China’s Neoliberal Urbanism Revisited: Towards an Institutionalist Interpretation


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
  • Jin ZHU (Supervisor)
  • Yung YAU (External person) (External Co-Supervisor)
Award date20 Sept 2021


This thesis attempts to engage in the theoretical debates on China’s neoliberal urbanism. This research topic remains controversial, partly because of the overarching and obscure meanings of the term “neoliberalism”. Another reason is that the Chinese case appears to deviate from the central tenet of the neoliberal ideology, which insists on the retreat of the state from economic regulation and public goods provision. However, it is indisputable that market-oriented reforms have brought about great transformation in urban China. Throughout this process, a series of concurrent and ongoing events have been taking place in the Chinese cities, which include (but not limited to) the proliferation of urban (re)development projects, the mushrooming of the real-estate industry, as well as the prevalence of market exchange and capital investment. In particular, both the local state and the private sector have been placed in an increasingly prominent position in economic development and urban governance alongside globalization, decentralization, and marketization. In this context, a question comes into my mind, that is: to what extent can China’s urban development be defined as a neoliberal paradigm?

To address this research question, I first and foremost have a review of recent research on neoliberal urbanism, in an attempt to clarify its definitions and untangle its complexity. In this manner, I sort out three dimensions, which include market-oriented restructuring, capital-centric rule, and the entrepreneurial (local) state. These three dimensions essentially construct a conceptual framework of neoliberal urbanism. According to this framework, neoliberal urbanism is mainly understood as a major political-economic repertoire in cities, which portrays the entrepreneurial (local) state deploying market-oriented strategies and reviving capital-centric rule in the course of urban development. Based on this conceptual framework, I contextualize the Chinese case, revealing its institutional infrastructure and political-economic dynamics. So far, China’s neoliberal urbanism has been largely identified as a political project orchestrated by the entrepreneurial state in the existing literature. In this vein, the market tends to be tamed while the society remains powerless.

While not denying the dominance and hegemony of the state in urban development and governance, I problematize such a state-centered interpretation, and intend to complement the current debates on Chinese urbanism by introducing a socioeconomic perspective. To implement this idea, I employ the term “institutionalization” to elucidate the socioeconomic transformations that the Chinese urban society has been undergoing against the backdrop of the institutionalization of neoliberalization. More specifically, I divide the socioeconomic changes into the following parts, which largely correspond to the conceptual framework of neoliberal urbanism constructed in the literature review. First, market-oriented restructuring has entrenched a market society; second, capital-centric rule has spawned the value-based norms. Based on the socioeconomic reading, I call for revisiting China’s neoliberal urbanism by developing a reflexive approach. The reflexive approach can be operationalized, I argue, by connecting socioeconomic dynamics with political-economic initiatives when analyzing the neoliberal urbanization in China. That is, the socioeconomic changes in Chinese urban society should be understood to be the results of the political-economic endeavors in the process of neoliberalization. In turn, the socioeconomic dynamics must have contributed to crystallizing China’s neoliberal urbanism in the process of institutionalization, while providing feedback for the political-economic endeavors and prompting successive waves of political-economic restructuring. The reflexive approach, in a nutshell, offers a holistic view of neoliberal urbanism by reconciling political-economic and socioeconomic analyses. Particularly, it helps to reconsider the role of the state and the state-society relations in neoliberal urbanism, rather than assume that the state is fixed in a paramount and deterministic position. Besides, this approach also brings the society “off the map” back into the urban arena, which should have been playing its part in neoliberal urbanism.

Based on the reflexive approach, I propose to conduct some ethnographic investigations. More specifically, I choose Guangzhou as my fieldwork destination, and pick the following two empirical clues for observation, which epitomize the ongoing and multifaceted neoliberal urbanism in China. In the first empirical study, I observe the decade-long development of the Higher Education Mega Center (HEMC), which can be regarded as a pioneering urban (re)development project in Guangzhou. In this chapter, I demonstrate the reflexivity of market-oriented restructuring by illustrating the interaction between pro-growth production and marketized consumption. In the second empirical study, I dissect (speculative) middle-class homeownership in and around Guangzhou triggered by the impetus of housing commodification and financialization. In this chapter, I tap into the reflexivity of capital-centric rule by delineating the manifold tensions between speculative urban development and escalating housing inequalities. Taken together, these empirical chapters consistently reflect the state-dominated but institutionally bounded neoliberal urbanism in China. On this basis, I argue that probing into neoliberalization in urban China through an institutionalist and reflexive lens, instead of rigidly questioning whether Chinese urbanism can be regarded as a neoliberal urban regime, would be a heuristic to grasp the complexity and dynamics of Chinese urban governance, transformation, and dilemmas.