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Sustainable Territories: Rural Dispossession, Land Enclosures and the Construction of Environmental Resources in China


As urbanization and industrialization continue to spread through China's countryside, the central government has officially declared the construction of master planned eco-industrial zones and eco-cities as primary strategies for accelerating the transformation of industrial structure and the prevailing model of economic development, as well as for “constructing a socialist economic, politically, culturally… and ecologically civilized… harmonious society” (NPC 2011: chapter 1, np). Based on recent fieldwork, this paper demonstrates how these strategies extend beyond the “green washing” of rural land enclosure and transformation, arguing that processes of rural dispossession are linked to the commodification and circulation of natural capital. This paper analyzes processes of environmentalization and enclosure as linked state-led strategies for governing economic growth, rural transformation and interventions into global market-based solutions to climate change as integral problems of Chinese national development and modernization. As a basis for theorizing the relationships between Chinese models of “green development,” forms of environmental governance and new circuits of accumulation, the paper utilizes a case study of Yixing city, where eco-city, renewable energy and ecological conservation projects are being planned in tandem, enclosing over 300 square-kilometers of rural land and displacing over 50,000 residents since 2006. The technical and discursive “dividing practices” (Foucault 1972, 1977) of local government planners are examined in conjunction with the scalar construction of rural land as a fungible national “resource” under central government policies for renewable energy development, food security, “ecological withdrawal of agriculture” and arable land reclamation quotas (e.g. State Council 2007). Following Marxian scholarship on the enclosure of access to land and the establishment of property regimes as ongoing moments of “primitive” accumulation and state-territorial projects (Thompson 1975; Harvey 2003; Hsing 2010; Peluso and Lund 2011; Corson and MacDonald 2012), this paper argues that rural land enclosure in China functions in different circuits of accumulation corresponding to varied constructed scales of environmentalization. The paper analyzes such environmentalized transformations, including ecological set-asides, non-fossil fuel energy generation, and high-intensity non-village agriculture and the requisite conversion of collectively owned rural land into state controlled urban land, as a process of territorialization. Drawing upon the work of Poulantzas and recent scholarship on environmental enclosures (e.g. the volume by Peluso and Lund 2011), I argue that the construction of discrete environmental functions for—and apart from—rural land is fundamental to the constitution of “homogenizing enclosure” and territoriality as the “institutional materiality of the state” (Poulantzas 1978: 93–107). Following Lefebvrian analysis of the production of space (Lefebvre 1991[1974]; e.g. Roth 2008), I find that such abstraction refigures the local in a process of territorialization, highlighting the importance of state power to the establishment of market-based forms of environmental governance and the circulation of “natural capital.”

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