Speaker Dr. Xuefei Ren at SFU Harbour Centre

Reflecting on Governing the Urban in China and India

November 29, 2023

Story by Hanan Ali (School of Public Policy) and Yushu Zhu (Urban Studies Program and School of Public Policy)

On November 2, Dr. Xuefei Ren joined us at SFU David Lam Centre to present her award-winning book Governing the Urban in China and India: Land Grabs, Slum Clearance, and the War on Air Pollution (Princeton University Press, 2020; Winner of 2022 Robert Park Best Book Award, American Sociological Association). Dr. Ren teaches sociology and global urban studies at Michigan State University, and studies urban governance and the built environment in comparative perspective. Dr. Ren is also a fellow in the Humanity’s Urban Future program of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) and a Public Intellectual Fellow of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. 

In her presentation, Dr. Ren explores how China and India govern their cities and how their different governance mechanisms produce inequality and exclusion. Urbanization is rapidly overtaking China and India, and yet the dynamics of urban governance in these countries remain obscure and poorly understood. The current literature on urban governance for Chinese and Indian cities tends to oversimplify complex issues, reducing them to binary terms such as democratic or authoritarian regimes, and strong or weak states. Driven by the need to find an approach that reflects our nuanced realities, Dr. Ren suggests that urban governance in China is characterized by a territorial framework, while in India, it adopts an associational approach.

A set of territorial institutions in China renders political decision-making relatively straightforward because these institutions distribute responsibilities, rights, benefits, and resources based on territorial jurisdictions. The hukou system is a residency system that divides the Chinese population into urban and rural segments, effectively codifying different sets of economic and social rights. Another paradigmatic example of territorial governance is rural collective land ownership. Under this system, Chinese peasants have legal rights of land ownership that empower them to engage in resistance against land-taking based on territorial claims. The cadre evaluation system incentivizes local Chinese officials—through territorial promotion criteria—to bolster economic growth in the areas they govern. 

Yushu Zhu provides opening remarks

In contrast to China, there are no such territorial institutions in Indian cities, which means that political outcomes depend on associational types of mobilizing among the state, the private sector, and civil society organizations. Urban governance in India, therefore, exhibits an associational logic centred on coalition- and alliance-building. This is a crucial difference in how cities in China and India are governed. Of note, Dr. Ren clarifies that territorial and associational forms of urban governance can indeed be found in both countries. Her overarching thesis, however, tells us that the territorial approach is observed more heavily in Chinese urban affairs, while the associational approach is more pervasive in India.

Dr. Ren turns to significant case studies of slum redevelopment to demonstrate the explanatory power of this territorial/associational distinction. In Guangzhou in the early 2000s, the municipal government attempted to redevelop various “urban villages,” urban informal settlements in which villagers often have the status of rural collective landowners. In her talk, Dr. Ren explains that this redevelopment project displaced migrant tenants who lacked local hukou status, while benefitting villager-landlords who had hukou and were members of the incorporated village companies. With hukou and village membership, residents had a legitimate claim to their homes. In China, housing claims were made clear-cut in accordance with territorial institutions. But in Mumbai, when the state government attempted to evict slum residents from an informal settlement next to the airport, there were no clear-cut criteria for entitlement to compensation. In the absence of strong territorial institutions, compensation eligibility was negotiated through local community organizing by residents, housing NGOs, and other civil society actors—the lifeblood of associational politics.

Dr. Ren then delves into her second case study on land acquisition and citizens’ protests. She compares the Wukan (China) uprising to the peasant struggle against Left Front-led dispossession in Singur (India). In China’s case, rural villagers at Wukan protested against bottom-level village authorities and made strong claims to rural collective land ownership. In India, by contrast, rural protesters at Singur targeted the regional state government, but the success of their resistance campaigns depended not on land ownership claims but on the involvement of political parties. Rural collective land ownership gave rise to a strong territorial logic to local resistance in Wukan, while the intervention of political parties marked the associational character of mobilizations in Singur.  

Finally, Dr. Ren invites us to think about territorial/associational frameworks of governance in relation to air pollution control efforts in Beijing and Delhi. Territorial authorities—municipal, district, town, and township—in Beijing are ultimately responsible for major policy actions on air pollution control within their respective jurisdictions. By comparison, there is no comparable territorial authority in Delhi. Their clean air campaign there was spearheaded by multi-sectoral coalitions, public-interest litigation campaigns, and strategic mobilization of the Indian Supreme Court by environmental NGOs to prompt the Delhi government into action. 

Overall, Dr. Ren’s presentation on Governing the Urban in China and India is a compelling call to examine distinct forms of governing cities, and to decenter mainstream theoretical frameworks for understanding urban transformations in the Global South—that are largely derived from (yet cannot be fully captured by) the Global North experience. The comparisons Dr. Ren sets up across diverse urban contexts in China and India offer valuable insight into the different modalities of urban policy-making and their impact on rising social inequality, situated within the diverse geographic, historical, and institutional landscape of these countries. You can also read more about Dr. Ren’s new projects, such as The City after Covid-19, which examines vulnerability and urban governance in Chicago, Toronto, and Johannesburg. 

These events were co-hosted by the SFU David Lam Centre and Urban Studies Program. They were co-sponsored by SFU Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Urban Studies Program, David Lam Centre, and Department of Sociology and Anthropology.