Creating Chinese Urbanism: Urban Revolution and Governance Changes

Creating Chinese Urbanism: Urban Revolution and Governance Changes


Reviewed by Junxi Qian

First Published:

21 Feb 2023, 2:47 am


Creating Chinese Urbanism: Urban Revolution and Governance Changes

Fulong Wu, Creating Chinese Urbanism: Urban Revolution and Governance Changes, London: UCL Press, 2022; 302 pp.: ISSN: 9781800083332, £45 (hbk), £25 (pbk)


Fulong Wu’s Creating Chinese Urbanism: Urban Revolution and Governance Changes is a book on neighbourhood changes in contemporary China, whose momentum of urbanisation has been unleashed since its economic reform and opening starting almost four decades ago. Moving beyond research approaches that treat urban neighbourhoods as disparate spatial units, the book links the transformations of neighbourhoods to ‘the context of urbanisation, social transition and the creation of urbanism’ (p. 166), thus heralding a general theory about urban China. Resonating closely with classical urban theories advocated by Tönnis, Simmel and Wirth, the book sees urbanisation in terms of not only territorial expansion, but also the variegated changes in social relations, modes of social connectedness and people’s mentalities. To achieve this objective, the book starts with a canonical thesis on traditional Chinese society as defined by the differential mode of association (chaxugeju), proposed by the prestigious Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong. In this model of social relations, people relate to others through concentric structures based on differentiated degrees of social proximity. A social niche of this kind is territorially bounded and regulated by vernacular social norms and the moral order of collectivism.

Under the auspices of this thesis, the book adroitly traces how urban development in post-1949 China has oscillated from the persistence of traditionalism in socialist work units, represented as ‘Communist neo-traditionalism’ in the existing literature (Walder, 1986), to its subsequent weakening, even dissolution in the reform era. Based on this histography, the overarching argument advanced by the book is that the Chinese society is currently ‘leaving the soil’, due to the pervasiveness of market logics and the fervent pursuit of individuality for ordinary people. The book evinces this argument through the prisms of emergent urban spaces, rising residential segregation and new dynamics of neighbourhood changes (with reference to four neighbourhood types – traditional neighbourhoods, work-unit neighbourhoods, urban villages and gated communities). After delineating the intellectual context of the book in the Introduction, Chapter 1 offers a more detailed explication of changing social relations and urban mentalities with the advent of heterogeneity, superficiality and diversity into new urban life, arguing that ‘[s]ocial relations based on traditional ties have become weaker and extend into networks beyond the bounded territory’ (p. 40). As a corollary, guanxi networks nowadays largely serve utilitarian benefits and thus cannot provide the social glue that builds up a moral order.

Following these theoretical premises, Chapter 2 examines the persistence of traditional social universes in old alleyway neighbourhoods and work unit neighbourhoods. While alleyway neighbourhoods were characterised by frequent interactions and closely knit social ties, work unit neighbourhoods reflected the extension of workplace-based relations and acquaintances into everyday life and the direct role played by work units in the provision of services. However, in the reform era, rampant redevelopment and the withdrawal of work units have eroded such neo-traditionalism, thus paving the way for the formalisation and professionalisation of state governance, as opposed to the thorough conflation of state and society in traditional China. However, the end of neo-traditionalism is not the precursor to the creation of autonomous spaces with full-fledged social participation and self-governance. In Chapter 3, the author turns his attention to urban villages, which serve as key hubs of housing and social services for rural migrants in the city. Although urban villages have nominally retained the identity of rural collectives, the demise of the traditional mode of association is evident. On the one hand, for native residents the organic social collective has been replaced by a new governance order based on market participation and shareholding among people exerting property rights. It is a social order following a different set of norms and moral values from traditional collectivism. On the other hand, while rural migrants living in urban villages participate in rich repertoires of social interactions drawing upon cultural proximity or everyday neighbouring practices, and even demonstrate a high level of neighbourhood attachment, the prospect of social integration is ruled out because migrants are excluded from deliberation on neighbourhood affairs – in brief, they cannot reclaim a social collective harbouring their memberships and entitlements. Chapter 4 interrogates the last type of neighbourhood, namely gated communities. Focusing on gated community residents’ disinterest in homeowners’ associations and fascination with exotic architectural tastes and private security, the author argues that gated communities do not betoken the revival of collectivism in China but rather assert new homeowners’ pursuit of individuality and privacy. In this sense, gated communities need to be understood in terms of the desire for a particular form of built environment, with an uncanny combination of minimal social interactions and strong place attachment.

Chapter 5 summarises the theoretical innovations of the book. Two arguments are particularly inspiring and worth reiterating here. First, instead of examining the political economic forces shaping emergent spaces, the book argues that urbanisation and the creation of urbanism are constitutive of social relations and mentalities. There are dialectic relationships between the organisation of social relations and the production of urban spaces. In this sense, social and political changes cannot be analysed outside the ‘nature of cities’ (p. 219); vice versa, neighbourhood changes are microcosms within which market transition, state restructuring and new moral values are experienced at the level of everyday life. Second and relatedly, the book attempts to situate the study of Chinese urbanism within a recent debate in urban studies on the nature of cities. While not questioning the validity of Scott and Storper’s (2015) thesis on agglomerations and acknowledging that urbanisation in China assume a concentrated form, the book nonetheless denotes that theorisation of urban China should not stop at the thesis of urban land nexus but instead pay attention to social life and relations forged in specific spatial ‘cells’ such as neighbourhoods, to appreciate ‘the urban revolution as a radical turn towards the growing city as an oeuvre or assemblage of everyday life’ (p. 231). In sum, ‘leaving the soil’ is not a process that replicates a historical antecedent in the West – the transition from rural Gemeinschaft to urban-based civil society; in contrast, the dissipation of the differential mode of association in traditional China has not ushered in the birth of a self-organised urban society. The final chapter concludes the book by adding extra reflections on the mutual constitution between market-based urbanisation and the Chinese state.

Creating Chinese Urbanism is a genuinely compelling book. On the one hand, it embarks on a path of retheorising Chinese urbanisation as a process during which social orders and modes of associations are fundamentally altered, an inquiry that has hitherto been under-scrutinised in urban China studies. On the other hand, the empirical materials presented in the book are extremely rich, drawing upon the author’s three decades of research. If it is an obligation for a reviewer to pen down some critical reflection on the book, I have only one: I somehow feel that the book’s portrayal of grassroots agency and organisation in urban China is overly pessimistic. Just as social orders are not static but emergent, political identities and forms of grassroots association are emergent, as well, in response to changing circumstances. The book might have underestimated how social relations serve as an ‘infrastructure’ of everyday life that generates social and moral values (Simone, 2004), thus prompting people to institutionalise them to varying degrees. An illustrative example can be drawn from the alliances of mutual support, care and solidarity among gated community residents in Beijing during the Covid-19 outbreak in November and December 2022, as a powerful alternative to coercive quarantine measures preferred by the local state. Certainly, the dissolution of organic social communities and their reconstruction through everyday improvisations do not necessarily negate each other but may reside within a dynamic equilibrium – this hypothesis poses an intriguing research question that calls for future research efforts.



Scott A, Storper M (2015) The nature of cities: The scope and limits of urban theory. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 39(1): 1–15. CrossrefISIGoogle Scholar

Simone A (2004) People as infrastructure: Intersecting fragments in Johannesburg. Public Culture 16(3): 407–429. CrossrefISIGoogle Scholar

Walder A (1986) Communist Neo-Traditionalism: Work and Authority in Chinese Industry. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Google Scholar


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