Rethinking China’s Model of Urban Governance

ERC Advanced Grant (No. 832845) 

Project summary

China’s phenomenal urbanisation is of world-historical significance. It first challenges our understanding of contemporary urbanisation, urban transformations, and the model of urban governance. Second, an appropriate understanding of changing urban governance is critical for the implementation of a UN-endorsed new urban agenda in the post-pandemic world. The project helps to recommend how China should change its development model and how the outside world should help China to address its immense challenges from urbanisation. The overall objective is to rethink China’s model of urban governance. The central concern is the role of the state: whether the introduction of market coordination has transformed the political processes as shown in Western democratic societies. This project contextualises Chinese urban governance in its historical and endogenous processes. The role of the state in neighbourhoods, cities and regions is understood in the policy contexts. We see governance change as a concrete institutional and policy response to existing crises and perceived challenges. This project interrogates China’s model of urban governance through grounded and multi-scalar investigations ranging from neighbourhoods and cities to regions. For neighbourhoods, it unravels the interface between state and society in everyday living space, migrant social agencies and the self-governance of homeowners’ associations under urbanisation and housing marketization. For cities, it interrogates the development strategies and governance of migrant and ecological urbanism as well as the implementation of projects through financial instruments and the land market. For regions, it uncovers entangled state–market relations which redistribute population and economic activities across cities and produce the city-region. The research will be conducted through six cases: Shanghai, Wuhan, Dali, Xiongan, Jing-Jin-Ji (Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei), and the Guangdong–Hong Kong–Macau Greater Bay Area, based upon grounded ethnographic observations, in-depth interviews and close engagement with Chinese researchers and policy makers across different types of neighbourhoods and cities of varying sizes in coastal, central and western regions, and recent national strategic projects. 

Work performed and main results achieved

Following the notion of the entrepreneurial city, this project examines recent scholarship on China’s urban governance. Despite prevailing marketisation, the role of the state is visible on three scales across neighbourhood, cities and city-regions. The state necessarily deals with a rising society and deploys market-like instruments to achieve its development objectives. Through multi-scalar governance, the state involves social and market actors but at the same time maintains strategic intervention. The examination of Chinese urban governance here thus needs to go beyond economic development and interrogate the governance of everyday living spaces in neighbourhoods, urban development strategies and environmental discourses in cities, together with city-region planning and inter-city collaborations. China’s contextualised scholarship provides a more nuanced understanding beyond either authoritarianism or neoliberalism. We present an alternative explanation of China’s urban governance rather than a variant of the entrepreneurial city.

Progress beyond the state of the art and expected results

This innovative and contextually sensitive research will contribute to entrepreneurial urban governance theories and will offer a theoretically nuanced and grounded explanation of state entrepreneurialism in China.


This research project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement No. 832845). It is based in China Planning Research Group at the Bartlett School of Planning, UCL.