Metamorphic Metropolises: What’s at Stake in Chinese Cities’ “Administrative Division Adjustments”?

By Kyle Jaros (University of Notre Dame)

Imagine that residents of New York City awoke tomorrow to reports that the governor of New York State had authorized, without public consultation, a far-reaching change to the city’s territorial map: Brooklyn would be split into two boroughs and the Bronx would merge with newly annexed Westchester County to form a northern mega-borough. This would be huge and highly contentious news for New Yorkers, with far-reaching implications for business, housing, infrastructure, public services, and governmental operations across the metropolis.

In reality, dramatic changes to the jurisdictional boundaries of U.S. cities are rare these days, and even small alterations require lengthy public deliberation. New York has not significantly adjusted its territorial footprint since 1898. Chicago’s last major annexation took place in 1956. Even fast-growing Houston seems to have moved beyond the phase of rapidly incorporating surrounding suburban communities.1

Not so in contemporary China. Amid the country’s explosive urban growth in recent decades, dozens of major cities have undertaken sweeping “administrative division adjustments” (ADAs) that rearrange urban areas’ external and/or internal jurisdictional boundaries, often with little official warning. These can include, among other forms, mergers that convert erstwhile rural counties to urban districts, reorganizations of existing urban districts, and combinations of the two. Indeed, many Chinese cities have carried out multi-unit ADAs that reshape the boundaries or territorial governance of three or more county-sized jurisdictions at one stroke. From Beijing (2010) to Guangzhou (2014) to Ningbo (2016), at least 29 cities carried out multi-unit ADAs between 2010-2019.2

Changes to major cities’ territorial-administrative arrangements matter for a range of governance and development outcomes. The way governmental authority is split among different local jurisdictions and divided across different administrative levels affects the distribution of economic resources and social opportunities,3 the structure of political power and participation,4 and the ease of planning and administration.5 In China, where the party-state plays a dominant role in economic development and social governance, and where even urban districts (the subunits of major cities) can be as large as US counties and home to over a million people, urban administrative boundaries and intergovernmental power relations are especially consequential.

However, despite the importance of administrative geography in shaping the growth and governance of China’s bourgeoning cities, scholars’ understanding of the political backstories and practical effects of major ADAs has remained patchy. In what ways do ADAs transform cities’ economic and political landscapes? Why do these enormous shakeups to cities’ territorial-administrative structures happen when and in the way they do?

My comparative research on the multi-unit ADAs that occurred in the eastern Chinese cities of Nanjing (2013) and Ningbo (2016) seeks to shed light on these questions. The two cases have several commonalities: Both Nanjing and Ningbo are major urban hubs in China’s prosperous Yangtze River Delta region, belonging to Jiangsu Province and Zhejiang Province, respectively. The cities both hold deputy-provincial administrative rank in China’s party-state hierarchy. Both had resident populations of around 8 million people in the early 2010s. In both Nanjing and Ningbo, major ADAs were unveiled with little public warning, significantly redrawing the administrative geography of the metropolis.

At the same time, Nanjing and Ningbo display some important contextual differences. Nanjing is a provincial capital city that has generally been on good terms with Jiangsu, its superior. Ningbo, by contrast, is a so-called “separately planned city” whose relative economic autonomy has often placed it at odds with Zhejiang Province. And while Nanjing had already converted most of its surrounding counties to urban districts in the decades prior to its 2013 ADA, Ningbo in 2016 still had several counties and county-level cities in its territory that were governed differently than the city proper. As I discuss below, these differences of local political-administrative context would prove important for both the aims and outcomes of ADAs.

Figure 1: Nanjing’s district configuration before and after the 2013 ADA
Source: Map by Christopher Weir

Nanjing’s 2013 ADA affected large areas of the city, but did not constitute a major turning point in the city’s development or politics. As part of the ADA, Nanjing converted two remaining rural counties (Lishui and Gaochun) to urban districts and consolidated four central city districts (Gulou, Xiaguan, Qinhuai, and Baixia) into two, as shown in Figure 1 below. This reorganization of territory aimed to promote “integrated urban-rural development,” expand central city districts’ “development space,” and streamline urban administration.6 While the consolidation of central city districts was expected to reduce administrative overhead and make urban redevelopment in the crowded city center easier, however, the districts erased from Nanjing’s map had been relatively minor units. And, in a city that already held abundant greenfield land for growth in existing urban districts, the short-term developmental significance of adding new urban districts was limited. Along these lines, the limited turnover of city and district-level leaders during the ADA process—only four out of 22 district-level top party or government leadership posts changed hands in 2013—speaks to the relatively low-key politics of Nanjing’s restructuring.7

 On its surface, Ningbo’s 2016 ADA resembled the territorial restructuring that took place in Nanjing three years earlier. However, Ningbo’s ADA involved a more profound reconfiguration of the city’s economic and political landscape. Before 2016, Ningbo had the third-smallest urban district area among China’s 15 deputy-provincial cities, which had constrained the growth of the central city and complicated policy coordination across different urban subunits. City officials described this as a problem of “a small horse pulling a large cart.”8 Meanwhile, Ningbo’s largest and most economically dynamic district, Yinzhou, had retained a high degree of autonomy since its annexation in 2002, operating almost like a city within the city.

Against this backdrop, Ningbo’s 2016 ADA, depicted in Figure 2, had major implications for the city’s development prospects and governance arrangements. The merger of Fenghua City as a new district increased the land area of Ningbo’s city proper by 52 percent, unlocking space for further urban expansion. Similarly significant was the break-up of Yinzhou District into two halves. The eastern portion, which kept the name of Yinzhou, merged with Jiangdong District, a prosperous, densely developed area and the seat of municipal government. The western half was folded into Haishu, another densely populated and relatively developed central city district. Following this reorganization, there were two economically powerful districts at Ningbo’s core with ample space for further growth, and the stage had been set for Ningbo to integrate Yinzhou’s urban development and governance more tightly with that of neighboring districts. These changes to Ningbo’s economic landscape were accompanied by a major shake-up of top officials in urban subunits, with 12 district-level leadership changes occurring in 2016.9

Figure 2: Ningbo’s district configuration before and after the 2016 ADA
Source: Map by Christopher Weir

I trace the diverging aims and outcomes of ADA in Nanjing and Ningbo to the histories of city-province and city-district relations in each city during the prior decade-plus. In Ningbo, municipal officials had been frustrated for many years by their inability to enlarge the city proper and centralize control over development and governance in the city. While this was partly due to the de facto autonomy of the large and powerful Yinzhou District, it also reflected Ningbo’s awkward administrative relationship with Zhejiang Province. City officials felt they were getting the cold shoulder from Zhejiang, which had withheld its backing for ADA plans and infrastructure mega-projects proposed by Ningbo while instead supporting rapid growth in the provincial capital, Hangzhou.10 However, a moment of opportunity for Ningbo to carry out a major ADA opened after 2012, as Xi Jinping rose to power in Beijing and his allies filled leadership positions in both Ningbo and Zhejiang Province. With the political stars finally aligning for ADA, Ningbo’s leaders tried to address the major mismatch that had emerged between the city’s developmental ambitions and its existing administrative geography.

In Nanjing, by contrast, city-province relations had remained mostly amicable since the early 2000s. Jiangsu had supported its capital city’s annexation of several outlying counties and provided backing for various urban development initiatives in the city. With help from Jiangsu, Nanjing had also found ways to manage its relationship with its most powerful subunit, Jiangning District, without having to break up the district as Ningbo did with Yinzhou. With the ability to incrementally adjust its territorial governance and pursue a range of major urban development initiatives, Nanjing did not need to rely so heavily on a single instance of ADA to achieve its political and economic goals. 

These findings from Nanjing and Ningbo illustrate the varying forms and functions of the ADAs playing out across major Chinese cities, and bring to light some of the political considerations that drive—or impede—the restructuring of metropolitan governance. Along with other recent work on China’s urban governance transformation,11 these findings underscore the need to better understand the processes of administrative change and reterritorialization that have accompanied the rise of metropolitan juggernauts across China. Finally, this study shows the utility of focusing on moments of institutional rupture such as ADAs that reveal otherwise obscure layers of urban politics in nondemocratic settings.


1. See

2. These calculations are based on a newly compiled dataset from Jianzi He and Kyle Jaros. See He, Jianzi and Kyle A. Jaros. 2022. “The Politics of Administrative Division Adjustment in Urban China.” Working paper.

3. See Freemark, Yonah, Justin Steil, and Kathleen Thelen. 2020. “Varieties of Urbanism: A Comparative View of Inequality and the Dual Dimensions of Metropolitan Fragmentation.” Politics & Society 48 (2): 253-274.

4. See Lassen, David Dreyer and Soren Serritzlew. 2011. “Jurisdiction Size and Local Democracy: Evidence on Internal Political Efficacy from Large-Scale Municipal Reform.” American Political Science Review 105 (2): 238–58.; Huang, Jian and Yanhua Deng. 2017. “Jurisdiction Scale Matters: County Size and External Political Efficacy in China.” Political Studies. 65 (4), 966-982.

5. See Zhang Fengling. 2013. “Nanjing: district adjustment breaks through spatial bottlenecks.” China Real Estate Business. March 4. Accessed via [Chinese]

6. Zhang Fengling. 2013. “Nanjing: district adjustment breaks through spatial bottlenecks.” China Real Estate Business. March 4. Accessed via [Chinese]; Yong Yuguo. 2017. History of Nanjing City Administrative Divisions: 1927-2013. Nanjing: Nanjing University Press. [Chinese]

7. Nanjing Yearbook Editorial Department. Various Years. Nanjing Yearbook. Accessed via [Chinese]

8. See Ningbo Daily. 2016. “A major event in the urban development history of Ningbo.” October 25. Accessed via

9. Ningbo Yearbook Editorial Department. Various Years. Ningbo Yearbook. Accessed via [Chinese]

10. See Ma, Xiao. 2017. “Guardians and Gridlock: Bureaucracy, Bargaining, and Authoritarian Policy-making.” Ph.D. dissertation. University of Washington.; Lu, Warren W. and Kellee S. Tsai. 2019. “Inter-Governmental Vertical Competition in China’s Urbanization Process.” Journal of Contemporary China, 28 (115): 99–117.

11. See, for example, Cartier, Carolyn. 2015. “Territorial Urbanization and the Party-State in China.” Territory, Politics, Governance 3 (3): 294–320.; Yin Jie. 2017. Administrative Division Adjustment in Metropolitan Area: Reterritorialization and Rescaling. Beijing: China Building Industry Press. [Chinese]

Read the full UAR article here.

Photo of Nanjing by vigor poodo on Unsplash

Author Biography

Kyle A. Jaros is associate professor of global affairs at the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs. Jaros’s research explores the politics of metropolitan governance, regional development, and central-local relations in China. He is author of China’s Urban Champions: The Politics of Spatial Development (Princeton University Press, 2019).