chapter  4
21 Pages

The dialectics of urban planning in China

ByDANIEL B. ABRAMSON

This chapter first focuses on the premises of urban planning in China and the contradictions inherent in planning practice as it has evolved uniquely in the current era of market-oriented reforms. The chapter then examines two concerns that are fundamental considerations for planning in all market-based systems, but of which current Chinese planning practice is not very cognizant: community and property. These concerns nevertheless push planning in China to evolve dialectically. The chapter is organized around the standard dialectical categories of thesis, which outlines the chief premises and functions of planning as it is currently practiced in China; antithesis, which outlines the problems produced by this practice and the contradictions inherent in it; and synthesis, which outlines some of the policy responses to these problems, and speculates on their implications for change in planning practice. This dialectical view of planning in China also joins the critique of

“gradualism” – the notion that market-oriented reform ultimately aims at a stable and unproblematic state of development, even as the way to achieve this state follows an experimental, incremental and pragmatic path that is unpredictable in the short-term. The dialectical view, by contrast, holds that development is inherently incomplete, problematic, and unpredictable in the long-term, and proceeds only according to the resolution of an endless stream of contradictions between sharply conflicting political-economic imperatives. The discourse of gradualist reform considers local variations in planning and

development policy to be temporary in the nation’s “transition from plan to market” (Zhu 1999: 535). Similarly temporary are the emergence of “local growth coalitions” that take advantage, for private gain, of the persistence of state ownership of economic assets. Governmental legitimacy is supposed to survive the abuse of authority that emerges in this situation, precisely because such abuse is held to be temporary and even a necessary evil in a government-led development that accords with “the nation’s collective aspirations” (Zhu 1999: 537). However, it is possible – some say likely – that the central government will lose control over its decentralized agents, who then become “predatory” instead of developmentalist, creating a crisis of legitimacy for the state (Pei 2006: 44).