Author’s Blog: State dominance in urban redevelopment: beyond gentrification in urban China

This is an author-produced blog post to introduce upcoming Urban Affairs Review articles. This article is available, for free, in OnlineFirst.

Dr. Fulong Wu

     Gaojiabang was a dilapidated but bustling ‘urban village’ in Shanghai. It was a residual rural village converted into an urban neighbourhood, but the development was incomplete because the land acquisition was not entirely ‘nationalised’ by state industrial projects. After the closure of state-owned enterprises, the place became an enclave for rural migrants because there are large supermarkets nearby for them to conveniently go to work. Now, Gaojiabang is being redeveloped into an innovation office park, characterised by super blocks and high-rise office buildings. Is this gentrification? The original definition mainly refers to a London-originated residential change from the working class to middle class living. Later, the phenomenon has been studied extensively in New York and other places in the world. Neil Smith’s (2002) seminal research on gentrification profoundly extended its connotation from merely a change of residential use to ‘a global urban strategy’, suggesting that ‘sporadic and quaint gentrification’ under the liberal urban policy has been replaced by revanchist urbanism, which purposely promotes land use changes. Subsequently, ‘global gentrifications’ have been studied in the world, particularly by Loretta Lees and her colleagues.

     Although Gaojiabang is a very special case and residential upgrading similarly exists in other Chinese urban neighbourhoods, this paper argues that it is not the change from residential to office uses that leads to the question of gentrification in urban China. Rather, the case reflects the role of the state and its dominance in the redevelopment of Chinese cities, though market-based property development is used as an instrument for realizing this process. In a sense, the property transactions underlying gentrification are not the determinant here. Although property-led redevelopments in Chinese cities have been extensively documented, the project of Gaojiabang is not for land profit. It is a state project to foster economic restructuring and creating office spaces for capturing new research and development opportunities. It aims for high-value added activities. So in a sense the case echoes Smith’s prediction of ‘a global urban strategy’ but this strategy is no longer confined within gentrification. Indeed, when he used gentrification to predict the strategy is more urban-based, he was flexible about the connotation of gentrification. This is a broad process of urban redevelopment and spatial changes brought about economic restructuring.
     Although residential upgrading exists in urban China, the main process is not about changing residential spaces. The redevelopment of Gaojiabang reveals some important characteristics of urban change in globalizing Shanghai: the dominance of the state and (state) capital over everyday urbanism during the course of post-industrial transition. To be globally competitive and economically efficient, the post-industrial development has been organised by the state and operated by state-backed corporations. The early stage of industrialization was failed as factories were bankrupted under the impact of foreign investment. Now this new process is a redevelopment of the failed space of earlier industrialization.
     This paper confirms Smith’s earlier prediction that a global urban strategy has indeed been used by the state to promote globalization and economic upgrading. This new approach of redevelopment in the aftermath of world financial crisis in 2008 represents a phase departure from piecemeal developer-centered residential conversions, which resembled property-led redevelopment in the West. However, market-driven redevelopment activities have been realigned under state dominance, because of public contests during enforced demolition and the imperative of economic restructuring exceeding profit-making in property developments. Unregulated self-building informal development by small landlords is replaced by state-sanctioned land projects in a ‘mega urban project approach’. Thus, urban redevelopment may provide a valuable angle to observe the nature of ‘neoliberal urbanism’ in China. Regarding the role of the state, the term might be misleading as a way of characterising a more liberal and market-centered approach. Chinese redevelopment is orchestrated by the state, which stretches the concept of gentrification. The state-dominated urban redevelopment may prompt to rethink the term gentrification as having originated from specific economic and residential changes in the West. Following this UK ESRC-funded project ‘The development of migrant villages under China’s rapid urbanization’), the author is just beginning with Jennifer Robinson on another project ‘Governing the urban future’ (, which will explore the governance of large scale urban development. 

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