Interview with Xuefei Ren, Co-Winner of the 2022 Robert E. Park Book Award

Xuefei Ren (Michigan State University) was the co-winner of the 2022 Robert E. Park Book Award for her book, Governing the Urban in China and India: Land Grabs, Slum Clearance, and the War on Air Pollution. CUSS publication team member Kyle Galindez reached out to Xuefei to discuss the genesis of her book and what is next for her research agenda.

What motivated you to study this research topic? 

My first two books—Building Globalization: Transnational Architecture Production in Urban China (University Chicago Press, 2011) and Urban China (Polity Press, 2013) focused only on Chinese cities only. While working on these projects, I began questioning whether China’s urban experience is as exceptional as specialists often argue. I decided to incorporate a comparative perspective into my work and turned my attention to the urban experience of another enormous, developing country—India.

What were the main findings of your research?

My book challenged two prevalent views on urban governance in China and India. The first is the state-capacity perspective—the view that China’s urban governance is defined by powerful local governments, and India’s by fragmented local authorities. The second concerns regime types—the view that the key differences in urban governance in the two countries can be explained by a country being authoritarian or democratic. I critique these views as reductive and propose an alternative thesis. 

I argue that urban governance in China is territorial in nature as it is anchored on territorial institutions; urban governance in India, by contrast, is associational because it is based on alliance building. The reasons for these disparate approaches, I conclude, are rooted in each country’s historical and institutional development in the longue durée

Post-reform China inherited from previous eras a set of strong territorial institutions (such as the hukou system and dual-track land ownership) and introduced new territorial policies (such as Special Economic Zones) to spearhead urban development. India, lacking strong territorial institutions, bases its urban governance on associational politics, as actors from the state, the private sector, and civil society form contingent alliances to promote policies and projects.

What surprises did you find as you conducted your fieldwork/study?

At the theoretical level, the territorial logic of Chinese urban governance is a surprising insight. It is rarely discussed in urban China studies, which tend to focus on the local state capacity only. It’s an insight that came out of the comparison. 

On the policy level, I was surprised by the imbalance in information and knowledge among Chinese and Indian policy makers. Many Chinese officials and business people simply don’t know much about India. When Chinese officials take international “study tours,” most of them choose to visit the U.S. and Europe. If they knew more about India, they would find many points of comparison to be illuminating and meaningful. On the other hand, Indian policymakers and business leaders know a lot about China. They are very aware of the pitfalls of the Chinese model of development—high levels of inequality, over-investment in infrastructure, unsustainable land-based municipal financing, dominance of state capital, and the large rural-urban divide.

How do you plan to build on this work in the future?

As a University of Chicago-trained urban sociologist who has been studying cities in the developing world, I want to connect the fields of American urban sociology and global urban studies. Building on my research on China and India, I have extended my comparative work to North American and European cities. I’m working on a project about the “global rustbelt”, examining culture-led revitalization in Detroit, Harbin (China) and Turin (Italy). I’m also working on a new project related to the pandemic, with colleagues in Canada and South Africa. We want to study how Chicago, Toronto and Johannesburg differently responded to the pandemic and how the pandemic has affected the most vulnerable neighborhoods in these three cities. 

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