Environmental pollution is built into the Chinese development model, which means fundamental adjustments will need to be carried out in order to ameliorate the problem. Possible solutions and policy adjustments are discussed below.

Discussion of Policy Responses and Implications

The lack of private land tenure and environmental pollution account for the majority of political resistance activities in China. They constitute factors which underlie much of the phenomena related to China’s economic development that have been met with resistance from Chinese citizens. The causes and effects of the resistance factors of development raise questions about ways the Chinese government can or should respond appropriately. Some policy responses are naturally more practical than others given the constraints set by the authoritarian political system and the country’s current stage of development.

Private land tenure policies

With respect to private land tenure, the first hurdle lies in changing the Chinese state’s fundamental relationship to the land. The current land governance system stems from the socialist period, which began with the founding of the People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong. The Maoist period came to an end through the radical economic transformation under reforms instituted by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s. One could argue that the current stage of economic growth offers new opportunities to reform land policy by departing even more from the bygone socialist past. The question, however, is more political than economic. As Lai (2010) argued, the dynamic shifts in the economic system which arose through decentralization of state control over industries and opening up to private enterprise through Deng’s economic reforms were not met with paralleled political reforms. The political system that exists today remains authoritarian and superior to the rule of law, very much in kind to its socialist past. Despite the persistence of the authoritarian system, reform in the land governance system must come from fundamental reorientations in the relationship between the state, land, and society, which runs contrary to CCP ideology.

The objective of land reform would be to provide secure property rights to landowners under a system of private land tenure. Already, the state has granted land-use rights to individuals, families, and companies since the late 1980s, as discussed above. Prior to that policy shift, rural households were given more direct control over their allocated lots in the late 1970s through the Household Responsibility System (HRS), which allowed farmers to benefit from surplus production after the state had taken its quota share (Zerenzhi, 2009). Those policies were implemented by the central government and departed from the inefficient collectivized use of land sponsored under the Maoist regime. A similar alteration of land governance in the direction of private land tenure must also come through the initiative and sponsorship of the central government in order to become reality. Grassroots movements are incapable of pushing for reform under the current system.

The way in which such a transition could happen under the rigid authoritarian system would be to set up pilot programs in certain provinces or cities to aid in the land governance shift, similar to the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) established in the 1980s (such as in Shenzhen) that created more favorable economic conditions and institutional structures for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and private entrepreneurship (Wang, Wang, & Wu, 2009). An experimental land tenure zone in the spirit of SEZs would allow the Chinese government to moderate and observe the effects of the nascent private land tenure system, encouraging confidence in the results and providing insights on nationwide implementation.

Initial steps towards a private land tenure land governance system in China, whether applied in experimental zones or nationwide, would likely have to begin with imposing restrictions on the ability of farmers to sell off their land after gaining private ownership rights. Such restrictions would prevent companies and rich individuals from snatching up land before the benefits could be realized by the peasants for whom land tenure has the most to offer in terms of economic benefits. What local governments have done to peasants vis a vis land expropriation under the current land governance system would likely be repeated in the form of wealthy parties offering alluring deals to shortsighted peasants who may not understand the value of private property for their future livelihoods. Thus, for an experimental situation to work, pilot land tenure programs would need to include provisions to protect farmers from further exploitation by the powerful and wealthy. Perhaps the central government could propose a contractually binding agreement that would restrict farmers’ ability to sell their private land for a period of time, perhaps 15 years, after which time they would be eligible to keep their land or decide to sell it off.

A gradual process of land tenure would also have to apply to urban dwellers. Urban property owners who currently own real estate but who do not own the land which their properties stand on could also be gradually integrated into the private land tenure system. In order to prevent large, wealthy buyers from snatching up cheap units and owning a disproportionate amount of land in the cities, the central government could impose other restrictions on the implementation of the new system. For instance, land ownership could spread in stages, starting with granting ownership rights to citizens in low-income brackets. After a period of time, wealthier segments of the population could also be given property rights. It may also be necessary to restrict private ownership of land to a certain number of housing units initially. For example, owners of multiple real estate properties would be restricted to private ownership of just one property, perhaps over the property which they first acquired. Multiple schemes would need to be discussed and debated before rolling out any new land tenure reforms.

Gradual implementation of private land tenure would be the more sensible way to wean the government off of the current land governance system of state ownership. It would also allow for a more equitable transition and one with manageable political and economic consequences for the regime, which is bound to lose a significant amount of control after full implementation. Finally, such a policy transition would require broader structural reforms in which the central government–and the Communist Party in particular–would have to submit itself to the rule of law as ensured by an independent judiciary. State accountability through an independent judicial system is the only way to guarantee protection of land tenure rights against state actors prone to renege on policies that reduce state control. Rule of law would secure not only private ownership rights but also a smooth transition into the new system.

Environmental policies

The central government has already responded to political resistance from environmental pollution, although more must be done. The revised Environmental Protection Law of 2015 provides a case in point (de Boer & Whitehead, 2016). This law makes it easier for the public to sue environmental polluters as well as the local government officials that collude with offending companies. The ability for citizens to channel their discontent into litigation was already briefly discussed above. Despite the improvements in litigation, actual pollution levels remain a massive problem in China. According to McKinsey & Company (2013), fewer than one percent of China’s “500 largest cities” had clean air in 2013, and the problem persists (para. 1). The environmental crisis is linked to the Chinese model of growth over the past three decades, in which regard for the externalized costs of industrial production in heavy industry and manufacturing (i.e. environmental degradation) has been almost entirely disregarded. Policies and practices favoring GDP growth targets and economic development have supplanted concerns over the consequences to environmental quality and epidemiology.

The fact that some of the state’s environmental data such as soil contamination statistics were concealed from the public under the designation of “state secret” as late as 2013 demonstrates the difficulty in obtaining accurate, up-to-date information on which to make appropriate policy decisions (McKinsey & Company, 2013, para. 4). It is apparent that the Chinese government at the central and local levels is complicit in allowing the environmental catastrophe to persist by maintaining such secrecy. The foremost policy implication for resolving pollution as a factor of political resistance would be to make pollution statistics and information on polluters transparent. Transparency would allow the public to come to terms with the gravity of the situation and thereby facilitate appropriate responses such as more targeted litigation and productive activism. Such transparency, however, puts the government in a vulnerable position of criticism. The path to political transparency would probably have to begin, again, with political reform in the direction of greater civic participation in political affairs, especially with regards to the public’s ability to hold government officials and organizations accountable for the consequences of their actions. Such reform is highly unlikely under the authoritarian model currently entrenched in China today.

Whether or not the Chinese government can make structural changes to allow for greater civic participation is a factor that plays a key role in determining appropriate policy responses. More attainable policy options, however, might lie in strengthening the means already available to curb environmental pollution, particularly pertaining to prevention and punishment. Prevention of pollution entails environmental health and safety regulations. Ensuring companies implement proper safety equipment and efficiency standards in their factories would demand a beefed up licensing and permitting system impervious to bribery. Independent licensing agencies could provide the needed means of permitting factory construction and operation only after companies complied with the appropriate regulations. Such a system would require further auditing to ensure companies do not regress into operations which violate the standards they initially passed. Such as system would be dependent on improved institutional quality which China currently lacks (Borin & Stefano, 2016). More severe punishments for health and safety violations would provide further incentive for companies to pursue compliance rather than avoidance of pollution standards.

Finally, the sources of pollution themselves should be targeted aggressively to stem the output of pollutants. Significant pollution in China derives from burning fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum products. Targeting efficiency standards in automobiles and in filtering equipment in factories requires high institutional quality to carry out enforcement and punishment. Another manageable approach would be to strengthen education policies that could be implemented to teach children or inform the public on best practices for reducing individual polluting habits, especially with regards to consumption. Educating the public on how to be wise consumers, especially through reducing consumption, could be counterproductive to the economic growth model that requires mass consumption to drive the industries which provide jobs to millions of workers. The government’s current policy directives aim to shift from a manufacturing and export-oriented economy to a consumption-based one (Borin & Stefano, 2016). Yet those industries which depend on high consumption are the very sources of environmental pollution which result in public health hazards and political resistance: the challenge of finding appropriate policy responses is indeed complex.

Research Suggestions and Conclusion

This paper has looked at two primary factors of development which have led to political resistance in China. The scope and depth of the paper provides an outline of the main issues pertaining to development and political resistance, entailing background on land tenure and its place in Chinese land governance, as well as pollution. Policy suggestions are outlined, offering a glimpse into possible alternative paths the Chinese government could take in alleviating the problems arising from economic development. The policy implications addressed deal mainly with political reforms necessary that lie at the root of potentially effective changes in the current growth model. The research does not intend to comprehensively address all factors of resistance, nor all the associated consequences related to social unrest and protest. Neither does it provide an exhaustive list of the policy implications.

Further research could look into a more comprehensive enumeration of the types of political resistance seen across China as well as the underlying causes stemming from development practices which foment resistance activities. More data mining would be necessary to accomplish a comprehensive investigation, which could prove difficult considering that one of the policy suggestions offered (at least with regard to environmental pollution) focused on the lack of transparency or availability of data related to environmental pollution statistics. Therefore, data could present a challenge in structuring original research beyond a literature review.

Another area for further research lies in distinguishing economic factors of development from political factors. Within the authoritarian state, most aspects of society are subsumed under the control of the Communist Party and nearly all economic activities can be boiled down to their relationship with state polity. The political system ultimately dominates all activities in Chinese society in terms of its constraining or enabling functions. This paper did not go into detail on the relationship between China’s political and economic structures or their influence on development practices and social unrest. Establishing clearer distinctions between the country’s political and economic systems could help elucidate the sources of development-related problems that persist in Chinese society.

China’s economic growth and developmental trajectory is undergoing a shift away from the model of manufacturing and land development that has so far fueled spectacular growth. The central government is now attempting to steer the nation towards a more sustainable growth model based on consumption instead of export-oriented manufacturing. The manufacturing and land development industries happen to be the very locus of the majority of political resistance activities and social unrest. With the transition to a consumer and services oriented economy, it remains to be seen what opportunities will open up under these changing economic conditions. New conditions could potentially facilitate the policies necessary to ameliorate the grave environmental and land governance situation. Alternatively, the current state of affairs could equally persist without any foreseeable improvements, possibly even worsening. Perhaps the emerging economic reorientation will create conditions which would open up new possibilities for political reform, and thus open the way for the implementation of a private land tenure system. Changes must happen in order to remedy the environmental damages brought on by China’s development, and they are happening to an extent. The Chinese government must respond with new tools and policies to meet the challenges associated with its current developmental model. Encouraging greater civil society participation is perhaps the most key element of all.


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Ren, X. (2013). Urban China. John Wiley & Sons.

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

Steinhardt, H. C., & Wu, F. (2016). In the Name of the Public: Environmental Protest and the Changing Landscape of Popular Contention in China. The China Journal, 75(1), 61-82. Retrieved from: https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/h._christoph_steinhardt_and_fengshi_wu_-_in_the_name_of_the_public_0.pdf

Takahashi, G. (2015) Two Main Conditions for Collapse of the Bubble Economy of China—Large Number of Unsold Houses and Deregulation of Deposit Interest Rates. Journal of Financial Risk Management, 04, 40-55. Retrieved from: http://file.scirp.org/pdf/JFRM_2015032711481138.pdf

Wang, D. W. D. (2013). Continuity and Change in the Urban Villages of Shenzhen. International Journal of China Studies, 4(2), 233. Retrieved from: http://search.proquest.com.eproxy2.lib.hku.hk/docview/1449791462?accountid=14548

Wang, Y. P., Wang, Y., & Wu, J. (2009). Urbanization and informal development in China: urban villages in Shenzhen. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 33(4), 957-973.

Wang, Z., Sun, L., Xu, L., & Pavlićević, D. (2013). Leadership in China’s Urban Middle Class Protest: The Movement to Protect Homeowners’ Rights in Beijing. The China Quarterly, 214, 411-431. Retrieved from: http://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/33347999/LeadershipHomeowners_2013.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAJ56TQJRTWSMTNPEA&Expires=1480144833&Signature=OOBWmLxSqo6XUCzaA%2F7Q6Tgg6JY%3D&response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%3DLeadership_in_Chinas_Urban_Middle_Class.pdf

Williamson, C. R. (2011). The two sides of de Soto: property rights, land titling, and development. The annual proceedings of the wealth and well-being of nations, 95. Retrieved from: https://www.beloit.edu/upton/assets/Volume.II.entire.volume.pdf#page=95

Wong, V. (2014). Land Policy Reform in China: Dealing with Forced Expropriation and the Dual Land Tenure System. Occasional Paper, 25. Retrieved from: https://www.law.hku.hk/ccpl/pub/OP%20No%2025%20Vince%20Wong.pdf

Wu, F., Zhang, F., & Webster, C. (2013). Informality and the development and demolition of urban villages in the Chinese peri-urban area. Urban Studies, 50(10), 1919-1934. Retrieved from: http://usj.sagepub.com/content/50/10/1919.full

Zerenzhi, J. (2009). Household Responsibility System. Berkshire Encyclopedia of China. Berkshire Publishing Group LLC, Sydney, 1066-1072.

Zhao, B. (2009). Land expropriation, protest, and impunity in rural China. Focaal,2009(54), 97-105. Retrieved from: http://www.google.com.hk/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwiPr_be7MXQAhWIe7wKHfdcCsoQFggiMAE&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.berghahnjournals.com%2Fdownloadpdf%2Fjournals%2Ffocaal%2F2009%2F54%2Ffocaal540108.xml&usg=AFQjCNHZDH0YXzAcdbAxt0zJfRk7ER_eFA&sig2=K47UyzTQErv4BNgDaXvGaw

References for Charts and Figures

Title Page

Levinson, A., & McDonald, K. (2014, October 30). Why citizen participation should be encouraged in China’s 13th Five-Year Plan. Chinadialogue: Blog, News Focus. See: https://www.chinadialogue.net/blog/7440-Why-citizen-participation-should-be-encouraged-in-China-s-13th-Five-Year-Plan/en

Figure A: Land Governance Systems across the Globe

Enemark, S. (2004): Building Land Information Policies. Proceedings of Special Forum on Building Land Information Policies in the Americas. Aguascalientes, Mexico, 26-27 October.http://www.fig.net/pub/mexico/papers_eng/ts2_enemark_eng.pdf. From: Opaluwa Y. D, Adejare Q. A, Samaila-Ija H. A, Onuigbo I. C, Nwose I. A, Idris M. K, Surveying and Mapping in Sustainable Land Administration and Socioeconomic Development in Nigeria: An Overview, American Journal of Geographic Information System, Vol. 3 No. 2, 2014, pp. 88-97. Retrieved from: http://article.sapub.org/10.5923.j.ajgis.20140302.03.html#Ref

Figure B: Expropriated Farmland Area from 1995 to 2012.

Takahashi, G. (2015) Two Main Conditions for Collapse of the Bubble Economy of China—Large Number of Unsold Houses and Deregulation of Deposit Interest Rates. Journal of Financial Risk Management, 04, 40-55. Retrieved from: http://file.scirp.org/pdf/JFRM_2015032711481138.pdf

Figure C: Poll: Main Concerns of Chinese Citizens.

Laohu Economics. (2016, April 13). What can China protests tell us about the state of economic stability? Laohueconomics. See: http://laohueconomics.com/new-china-economics-blog/

Figure D: Types of Soil Pollution in China.

Tan, Debora. (2014, May 13). Pollution: 5 Reasons to Remain Optimistic. China Water Risk. See: http://chinawaterrisk.org/opinions/pollution-5-reasons-to-remain-optimistic/

Figure E: Wastewater Discharge in Relationship to GDP.

Hu, Tan, & Lazareva. (2014, March 12). 8 Facts on China’s Wastewater. China Water Risk. See: http://chinawaterrisk.org/resources/analysis-reviews/8-facts-on-china-wastewater/

Figure F: Comparison of Air Pollution between U.S. and Chinese Cities.

McCarthy, Niall. (2015, January 26). Air Pollution Levels In Perspective: China And The US. Statista. See: https://www.google.com.hk/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwimp9TSh7_QAhWIerwKHb8fBXAQjhwIBQ&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.statista.com%2Fchart%2F3161%2Fair-pollution-levels-in-perspective%2F&psig=AFQjCNGdy472ge25Nw5pKeus2TblzEm4Mw&ust=1479996734107536

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.