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Social justice in China’s cities: Urban-rural restructuring and justice-oriented planning

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Abstract

Research on China’s urban planning sector has largely focused on its role in delivering economic growth and state objectives. Yet China’s urban planning practices are producing new forms of social injustice, which few studies explicitly examine. The paper details three types of social injustice stemming from urban planning and urbanization processes: 1) economic disparities related to land and housing dispossession and speculation, 2) dissolution of social networks and relative precarity for rural-to-urban resettlement migrants, and 3) in-situ marginalization for residents excluded from urban planning. It further proposes that these types of social injustice can be addressed through distributional, participatory, and recognition-oriented mechanisms. Centering justice can reconfigure the aims, processes, and outcomes of planning practice, thereby reducing inequalities embedded within China’s urbanization. Without deprioritizing economic growth and state-led entrepreneurialism, however, justice-oriented planning can offer but partial remedies. The conclusion discusses pathways for researchers and planners to contribute to a just planning transition and advance social justice in China’s cities.
https://doi.org/10.1177/27541223221111799
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Introduction
Urban studies scholars have long grappled with the question of social justice in the city. In Searching for the
Just City, Marcuse et. al. (2009) situate the city as a heuristic to articulate justice in relation to liberal phi-
losophy and political economy. Their theorization of justice begins from recognizing uneven power relations
inevitably complicate the ideal of justice and the planning methods that foster it. Urban scholars emphasize
that uneven spatial development and urban inequality underlie capitalist development in cities (Harvey, 2010
[1973]; Harvey and Potter, 2009). Articulating a right to the city, for Harvey, requires continual political
mobilization aimed at transforming modes of production, consumption, and distribution. For Taylor (2014),
justice requires attention to environmental racism, both past and present, uneven forms of toxic exposure,
and reparative processes. Taking a normative approach to political economy and power in democratic
Social justice in China’s cities:
Urban-rural restructuring and
justice-oriented planning
Jesse Rodenbiker
Department of Geography, Rutgers University, USA
Abstract
Research on China’s urban planning sector has largely focused on its role in delivering economic growth and state
objectives. Yet China’s urban planning practices are producing new forms of social injustice, which few studies explicitly
examine. The paper details three types of social injustice stemming from urban planning and urbanization processes:
1) economic disparities related to land and housing dispossession and speculation, 2) dissolution of social networks
and relative precarity for rural-to-urban resettlement migrants, and 3) in-situ marginalization for residents excluded
from urban planning. It further proposes that these types of social injustice can be addressed through distributional,
participatory, and recognition-oriented mechanisms. Centering justice can reconfigure the aims, processes, and
outcomes of planning practice, thereby reducing inequalities embedded within China’s urbanization. Without
deprioritizing economic growth and state-led entrepreneurialism, however, justice-oriented planning can offer but
partial remedies. The conclusion discusses pathways for researchers and planners to contribute to a just planning
transition and advance social justice in China’s cities.
Keywords
Justice, planning, resettlement, urbanization, China
Corresponding author:
Jesse Rodenbiker, Department of Geography, Rutgers University, 54 Joyce Kilmer Ave. B-244, Piscataway, NJ 08854, USA.
Email: jesse.rodenbiker@rutgers.edu
11117 99 TUP0010.1177/27541223221111799Transactions in Planning and Urban ResearchRodenbiker
research-article2022
Original Research Article
2 Transactions in Planning and Urban Research 00(0)
context, planning the just city for Fainstein (2009, 2010, 2014) requires grounding planning in the ideals of
social equity and citizen participation. Planning a just city, Fainstein contends, requires an explicit articula-
tion of values guiding the production of public space and social programs. While scholarship has largely
focused on questions of social justice in neoliberal democratic cities of the West (Brenner, 2004; Smith,
2005), few have considered social justice in non-democratic urban planning contexts. In this article, I take
up the question of social justice in contemporary China’s cities.
Justice-oriented approaches to urban planning are crucial to addressing socioeconomic stratification pro-
duced through China’s urbanization. To date, researchers have predominantly focused on the role of plan-
ning in delivering economic growth and state objectives. National five-year plans, under President Xi
Jinping, explicitly frame urbanization as a means to close the economic and social gaps between urban and
rural people, as well as regional economic disparities (Five-year Plan CCP, 2021). Yet many urbanization
processes, such as urban-rural coordinated planning, are producing new forms of inequality. While extant
works acknowledge that injustices result from China’s urban planning practices (Chen, 2013; Kan, 2019;
Kan and Chen, 2021; Rodenbiker, 2019; Smith, 2021; Wang and Wu, 2019; Yeh, 2013b), few explicitly
examine what types of injustice emerge or how they can be addressed through planning. This paper details
three categories of social injustice stemming from urban planning and urbanization processes: 1) economic
disparities related to rural land and housing dispossession and speculation, 2) dissolution of social networks
and relative precarity for rural-to-urban resettlement migrants, and 3) in-situ marginalization for residents
excluded from urban planning. It begins from the recognition that urban planning often contributes to ine-
quality and explores ways to center justice in China’s planning. The paper discusses anticipatory planning
mechanisms and those aimed to redress past injustices. Moreover, it advances the argument that centering
justice can reconfigure the aims, processes, and outcomes of planning, thereby reducing inequalities embed-
ded in contemporary China’s urbanization.
First, the paper critically discusses urban planning and social injustice in China and Western contexts,
noting points of commonality and divergence. The logic of planning for economic growth is common to both
contexts. China diverges from the West, however, in the degree of social inclusion and the range of participa-
tory mechanisms, as well as the prevalence of resettlement and rural land dispossession. The paper then
draws on extant literature to analyze types of social injustice related to urban planning, particularly injustices
stemming from urban-rural coordinated planning, sociospatial restructuring, in-situ marginalization, and
resettlement. The penultimate section proposes that these social injustices can be addressed through distri-
butional, participatory, and recognition-oriented planning mechanisms. Additionally, it discusses making
justice the subject of planning (Lake, 2017; Otsuki, 2021) in China. The analysis emphasizes that without
reorienting systemic drivers of inequality in urban planning, such as the commitment to economic-growth
and state-led entrepreneurial planning, justice-oriented planning can offer only partial remedies. The article
concludes by discussing ways planners and researchers can contribute to a just planning transition and
advance social justice in China’s cities.
Urban planning for economic growth
In this section, I place urban planning and sociospatial injustices in China in conversation with Western plan-
ning contexts. Economic growth and land-based accumulation regimes have been central to shaping pro-
cesses of urban planning in China and the West. While public planning in Britain, for instance, was originally
advanced to safeguard public interests, Slade et al. (2022) detail how the commercialization of planning over
recent decades has eroded the maxim of the public good. Instead, public planning has come to advance the
interests of private enterprise. In the British context, a logic of market viability planning has become
entrenched within public planning processes. The logic of market viability has reshaped professional identi-
ties of urban planners as administrators of profit-oriented economic growth. While public planning was
intended to support the public good, planners began to work predominantly with private firms whose modus
Rodenbiker 3
operandi is to deliver economic planning interventions, particularly commercial housing. Planning public
housing and services became a secondary concern for planners who understand their work to be supporting
local economic development. These economically oriented planning measures tend to foreclose debate on
how to serve public interests (Slade et al. 2022: 402).
Scholars of planning in the West have highlighted participatory planning as a process of foregrounding
the hopes and desires of local people. Inch et al. (2020), for instance, discuss the role of visioning exercises
and volunteer-oriented community planning in the context of Sheffield to illustrate how participatory plan-
ning can galvanize the desires and energies of residents to shape just futures. The authors emphasize, how-
ever, that planners should expect challenges and mixed results from participatory planning practices as they
inevitably bring to light competing and contradictory hopes and expectations. Attending to the tensions
inherent to community engagement and participatory planning is crucial to pushing back against what
Allmendinger and Haughton (2012) refer to as the crisis of post-political consensus in spatial planning.
Urban planners in the West tend to shroud conflicting viewpoints that emerge during participatory planning
processes in an effort to produce consensus around progressive goals, such as sustainable development or
climate mitigation (Allmendinger and Haughton, 2012). Allmendinger and Haughton stress that progressive
spatial planning goals, such as enhancing economic growth and environmental quality, commonly replace
planning measures that would otherwise support public interests. Lees (2014) corroborates these findings
and further argues that post-political planning in London introduces novel forms of injustice in urban land-
scapes, such as gentrification linked with housing regeneration programs.
Spatial planning in China, much like Western planning contexts, is framed by state planners as an unal-
loyed good that supports economic growth and sustainable development. Undergirding China’s planning
policies and practices is a logic of economic growth, which shapes systemic conditions wherein public inter-
ests are secondary to local state entrepreneurialism. Urbanization in China is inseparable from state entrepre-
neurialism. Municipal governments, for instance, aim to simultaneously realize strategic economic goals and
provide services to residents (Wu, 2018). Urban planning in China, as Wu illustrates, is organized around
market instruments and centralized within municipal states. Because of these characteristics, China’s urbani-
zation has largely been driven by GDP-focused competition between municipalities. Secondarily, urban
expansion is driven by efforts to generate revenue from land. Both processes reflect economic imperatives.
Although the economic-growth logic of urban planning aligns with Western planning context, China’s
urbanization differs in the ways that the municipal state coordinates urban and rural planning and incorpo-
rates the rural citizenry. Urban–rural coordinated planning, first announced in 2003 and repackaged in 2014
through the National New-type Urbanization Plan, is among recent of state efforts to restructure urban-rural
relationships. While the party-state presents urban–rural coordinated planning as a unitary and homogenous
process, extant work has shown that there is a great deal of variation in local planning processes and, in many
instances, coordinated planning efforts produce uneven socioeconomic outcomes (Smith, 2021). State and
market forces contribute to social injustices, particularly through urban plans that aim to spatially concen-
trate dispersed rural built environments (Zhu and Guo, 2022). Incorporating rural land in urban planning
entails capitalizing on rural land location premiums. As cities expanded during the reform era, the value of
rural land in close proximity to the cities increased in value (Ma, 2005). This resulted in widespread competi-
tion between municipal governments, village collectives, and development institutions to profit from urban
land and rural land in close proximity to cities (Hsing, 2010). Since the 1994 national tax restructuring, local
governments have strived to generate extrabudgetary revenues from land transactions, such as transferring
land from primary to secondary land markets (Lin, 2009; Wu, 2010).
Urban and regional planning practices, therefore, have tended to extend the reach of municipal states over
rural areas. Coordinated urban-rural planning entails a set of spatial planning mechanisms and administra-
tive practices through which rural land on the fringe of cities is brought into the reach of municipal govern-
ment hierarchies (Rodenbiker, 2020). Because of the high value of their land and few legal protections of
land use rights, rural people, particularly those residing in peri-urban areas, are vulnerable to land acquisition
4 Transactions in Planning and Urban Research 00(0)
and forced migration. By peri-urban, in this instance, I am simply referring to land surrounding cities and on
the fringes of metropolitan regions. Within planning processes, the transfer of development rights has
become an important tool of urban expansion, particularly as municipal states instrumentalize land transfers
for economic benefit and expropriate land from village collectives (Shao et al., 2020). Hence, state and mar-
ket forces tend to drive urban planning processes with the goal of capitalizing on land rents.
Processes of land and housing dispossession are key drivers of social injustice in China’s cities. For many
rural citizens, land and housing are among their most valuable assets. Rural land use rights provide flexibil-
ity to seek work in cities, with the option of returning to rural environs. Moreover, rural land allows residents
to produce food for personal consumption and sale on the market. Urban–rural coordinated planning, in
many cases, results in rural land dispossession and resettlement. These processes subjugate rural people to
vagaries of the urban job market in a globally integrated capitalist economy that mandates retirement ages
for males at 60 and females at 55. For female factory workers the age is even lower – 50. These are among
the lowest mandated retirement ages globally. Furthermore, urban resettlement subjects migrants to the rela-
tively high costs associated with apartment living, while removing rural social safety nets. In addition to
disparities related to rural land and housing dispossession, many rural-to-urban resettlement migrants expe-
rience the dissolution of social networks placing them in precarious positions. In contrast, in-situ marginali-
zation entails exclusion from urban planning processes. The following section further details the regulatory
context and types of injustice stemming from urban planning and urbanization processes.
Types of social injustice
This section details regulatory context and three types of social injustice related to urban planning and
urbanization processes including economic disparities in land and housing dispossession and speculation,
the dissolution of social networks and relative precarity experienced by rural-to-urban resettlement migrants,
and in-situ marginalization for residents excluded from urban planning. These processes reconfigure eco-
nomic networks, urban-rural relations, and rural society.
Regulatory context
Rural society in China has long organized to protect its interests. Analogous to dynastic peasant-led revolu-
tions that overturned struggling empires (Huang, 1990), the People’s Republic of China (PRC) formed in
1949 through the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) mobilization of rural people. The CCP established rural
communes through land wrested from land owners (DeMare, 2019). Agrarian production was subsequently
organized around rural collectives. The central command economy set prices for agricultural goods artifi-
cially low relative to commodities manufactured in urban locales (Selden, 1993). The hukou system, a geo-
graphical control mechanism that assigns urban and rural citizenry, was introduced as part of the PRC’s
second five-year plan in 1958. In early implementation, the hukou system tethered rural people to agrarian
communes and urban people to work units. The uneven pricing allocation system inherent to the command
economy and the hukou system shaped urban-rural inequality. Although the hukou system has undergone
substantial reforms (Chan and Zhang, 1999; Chan, 2009), it remains a structural feature of inequality. Urban
hukou holders, for instance, are entitled to higher levels of social support including superior health care,
education, and subsidized housing. This history of differential costs and benefits laid foundations for con-
temporary China’s urban-rural socioeconomic differences.
With the introduction of post-socialist reforms in the 1980s, communes were decollectivized, thereby
allowing hundreds of millions of people to profit from rural land (Zweig, 2016). Agricultural production
increased. The introduction of Township-Village Enterprises (TVEs) precipitated rising rural incomes and
local state corporatism (Oi, 1992). The fiscal reforms of the 1980s, as Oi details, incentivized local states to
pursue industrialization and diversify rural enterprises. TVEs and township governments began to act like
Rodenbiker 5
corporations forging close business relationships with state-owned enterprises (Buck, 2012; Oi, 1992). As
profits from rural industrialization continued, municipal governance capacities tended to sprawl outwards,
resulting in honeycomb patterns of intra-state competition for resources (Shue, 1990). This involved compe-
tition between municipal states and township governments over forms of urban-rural integration. Financial
decentralization of the 1990s gave municipal governments soft budgetary constraints transforming munici-
pal governments into profit-oriented interest groups. Since centralization of tax revenue in 1994, local gov-
ernments vied to generate funds from land transactions (Wu, 2010). In effect, this incentivized municipal
governments to extend territorial reach over ever-wider expanses of land. Restructuring municipal adminis-
tration through urban-rural integration empowered cities to drive regional economic development (Ma,
2005). Greater territorial control vested in municipal government hierarchies resulted in dynamic processes
of land competition, such as that between institutions that held de facto land control under the command
economy and municipal governments (Hsing, 2010).
The objectives of urban planning have shifted over the last decade. Moreover, in particular, urban plan-
ning now explicitly aims towards environmental ends and in-situ development. In some instances, urban
planners have begun experimenting with community participation. Wu et al. (2022a) details how planning is
adapting to shifting national political priorities such as building a “Beautiful China,” a broad initiative con-
noting landscape aestheticization, heritage preservation, and cultural development projects, as well as foster-
ing a “harmonious society,” a discourse that emerged in the early 2000s to promote social stability amidst
rising inequality. Since 2012, the beginning of the Xi Jinping era, harmonious society discourses have largely
been subsumed into those aimed at “building an ecological civilization” (Rodenbiker, 2021a; Zhang and Wu,
2022). Mechanisms advanced under these national planning campaigns include green building programs
(Zhou, 2015), eco-cities (Chen, 2013; Chang, 2019), and ecological protection (Rodenbiker, 2020).
Nevertheless, urban planning continues to operate under logics of economic-growth and contribute to
municipal government territoriality. In regard to in-situ development, Wang et al. (2022) brings attention to
micro-rehabilitation (weigaizao) projects, such as Yongqingfang in Guangzhou, which aim to rehabilitate
neighborhoods and retain characteristic features amongst rapidly urbanizing surroundings. Lauded as a suc-
cess of inner-city redevelopment and community participation by President Xi Jinping, the case of
Yongqingfang reveals that substantive means to participate in planning remain quite limited. Wang et. al.
finds that “without particular guidelines for public participation and effective channels for community com-
munication, residents lack a proper platform to solve their problems with the influential stakeholders.”
Accordingly, “the implementation of micro-rehabilition in Guangzhou is more like a governance strategy to
re-initiate the inner-city redevelopment projects with less social contestation” (Wang et al., 2022: 9). Wu
et al.’s (2022a) work on three cases of micro-rehabilitation in Wuhan, Guangzhou, and Nanjing corroborate
these findings and further emphasize the role of national politics in redefining urban redevelopment agendas.
Although national frameworks emanate from the central state, political discourses are broadly interpreted to
suit local state interests. In these and still other cases, participation is more tokenistic than substantially
inclusive (Chen et al., 2020; Xu and Lin, 2019).
Economic growth and development remain paramount within recent experiments in participatory plan-
ning and ecological protection. Recent work details how green zoning reconfigures the territorial relation-
ships between city and country in ways that extend the reach of municipal states (Chen, 2013; Rodenbiker,
2019, 2020). Regarding the ecological ends of such projects, Zhang and Wu (2022) suggest that, in pursuit
of ecological civilization under state entrepreneurialism, local states perform an ecological fix. An ecologi-
cal fix, for Zhang and Wu, represents the possibility of ecologically and socially progressive reconfigura-
tions of the built environment. Municipal governments attempt to bring about ecological fixes through
shuttering polluting industries, planning for nature restoration, producing green infrastructure, and investing
in renewable energies. Zhang and Wu emphasize, however, that these efforts, much like eco-cities and eco-
logical protection zoning resort to market operations and economic imperatives. Although intended to be
6 Transactions in Planning and Urban Research 00(0)
socially progressive, eco-cities and ecological protection zoning tend to limit prospects of social justice due
to the predominant focus on economic viability and reliance on market instruments.
Social injustices
There are a number of mechanisms through which the state enacts control over rural land precipitating land
dispossession-induced economic disparities and precarity. The Land Management Act of 1998 allowed cen-
tralized control over farmland conversion to non-agricultural uses, such as land development and industriali-
zation (Yang and Li, 2000). Since the act was introduced, local governments strive to capitalize on land in
their vicinity. The coordination of urban and rural planning became a key mode of land capitalization and
urban-rural sociospatial restructuring. Smith (2021) emphasizes that while the state presents a homogenous
process of coordination, urban-rural coordinated planning, in reality, entails contested political processes
surrounding rural areas in close proximity to cities as cadres seek to benefit from coordinated planning.
Experimentation in how to interpret and implement coordinated planning is widespread. In this context,
local cadres compete to advance their interests. For Smith, state planning under urban–rural coordination
portends the “near-total urbanization of China’s population and territory and the incipient end of the village
as a meaningful form of sociospatial organization” (Smith, 2021: 7). Villages have historically fostered col-
lective welfare and facilitated semiautonomous self-reliance. With the dissolution of rural social networks,
rural-to-urban migrants are left to navigate urban subjecthood from relatively atomized positions (Rodenbiker,
2019; Smith, 2021). This raises the question of what new forms of social organization or justice-oriented
planning mechanisms could foster collective welfare in the absence of village support systems.
Within this context, two types of social injustice are common, namely processes of uneven land and hous-
ing dispossession and land speculation, as well as the dissolution of social networks as residents are reset-
tled. Both contribute to precarity and inequality for residents included in urban planning processes. These
processes don’t affect residents equally. Instead, their effects are contingent on local politics, land premiums,
and socioeconomic positionality. Land rent values and location premiums for land contribute to differentia-
tion within and between rural areas (Zhu and Guo, 2022). For instance, Zhu and Guo write (Zhu and Guo,
2022: 3), “if top-down institutional intervention through planning does not address market bias or even
strengthens it, the spatial inequality surely constitutes spatial injustice.” Similarly, Chang (2019), writing in
the context of eco-city development and resettlement in Shanghai, details processes wherein some rural resi-
dents gain wealth through relocation, while others experience loss of community and social safety nets
provided by rural land and housing. Kan (2019), in contrast, details how elite actors accumulate from rural
land commodification through rent extraction without formal land dispossession. Instead, urbanization is
achieved through strategic enrollment of residents in speculative rentiership. Villagers, Kan explains, are
allotted a property right over a reserve of rural land (liuyong di). Corporatizing villages and commodifying
rural land through speculation, Kan finds, produces value for elites and sets the conditions for intra-rural
class conflicts. Elsewhere, Kan and Chen (2021) draw attention to the ways that villagers are unevenly
involved in rural land speculation. Rural social differentiation deepens, they find, in relation to intra-village
dynamics surrounding land speculation and exclusion from rural land profits. The exclusion of villagers
from rural land rents amplifies socioeconomic gaps between lower-class residents and elites who have the
resources and social networks to capitalize on land.
Despite the veneer of a centrally organized urbanization program, local political conditions are signifi-
cant. Rural-to-urban migrants often lose their social networks as they forfeit access to land (Wu et al., 2013a).
Livelihood transitions, moreover, are shaped by the means through which residents are compensated for land
and housing. In instances where conservation zoning is embedded in urban-rural coordinated planning, the
volumetric politics of land and housing compensation shape uneven socioeconomic trajectories (Rodenbiker,
2019). Likewise, forms of social organization, such as village corporatization, shape uneven socioeconomic
outcomes of urban ecological enclosure (Rodenbiker, 2020). If a village corporatizes, a shareholding
Rodenbiker 7
company with centralized planning and allocation mechanisms manages shared assets derived from land
lease or sale. This can lead to relative empowerment, as well as varying degrees of socioeconomic mobility.
In the greening of rural China, Chen (2013) argues that the enclosure of rural land entails an environmental
rationality, whether it be the creation of an eco-city, renewable energy site, or green zone. This argument
parallels what Hsing (2010) calls the “city rational” strategy. Chen writes, “Local authorities first enclose a
rural area under administrative planning authority. Next, they begin to rationalize land resources by relocat-
ing villagers, consolidating village construction land and moving residents to peri-urban resettlement colo-
nies” (Chen, 2013: 112). Forms of eco-urbanization and resettlement into concentrated housing infrastructures,
spatially segregate rural residents from economically dynamic urban cores and new city developments.
These works, in sum, indicate ways that urban-rural planning processes contribute to social injustices
through deepening already existing inequalities and producing new ones. Economic disparities in compensa-
tion for land and housing, the dissolution of social networks, and relative precarity of rural-to-urban resettle-
ment migrants are interrelated forms of sociospatial injustice.
Moving from the rural peripheries to which cities expand towards urban cores where redevelopment
occurs, we encounter a third type of social injustice – in-situ marginalization. Research has shown that urban
residents suffer from in-situ marginalization when they are excluded from urban planning. For instance, resi-
dents who were not resettled through redevelopment planning processes have found themselves on the mar-
gins of new city developments, ecological protection zones, or suffering disproportionate exposure to
environmental pollution. Wang (2020), in addition to showing the struggles with loss of income and employ-
ment opportunities that follow displacement, illustrates variegated social impacts of urban redevelopment
within city centers and along urban fringes experienced by those spared from resettlement. Wang refers to
in-situ marginalization as a “process whereby residents are trapped in their home and neighborhoods whilst
the social and physical environment is gradually deteriorating” around them (Wang, 2020: 707). Residents
who are not resettled and instead remain in their original neighborhoods meet with a host of new challenges.
For example, residents remaining in Shanghai’s Neighborhood 57 experience toxic exposure and other envi-
ronmental harms from nearby factories in new industrial zones. Wu stresses that those remaining in place are
primarily residents of lower socioeconomic standing who could not afford to move elsewhere. These mar-
ginalized residents, Wang and Wu (2019) show elsewhere, experience declining public services and physical
environments, as well as social isolation as entrepreneurially-oriented municipal plans prioritize economic
growth over local livelihoods and public interests. These injustices occur, in part, because neither the munic-
ipal nor the township government invests in the planning efforts necessary to contribute to social governance
and residents’ needs. These works illustrate the hardships that emerge from being left out of planning pro-
cesses and bring into sharp relief the need for justice-oriented planning.
Justice-oriented planning
Numerous works problematize justice in urban planning. Planning just futures, as a recent edited collection
shows, entails deeply personal, diverse, and localized attention to forms of inclusion and exclusion (Zapata
and Bates, 2021). Likewise, imagining just futures requires delving into troublesome planning processes,
past and present, which have facilitated dispossession and exclusion from socioeconomic benefits. For Lees
(2014), rather than dwelling in critical urban scholarship that portrays profit-driven urban planning pro-
cesses as insurmountable, a politics of hope is needed. Politics of hope, for Lees, draws from Gibson-
Graham’s (2006) community economies theory, which foregrounds community and environmental needs in
producing alternatives to capitalist development. Politics, in this rendering, centers social organizations,
such as housing coalitions, aimed at subverting injustices, as well as community planning efforts towards
utopian and emancipatory objectives. Lees holds that community planning processes can bring about more
just outcomes. In this vein, Lake (2016), drawing on Dewey’s (1927 [1954]) pragmatist philosophy, argues
that justice should be the subject of planning. For Lake (2016: 1210), “The focus of planning with justice as
8 Transactions in Planning and Urban Research 00(0)
its subject is to mediate a process that specifies the condition of justice to employ in addressing a problem,
designs and implements a planning practice that actualizes that standard in its goals, means and outcomes,
and understands these conjoined elements as a single, unitary, co-constitutive inseparable process.” In this
sense, justice as the subject of planning upends dualisms between processes and outcomes. Instead, com-
munity members and planners engage in contextually situated moral inquiry with justice as subject and
explicit goal. Holding justice as the subject of planning is necessarily contextual and reflexive rather than
universal. It is anticipatory of potential injustices, generative of solutions, and inclusive. Since, in this ren-
dering, centering justice in planning entails inclusionary processes, how can we consider justice-oriented
planning in China, an arena characterized by expert- and state-led planning with relatively few venues for
inclusive participation?
This section considers justice-oriented planning within China’s urban planning and urbanization circum-
stances. I discuss three types of justice and reflect on situating justice as the subject of planning in China. In
the discussion, I draw on frameworks from environmental justice scholarship because the field has produc-
tively problematized justice in theory and practice. While the field emerged in relation to explicitly “envi-
ronmental” issues, as Pulido (2016) details, activists and scholars contributed to a substantive shift from
conceiving of environment as “natural” or “wilderness” spaces, to everyday places where citizens live, work,
and play. This reframing refocused justice on urban spaces, residential areas, and the environs of everyday
life. The field has advanced notions of distributional justice, recognition-oriented justice, and participatory
justice.
Social injustices in China articulate with forms of ethno-racialization and politics of difference (Byler,
2021; Mullaney, 2010) in ways distinct from environmental racism in Western contexts out of which these
notions of justice emerged.1 In addition to ethno-racialized difference, the most prevalent forms of social
difference in China are between urban and rural people. Urban-rural differences reflect economic disparities
(Ma et al., 2018) and sociocultural politics of human value (Anagnost, 2004). Politics of value find expres-
sion within communities of environmental scientists and planners in ways that reify difference and repro-
duce economic disparities (Rodenbiker, 2021a; Yeh, 2013a). As such, urban-rural difference and rural
injustice have been at the forefront of environmental justice scholarship in China (Balme, 2014; Johnson and
Lora-Wainwright, 2018). Lora-Wainwright (2021), for example, details how cancer villages – villages with
inordinately high number of cancer cases – politically organize in effort to remove polluting industries. Rural
society is a fulcrum of political mobilization towards environmental justice. Indeed, a comprehensive study
of environmental justice discourses in China reveals that poverty, hazardous work conditions, and urban-
rural differences are the main categories of engagement (Mah and Wang, 2017).
At least three types of justice are relevant to China’s urbanization. Distributional justice aims towards
equity in exposure to environmental harms and access to environmental goods. This form of justice is per-
haps the most mainstream justice framework. In its most literal interpretation, distributional justice entails
equitable spatial proximity to environmental harms, such as a chemical plant or waste disposal site, and to
environmental goods, such as potable water and urban green space. Distributional justice has been exam-
ined, in the context of urban planning in China, in terms of socioeconomic group differentiation and access
to green space (Wu et al., 2022b). Recognition-oriented justice entails acknowledging a social injustice has
taken place. It can be thought of as a pre-condition to participatory justice. This form of justice is commonly
retrospective rather than anticipatory. Participatory justice refers to meaningful inclusion of communities
within relevant regulatory and planning processes. While participatory planning has been minimal in China’s
reform-era planning with few channels for inclusive participation, there have been experiments recently with
public participation in planning processes, such as collaborative planning workshops (Li et al., 2020).
Distributional justice is widely associated with uneven compensation for resettled residents. A common
starting point for addressing inequalities linked to rural land expropriation is equitable compensation based
on market prices. Extant research has shown wide variation in amounts of compensation for rural land, often
resulting in intra-rural conflicts (Guo, 2001; Rodenbiker, 2020). Within displacement processes, some
Rodenbiker 9
villagers gain substantial wealth through land sales, leases, and resettlement, a process some migrants refer
to as “moving into riches” (ban fuyou) (Rodenbiker, 2019). In contrast, many others receive compensation
below market prices. Price standardization with market prices for land and housing is a simple planning
mechanism to address this unevenness. Wilmsen (2018) stresses, however, the need not merely to assess the
market value of rural land and housing, but to take the comparatively high costs of urban life into considera-
tion. For many citizens who have spent the majority of their lives in rural areas, the costs of apartment living
are relatively high. In this regard, Wilmsen advocates for providing training in financial management to first
help resettlement migrants manage the real costs of urban life. Moreover, skills training for rural-to-urban
migrants, such as in financial planning and reskilling to be more competitive on the urban job market, is a
step towards addressing discrepancies between urban and rural education and experience. As villagers are
resettled, Wilmsen argues, compensation for rural land and housing based on market values is insufficient to
keep migrants economically afloat. Migrants tend to inhabit economic fringes of urban society. Equitable
compensation standards and skills training programs are mechanisms to address distributional injustices. But
this approach holds justice as the object, rather than the subject of planning.
Otsuki (2021: 1758–1760), extends Lake’s (2016) abstract conceptualization of justice as the subject of
planning to concrete cases of resettlement. Otsuki argues that it is essential to foreground the contingent
needs of displaced people, anticipate rather than retroactively address issues, and generate solutions that
guarantee quality of life. Placing justice at the center of resettlement planning entails prioritizing the voices,
experiences, and needs of those facing displacement. This requires recognition before resettlement. In the
context of China, an approach to resettlement planning with justice as the subject would develop a deep
understanding of the experiences, preferences, and needs of people facing displacement through inclusive
and reflexive planning processes (Rodenbiker, 2021b). Furthermore, approaching justice as the subject of
planning doesn’t hold resettlement as the solution to a planning problem, but rather a new commitment by
planners and the state to provide high quality infrastructure and social services. Resettlement, in this sense,
is not a one-time event, but a commitment to inclusive planning and consultation, the goal of which is quality
of post-resettlement life beyond the planning time allotted for project implementation.2 Normative approaches
to justice in planning, however, tend to begin from evaluating outcomes and retrospectively acting upon
social injustices.
Although retrospective recognition-oriented approaches to planning differ from conceiving of justice as
the subject of planning, they can contribute to addressing uneven resettlement and the dissolution of rural
social networks. Survey instruments and focus group meetings with resettlement migrants who have been
unjustly compensated, for instance, are mechanisms to retroactively adjust compensation. They can also
begin to account for psychological stressors stemming from loss of rural community and transition into
urban resettlement housing. As Chuang (2015) illustrates, village residents often experience severe psycho-
logical issues as they forfeit the security of rural land and housing. As rural China urbanizes, traditional
social safety nets no longer provide meaningful support. Relatively atomized urban subjectivities emerge in
their stead. Kan (2019) illustrates class differences within processes of village atomization as rural elites
tend to fair relatively well economically. In contrast, low- and middle-class residents face socioeconomic
hardships with the disintegration of rural social welfare mechanisms. What constitutes justice for these
social groups inevitably differs. Therefore, the challenges to fostering justice-oriented planning in the con-
text of China’s state-led urban planning loom large.
Making justice the subject of planning entails inclusive process-oriented planning grounded not in uni-
versal planning prescriptions but the contingent and provisional realities of local contexts. Costanza-Chock
(2020), writing on designing for justice, demonstrates how universal planning practices tend to marginalize
and erase the injustices experienced by certain groups of people. Costanza-Chock advocates for foreground-
ing inequities in planning and design in order to dismantle structural inequalities. These insights are relevant
to China’s New-Type Urbanization Plan, which operates as a universal planning apparatus for subsuming
rural spaces into coordinated planning processes under municipal government hierarchies. The central state
10 Transactions in Planning and Urban Research 00(0)
plan details urbanization as the path to modernization and economic transition. According to the plan, urban-
izing rural people will raise their income, thereby spurring domestic consumption and contributing to a
gradualist shift away from an export-oriented economy (National New Type Urbanization Plan, n.d.). Urban-
rural coordinated planning practices, however, don’t necessarily raise rural income levels. Instead, they
sharpen already existing inequalities and, in some cases, produce downward socioeconomic trajectories as
resettlement migrants are inadequately provisioned for in urban environs. Moreover, transferring to urban
hukou is not automatic with resettlement. In some cases, rural hukou holders are resettled in urban areas
without obtaining urban hukous. In such cases, they remain excluded from the rights and privileges of urban
citizenship.
Reorienting planning to address these social injustices is crucial. Participatory planning mechanisms that
include different social groups affected by urban-rural coordinated planning are means through which plan-
ners can take stock of resident needs, inequalities, and transitional processes. Community participation
throughout planning stages is key to fostering greater inclusivity. Collaborative planning meetings, public
planning discussion forums, and surveys, for instance, can bring the needs of the public into planning pro-
cess. These mechanisms provide a sounding board for communities to express needs and concerns.
Currently, urban planners within China are experimenting with a limited number of participatory mecha-
nisms, such as telephone call lines and mobile apps through which the public can lodge urban planning-
related concerns (Wang et al., 2021). These mechanisms facilitate unidirectional communication. One-way
communication mechanisms offer limited engagement. Bilateral participatory dialogue can more readily
account for a range of community voices. Iterative communication platforms between planners and com-
munity members have the capacity to incorporate a plurality of voices and assure they are more accurately
understood. For instance, planners in bilateral arenas can ask clarifying questions and communicate the chal-
lenges of addressing a given planning issue. Residents, in turn, can clarify their concerns to planners.
Bilateral participatory mechanisms, therefore, can more readily address social welfare. This is particularly
the case for rural communities that lack corporatized economic organization (Tang, 2015).
Because participatory planning includes multiple stakeholders from local communities, it can be used to
address issues of in-situ marginalization. Public consultations, social surveys and needs assessment in com-
munities excluded from urban planning, provisioning planning information, and soliciting feedback through-
out planning processes are relevant participatory planning mechanisms. Incorporating justice-oriented
planning mechanisms is a step towards fostering social justice. As the conclusion highlights, in addition to
centering justice in planning, addressing systemic drivers of injustice is crucial. Without deprioritizing eco-
nomic growth and state-led entrepreneurialism, justice-oriented planning can offer but partial remedies. If
urban planning and urbanization processes continue without substantive reform, China’s citizenry will con-
tinue to experience differentiated socio-economic trajectories with substantial pressures on poorly compen-
sated and newly landless rural-to-urban migrants and those suffering in-situ marginalization.
Conclusion
This paper has argued that centering justice can reconfigure the aims, processes, and outcomes of planning,
thereby reducing inequalities embedded in China’s urbanization. The concluding section discusses pathways
for researchers and urban planning practitioners to contribute to a just planning transition and advance social
justice in China’s cities.
Scholars of China’s urban and regional planning have attended to the dynamics of social inequality pro-
duced through urban-rural sociospatial restructuring, urban-rural coordinated planning, and in-situ margin-
alization. In addition to theorizing these dynamics, scholars can advance planning procedures to address the
specific contexts of their research sites. Presently, much scholarship tends to detail how local planning
conditions and societal responses bear on inequality. But few detail specific planning mechanisms to address
specific forms of social injustice. Analyses that attend to local contexts as well as regional differences are
integral to developing a range of justice-oriented planning interventions.
Rodenbiker 11
The Chinese state has widely experimented with planning mechanisms prior to integration into national
planning and development contexts (Chien and Woodworth, 2018; Naughton, 1996; Oakes, 2019). Regarding
urban planning practice, a broader range of participatory planning processes are needed to enhance inclusive
participation. Planning mechanisms, such as focus groups that target socioeconomic and ethnically diverse
community members, public community consultations, social surveys for needs assessment, public planning
hearings, provisioning information and solicitating feedback can assess local needs more inclusively. Zapata
and Bates (2021) detail such mechanisms through intra- and inter-group planning exercises focusing on
Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities. Analogous group planning exercises with communities in
China can broaden participatory engagement. Focus groups consisting of post-resettlement migrants and
rural residents undergoing resettlement, for instance, could yield deeper understanding of transitional pro-
cesses. Relatedly, intra-group planning exercises that engage rural class difference could highlight discrep-
ancies in resettlement compensation and rural-urban transition.
Research on post-displacement trajectories is crucial to redressing social injustices stemming from reset-
tlement. Wang (2020) brings attention to socioeconomic transitions within post-displacement communities
and the importance of charting the social needs, emerging networks, and challenges resettlement communi-
ties face. A number of key questions require additional research. What planning processes support the forma-
tion of new social ties amongst resettlement communities? What factors hinder the formation of new
communal bonds? How does compensation capital and types of resettlement housing shape migrants’ capac-
ities to thrive economically and forge new social networks? What are the inter-generational effects of dis-
placement? From the perspective of centering justice in planning, considering such questions across local
contexts is crucial.
Rather than a universal approach to justice-oriented planning, reflexive experimentation can account for
various peculiarities of urbanization across regions. China’s urbanization and economic growth in the Pearl
River Delta (Gu and Wu, 2010; Zhang and Peck, 2016), for instance, differs dramatically from patterns of
urban development elsewhere. In the Pearl River Delta, experiments welcoming foreign direct investment in
special economic zones and the development of residential housing in villages-in-the-city (chengzhoncun)
resulted in substantial economic growth and regional enrichment. These features produced economic profits
for many. On the Eastern seaboard, attending to those marginalized through in-situ urbanization is a priority.
In the West and Southwest, the contingencies of uneven inclusion into green urbanization, urban-rural coor-
dinated planning, and Westward development programs that connect cities with borderland infrastructures
are paramount (Qian and Tang, 2019; Rodenbiker, 2020; Smith, 2021, 2022). Residents in the Tibetan
Autonomous Region, in particular, take on high levels of debt to participate in state-led urban housing pro-
grams (Yeh, 2013b). In the Northwest, social injustice is inseparable from ethno-racialized exclusion and
everyday surveillance that limit Uyghur mobility (Byler, 2021). In addition to regional variations, there are
differences between China’s expanding and shrinking cities. In expanding cities, there have been concerted
efforts to limit rural-urban migration resulting in large numbers of people living in cities without the benefits
of urban citizenship. Conversely, shrinking cities are often ignored within formal regional planning pro-
cesses (Long and Gao, 2019). Residents in shrinking cities experience an oversupply of housing and built
environments accompanied by a relative decline in social services. The combination leads to deteriorating
quality of life. Therefore, in centering justice in planning, attention to local context is crucial.
Obstacles to centering justice in China’s planning include an urban planning system that privileges eco-
nomic growth and municipal government priorities, the tethering of cadre promotion to land development,
and universalizing national policies that equate urbanization with modernization and development. Policy
reforms can begin to address these issues and the political economic conditions that perpetuate social injus-
tices. A reallocation of taxes from the central state to municipal governments, for instance, could contribute
to stemming the tide of urban expansionism, land-based profiteering, and uneven displacement. At a funda-
mental level, however, justice-oriented planning calls into question the pervasive logic that urbanization is
the appropriate strategy for China’s development, particularly since studies illustrate how urbanization
12 Transactions in Planning and Urban Research 00(0)
contributes to social inequalities while not necessarily resulting in more spatially ordered environments (Wu
et al., 2013b). As long as the incentivization structures for municipal cadres are tied to revenues from local
land transactions, systemic obstacles to centering justice in planning will remain.
Finally, as China faces deepening inequality, inclusive engagement with the public is essential to center-
ing justice in planning. Plans are generally made public only after planning decisions have been made.
Greater transparency and public participation in planning processes are central to fostering social justice in
China’s cities.
Acknowledgements
I thank the anonymous reviewers and managing editor for helpful comments, Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability
for fellowship support, as well as Nadine and Jacquie Mattis at Easton’s Nook.
Declaration of conflicting interests
The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
article.
Funding
The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Notes
1. The environmental justice movement in the U.S. emerged out of concerns over environmental racism, the process
through which people of color are systematically exposed to disproportionality high levels of environmental toxins
or deprived of environmental necessities. Environmental justice is the goal of multifaceted social movements aimed
at addressing the legacies of environmental racism (Pulido, 2016). The Principles of Environmental Justice were
initially outlined during the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991 (FNPCELS,
1991).
2. Resettlement as a new commitment by the state and planners rather than an end in itself correlates with Otuski’s
(2021) conceptualization of justice in resettlement planning and critical geographic approaches to theorizing reset-
tlement (Rogers and Wilmsen, 2020).
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