This is an author-produced blog post to introduce upcoming Urban Affairs Review articles. The full article can be found here in OnlineFirst
Departing point of this study
The theories of growth machine and urban regime have constrained explanatory power in social contexts outside the United States, partially because they presume a specific set of sociopolitical conditions in which urban growth coalitions are embedded, and have paid insufficient attention to the relations between macro conditions and growth coalitions (Davies 2003; Lake 1990). This study intends to enhance our understanding of the variation of growth politics in urban settings of transitional societies by paying critical attention to the sociopolitical contexts of growth politics.
It takes Shanghai as a case to explore the forms and dynamics of state-led growth coalition in the residential sector in transitional China. Unlike existing studies of China’s urban growth which concentrate on the planning and decision making of urban development at municipal or district levels, this study pays attention to the management of growth related conflicts, and thus offers a more satisfactory explanation regarding the continuity of urban growth.
Four pillars to understand growth politics in China
An analytical framework is developed to advance our understanding of the variation of growth politics in a different urban setting. It contends that growth politics is shaped by market mechanism, government business interdependence, source of political legitimacy, and power dynamics.
In China, the blurred boundary of the political and economic dimensions of urban growth which is enabled by immature market conditions and state controlled resources, together with the dual source of political legitimacy, requires that the state-led growth coalition promotes urban growth on the one hand, and manages growth related conflicts on the other hand. In line with the need of conflict management, growth coalition has to extend itself spatially into neighborhood level and temporally into post development phase to sustain urban growth. This extension requires pro-growth players to exploit infrastructural power, in Mann’s (1984) conception, to contain homeowners’ activism.
In the context of China’ urban neighborhoods, the base level governing institutions, the system of street offices and resident committees, have been reinvented to restore a governable urban society as a response to the rising civil society forces operating outside the established regime since the economic reform. These base level institutions function as the radiating institutions of control (Soifer 2008) or logistical infrastructure for penetrating civil society (Mann 1984), and thus enable government’s infrastructural power.
Why urban growth and grassroots management are intertwined in Shanghai?
Development processes and post development disputes are intrinsically intertwined for multiple reasons: 1. The multi-staged development mode entails substantial changes in neighborhood planning which infringes the rights of homeowners who have moved into earlier phases of the development; 2. Development related problems are trickled down to the property management system due to the housing reform legacy of “those who develop are responsible for management”, and the over-regulated pricing system of property management services pushes the property management companies towards heavy dependence on developers for survival and profitability; 3. Direct or indirect intervention from the local government, in order to perform the regulatory role and/or to seek interests as participants, further complicates the situation; 4. Housing and property management related disputes tend to be interpreted by local governments as a threat to social stability because of their potential escalation into contentious collective action; 5. Base level governing entities are eager to seek new partners in advancing neighborhood governance.
How does the extended growth coalition work?
The realization of land based interest hinges on preventing interests from being challenged by homeowners’ activism, which relies on the operation of the extended growth coalition. The motivations of various actors in the coalition are diverse, and are not necessarily the same as those that drive involvement in development projects. District government mainly attempts to reconcile policy discrepancy and to settle housing disputes which are rooted in urban planning. Developers have made great effort to prevent disputes from happening, to maintain good relations with local officials for long-term interests, and to make profits through the initial stage property management system. Street level officials concentrate on coping with contentious disputes to maintain social order and stability instead of facilitating demolition and displacement. This task is further delegated to resident committees which are the de facto subordinate administrative arms of street offices in neighborhoods. Property management companies, many of which are subsidiaries and thus heavily dependent on developers, have also been recruited into the growth coalition to prevent or contain homeowners’ activism through their daily management of the neighborhood.
First, this study echoes the argument that making sense of growth politics requires detailed analysis of how national political institution shapes the configuration and operation of local pro-growth coalition (Bae and Sellers 2007; Davies 2003; Stoker 1995). In particular, the assumptions of a well-functioning market and the (economic) driver of government behavior need to be critically analyzed within specific contexts. This study also demonstrates the significance of and calls for examining the multiplicity of local governments’ roles in growth politics. As showed in this study, Chinese local governments act as an instigator of growth projects, a regulator and a participant making profits and settling disputes through infrastructural power. This particular role implies that “growth” in China is not neutral and harmless; rather, it is often accompanied by rights infringement.
Second, this study enriches our understanding of the power at work within an urban regime (Stoker 1995). In particular, infrastructural power as a new form of power different that formulated in the urban regime theory is required to understand the working of the extended state-led growth coalition in China. The social production of growth in China is premised on the successful management of post development problems, disputes, and activism by relying on the base level institutions through which various modes of power (e.g. information collection, persuasion) beyond command can be exercised to penetrate the grassroots society and to protect the incumbent interests of city level growth coalitions.
Third, this study reveals similarity and difference regarding the relation between pro-growth forces and slow growth forces. In the case of China the “slow growth” forces do not oppose growth per se but the violation of their property rights the growth projects bring about. Middle class homeowners in China only voice their concerns regarding specific disputes and seldom oppose growth politics at policy level partly because of the lack of political opportunities and weak civil societies. This issue specific relation mainly unfolds in the form of localized opposition at neighborhood level instead of policy competition at city level.