Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Governing City-Regions in China: Theoretical Issues and Perspectives for Regional Strategic Planning

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Governing City-Regions in China: Theoretical Issues and Perspectives for Regional Strategic Planning

Article excerpt

The transformation of the regional system in China has resulted in polycentric spatial forms in major city-regions. With urban entrepreneurialism prevailing across the country, these polycentric structures lead to an intensive intercity competition for mobile capital. Building on a debate about the problematic nature and fragmented consequences of the entrepreneurial strategy, this article argues that regional strategic planning constitutes a new way for mega-city regions to overcome the negative effects of political fragmentation. To this end, it addresses two specific issues: the location of regional planning in local politics, which it addresses by underscoring the qualitative features of such politics in transitional economies; and a state-theoretical interpretation of what is behind the increasing interest in this level of planning, using the case of the Pearl River Delta strategic plan. It is argued that current regional planning practice can be understood as an important structural and strategic expression of a locally and regionally articulated political processes. It is now being used not only as a new way to reposition regions in the national and global economic landscapes, but also as a way for high-level governments to reassert their functional importance with regard to local economic governance. Rather than shifting territorial development trajectories and coordinating regional growth patterns, regional strategic planning might be little more than a cosmetic make-over that hides the intensifying competition within major city-regions in China.

Rethinking city, region and governance in China

The regional system in China has undergone significant transformation because of market reform, globalisation and rapid urbanisation. Many cities and towns that were formerly in peripheral or rural areas have developed into active economic centres linked to world capital investors and consumer markets. The resultant polycentric spatial form has combined with the rise of urban entrepreneurialism, which has increasingly become a key municipal strategy to enhance place-specific socioeconomic assets. This transition has led to intensified intercity competition for mobile capital.

A number of negative externalities arise from this type of regional formation, such as uncoordinated development and environmental degradation. In response to these, different solutions are proposed. Mainstream literature on urban economics supports the idea of using competition to sustain growth, because hyper-competition leads to economic efficiency, which might solve the problems of collective actions. Thereby, state strategic concerns should be minimised. Whatever the intellectual shortcomings and political dangers of this mindset, it appears to be exercising a considerable influence upon the ideology, practice and institutional infrastructure of urban and regional governance in contemporary China.1 On the other hand, there are wide concerns about the negative impacts of political fragmentation, and it is argued that strategic plans should be made to reduce these impacts. The motivations for these concerns are varied, but the objectives have typically been to reposition regions in the national and global economic landscapes, as well as to articulate a coordinated spatial mosaic for key development issues such as land-use regulation, environmental protection and infrastructural provision. However, given the prevailing views that exhort cities to compete against one another, regional strategic planning remains one of the most neglected policy areas in China.

Against this background, this article has two specific tasks. First, it seeks to explore the institutional configuration and politics of regional governance and planning in China. Secondly, using the case of strategic planning undertaken in the Pearl River Delta (PRD), it develops a theoretical interpretation as to why interest is surfacing in relation to this level of planning. …

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