The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


China Through the Lens of Governmentality and Urbanism – A Dialogue hosted by DPU on the Reflection

This dialogue, supported by the ‘State and Market’ research cluster took place on 07 March 2023.

Supported by the ‘State and Market’ research cluster, the dialogue took place on 07 March at UCL Roberts Building LT 106, with Prof. Le-Yin Zhang (DPU) and Prof. Fulong Wu (Bartlett School of Planning), chaired by Prof. Julio D. Dávila (DPU).

China has experienced the most significant urban transformation over the past five decades. Hundreds and millions of rural residents migrated to cities in search of jobs and a brighter future; factories, roads, schools, hospitals, and shopping centers were built at high-speed to accommodate the newcomers; small villages and towns turned into enormous megacities, changing rapidly beyond recognition. Whilst prosperity was brought at an unprecedented level, heavy pollution and energy use have also emerged since the mid-2000s, evolving into a central issue for government officials and eventually leading to an ambitious programme of decarbonisation.

Drawing upon her long-standing research on the role of the state in urban economic development and her most recent book, Conducting and Financing Low-carbon Transitions in China (Edward Elgar, 2021), Le-Yin Zhang reflected on these massive changes in China through the lens of carbon governmentality.  Specifically, the art of carbon governing in China was decomposed into a four-dimensional framework: creating fields of visibility, utilising and producing knowledge, defining and transforming identities, and rendering government technical. She highlighted the major actor groups that are governed in the process of low-carbon transitions, and how the governing system in the country has been functioning mainly by disaggregating the targets and giving/contracting responsibilities to subnational governments and their top officials. Also drawing on his latest book, Creating Chinese Urbanism: Urban Revolution and Governance Change (UCL Press, 2022), Fulong Wu focused on the urban dimension of these changes. He explained the social and physical transitions of different urban neighbourhoods in China for the past decades, emphasising the emergence of a visible state from the urban revolution. Through the term ‘state entrepreneurialism’, Fulong Wu has also addressed the role of the state that both drives and characterises China’s social and governance changes in urban settings.

During the discussions, both scholars reflected on their personal and professional journeys – not only as individuals who have experienced these significant changes in China, but also as academics who observe these changes remotely in the UK. It was discussed that the distances and travel have generated the possibility of studying these changes from different perspectives that could create crucial insights. At the same time, changes co-exist with persistence in society, which is also interesting for further research and discussions. The discussion closed by considering the many development challenges faced by urban China today and its future trajectory more generally, highlighting that the party-state is likely to continue to play the most significant role in leading the direction of change and addressing these challenges.

Written by Jing Zhang