Nick R. Smith: Learning to Build Cities and Subjects in Late-Socialist China

How did China learn to urbanize? This paper explores the origins of contemporary China’s rapid urbanization through an investigation of the Shekou Industrial Zone, the first development zone to be established after the beginning of the reform era in 1978 and an urban laboratory for testing development practices from Hong Kong and Singapore. Rather than a linear transition to market-driven urbanization, Shekou reveals an uneven process of trial-and-error, in which the development of urban spaces and urban subjects were dialectically intertwined. On one hand, Shekou’s leaders learned to capture land value through the provision of infrastructure and services, the separation of work and residence, and the development of commodified housing for newly mobile workers. On the other hand, they sought to craft new urban subjects who were economically and politically independent of the Chinese party-state and who could thus act as both producers and consumers of urbanization. What emerged was a new “common sense” of development that was socially and spatially constituted through Shekou’s urban transformation.

Nick Smith

Nick R. Smith is an Assistant Professor of Urban Studies at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. Smith is an ethnographer of urban transformation, planning, and policy, with a focus on institutional change in China and Southeast Asia. His past research has focused on peri-urbanization and village planning in contemporary China, and his current work explores experimental urbanization practices in Shekou, the first development zone to be established after the beginning of China’s reform era in 1978. Smith received his PhD in Urban Planning from Harvard University in 2015.

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