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"The Green Leap Forward": Environmentalization and Rural-Urban Transformation in Contemporary China

  • Author(s): Chen, Jia Ching
  • Advisor(s): Caldeira, Teresa P.R.
  • Deakin, Elizabeth
  • et al.

This dissertation documents the processes and outcomes of Chinese government efforts to address national environmental problems through master planned "green development" projects. These large-scale spatial planning projects include eco-city and eco-industrial parks, and integrate goals for industrial, urban and rural development. Such efforts explicitly attempt to simultaneously "green" the economy, society and space; that is, to reduce the negative environmental impact of economic growth, to produce the social norms to support optimized use of resources, and to construct the human-ecological places where an "ecological civilization" can flourish. I find that the ideology of green development, taken from international and national sources, is projected onto local processes of place making. This process works to construct environmental resources at trans-local scales, and to justify rural dispossession as environmentally rational. I then document how national environmental governance agendas target rural society and space as backward and as the necessary site for intervention. I argue that green development in China extends practices of rural dispossession and deepens patterns of urban-rural inequality. Furthermore, I demonstrate that these patterns present significant negative environmental externalities as local governments transform rural landscapes to provide cheap land and financing for projects of China's "Green Leap Forward."

To explore the policies, institutions and practices that make up these processes, this dissertation focuses on Yixing, a third-tier city in Jiangsu province, where the construction of eco-city, solar and other `green' industry projects have been yoked as the engines for rural transformation. To begin, I describe the national and regional contexts of environmental industry construction and eco-city planning. I document the growth of solar manufacturing, eco-city construction and linked projects for agricultural modernization and ecological conservation that have required the enclosure of over 330 square-kilometers of rural land and the displacement of over 55,000 residents since 2006. The local government expects to displace another 50,000 residents in master planned rural-urban transformation by 2020.

I further document how these primarily state-led processes of dispossession and development planning refigure rural state-society and social-environmental relationships in the rapid construction of "new" ecologically rational city-regions. I argue that these processes are fundamentally linked to a revaluation of rural environmental resources and forms of agrarian transition that entail dispossession and the elimination of the land ownership system, which is bifurcated between state-urban and collective-rural structures. I analyze three processes through which this strategy unfolds. First, I examine the construction of a model of green development based on master-planned eco-urbanization and rural environmental governance at regional and national scales. I document and analyze the institutionalization of green development in the national policies of the Chinese government, the practices of municipal agencies, and in the approaches of transnational experts and businesses operating in China. I demonstrate that this model envisions a reallocation of rural land resources for master planned urban expansion. As its primary rationale, the model seeks to address the historical environmental failures of China's present model of industrial modernization and is predicated on restructuring municipal authority over rural land use.

Second, I document how these changes shape agrarian transition by revaluing rural land as an environmental resource. I examine the environmental justification of rural dispossession and the dissolution of collective land tenure rights as economically and environmentally untenable. I argue that as rural livelihoods come to be designated as environmentally irrational and rural land is made into an object of planning, environmental value is paradoxically abstracted and divided from actual landscapes. I demonstrate that rural cash assets as well as land are enclosed into green development and contribute to circuits of accumulation based on "exporting sustainability." I show how the processes of eviction and resettlement re-inscribe historical urban-rural inequalities into a new geography of peri-urban segregation and class differentiation.

Third, I argue that environmentalization in China is fundamentally tied to structural changes in territorial-administrative authority. Through an examination of local governmental practices in planning and land management, I document the construction of spatial uniformity and land resources at the national scale. I argue that in deploying a national land-use quota system, local governments fundamentally reshape the land management regime so that instead of managing the land itself, abstracted quanta of land are the objects that are being governed. This leads to negative social-environmental consequences that manifest in specific localities, and that undermine goals of sustainability at all scales. As a case study, I examine the rapid state-facilitated construction of the solar photovoltaics industry in Yixing through subsidies in land, infrastructure and finance capital. Such practices link rural dispossession in China to the global green economy. Additionally, large-scale and rapid construction on greenfield sites produces direct and indirect land-use change impacts on the carbon efficiency of solar photovoltaics manufactured in Yixing and elsewhere.

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