‘The tiger’s leap’: The role of history in legitimating the authority of modern Chinese planners

Blog by Xin Feng and Kiera Chapman

9 Jan 2020, 12:31 p.m.
Xin Feng and Kiera Chapman


Urban planners all over the world face the seemingly impossible task of reconciling (at least) three contradictory imperatives: creating room for capitalist marketisation; paying heed to the dictates of a strong, centralised socialist state; and remaining attentive to alternative concepts of public good, including ecological imperatives and the desires of local communities.  The practical and ideological conflicts between these three imperatives are sharp and wide-ranging, creating a host of incompatible pressures across the social, political, cultural, and economic domains.


However, in a Chinese context, these ‘contradictions’ are sometimes explained away as the consequence of a process of ongoing ‘transition’ that is not yet complete. The underlying colonial assumption is often that China’s move from a socialist, planned economy to a form of authoritarian capitalism is incomplete, placing it ‘behind’ the global north.  Such a view shatters the simultaneity of the global present into anachrony: at any given moment in chronological time, it pictures various countries at different stages of historical development, with Europe and America representing the ‘future’ of the global south.  Contradictions that are, in actual fact, globally shared are explained away as signs of a society that is historically interstitial, as if ‘progress’ in the global south represented a movement towards a more coherent form of capitalism that has already arrived in the global north. 


In our paper, we try to combat this by exploring the ways in which urban planners in China construct their ideas of professional legitimacy.  We do this in two ways.  Firstly, we treat urban planning professionalism as something that is inherently incoherent, and that involves an inevitable negotiation of conflicting pressures, to which planners seek multiple and often contradictory resolutions.  Secondly, inspired by Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History, we take a longer historical view, exploring the ways in which a series of very different definitions of professionalism drawn from Chinese history offer planners a vital creative resource to reimagine their professional role. Using a series of interviews conducted with spatial planners across a range of settings, we explore how they blend modern ideas of the planning professional as an individual who acts to produce economic growth for particular clients with older conceptions of the planner as rational and scientific socialist technocrat. Behind both of these, we found, lay still older notions of the Confucian scholar-official, who governs hierarchically, according to a series of unwritten social and spatial rules of appropriacy.   


Perhaps the most controversial finding of our study is that the ‘public interest’ emerges as a key term in this balancing act, precisely because it is conceptually empty, and therefore redefinable in terms of a wide range of competing rationales.  It can be endlessly rewritten to suit the needs of market-led economic growth, aesthetic beauty, the directives of an authoritarian and centralised state, or to be attentive to the specificities of a locality or a local community.  Our empirical analysis shows that public interest justifications are used not to establish one set of public ‘goods’ but to hybridise between very different conceptualisations, joining them together in new, pragmatic combinations.  In a cultural context where there is a significant emphasis on harmony, this allows tensions between different ideas of the ‘good’ to be spirited away. Professionalism thus renders contradictions invisible, allowing development to appear as a harmonising social influence rather than a source of conflict.  


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst: ‘The tiger’s leap’: The role of history in legitimating the authority of modern Chinese planners




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