CDT Bookshelf: Interview with Jeremy Wallace

Jeremy Wallace is assistant professor of political science at Ohio State University and the author of Cities and Stability: Urbanization, Redistribution, and Regime Survival in China (Oxford University Press 2014), which explains how China has remained stable in the face of massive government-led  efforts. I spoke with Wallace about his research.

China Digital Times: How did you become interested in researching urbanization, redistribution, and survival in China?

Jeremy Wallace: After meeting someone and mentioning that I write about Chinese politics, the first questions are almost inevitable: “when is China going to democratize?” and “when will the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) lose power?” That everyone is asking these questions shows their importance but also points to the difficulty in answering them.  China’s urbanization is a tremendously important change both within the country and globally. As for redistribution, I tend to believe in the maxim that to understand an organization, it’s best to follow the money.

Social scientists have long written about the political logic of what they have called “urban bias” in the developing world. It makes sense to tax farmers and redistribute the benefits to city dwellers since people in cities are politically powerful because of their proximity to each other and the seat of power. Yet in China in the early 2000s was doing the opposite—after years of pro-city bias, the government was beginning to abolish agricultural taxes and subsidize farming. In fact, the language used evoked the family life-cycle: parents raise their children, and then children help their parents in turn when they age. Explaining China’s puzzling move away from urban bias drew me into the project.

CDT: Describe your experience researching this book. Did you face challenges accessing or finding resources on population data, the  system, or urbanization in China?

JW: Compared to many researchers, my topics were not particularly sensitive. The Chinese government was trumpeting its changing redistributive policy in newspapers and speeches. Local officials were more than happy to brag about the abolition of agricultural taxes in their counties, townships, and villages. But even here, I would couch my questions in terms of the positive policy changes of today while still trying to probe the logic of the older system. Working on the hukou system was more difficult in two ways. In cities, officials especially in the ministry of public security were not interested in talking about the system’s political logic. In the countryside, I found local officials were reluctant to talk about how the system affected their populations or engage in hypothetical discussions of what would happen if the hukou system were abolished. As for population data, I think that it’s fair to say that I have a complicated relationship with Chinese official data of all kinds. I’ve written elsewhere questioning the veracity of GDP statistics. Population data, in part because of the legacy of the hukou system, remains problematic, but, that being said, official data remain the best that we have and so are used. I do augment the analysis with one additional resource: estimates of population growth collected from satellite imagery of nighttime lights, such as the picture on the cover of Cities and .

CDT: Why does China have so few slums?

JW: The short answer is the hukou system. The longer answer involves going back to the hukou system’s origins. After coming to power on the back of peasant support, the CCP quickly turned its back on farmers. The government in the 1950s was following a model of economic development that had been used in the Soviet Union, focusing on building large factories emphasizing heavy industry. The way that they paid for those factories was through agricultural taxes. Farmers understood the score and wanted to be part of the new urban proletariat working in the factories rather than have their efforts in the fields taxed away to build those factories. By the millions farmers “blindly flowed” to cities looking for jobs, and the regime created the household registration (hukou) system to prevent such migration. Under the planned economy, in order to purchase goods, one needed permission. Food coupons, in particular, would be tied to one’s hukou locality, so that even if you made it to a nearby city, your coupons wouldn’t allow you to purchase basic necessities once you got there. Even after the plan began to be phased out with the economic reforms of the 1980s, those without urban hukou would be discriminated against in cities. Social services—health, education, and housing—would be inaccessible. These barriers for migrants are highest in the largest cities, while smaller cities are more open to migrants. This discrimination, along with rural land policies, keep millions of migrants thinking of their lives in cities as temporary rather than permanent. When combined with repression—bulldozing slum-like urban villages—these policies have allowed China to urbanize without the slums that plague other developing countries.

CDT: You preface the book with a quotation from Gu Yanwu (1613-1682). The quotation reads in translation: “When the masses dwell in villages, order prevails; when the masses flock to the cities, disorder ensues.” How does the rural unrest that has occurred in China’s countryside over the last decade and the Chinese government’s management of it fit in with the notion that overpopulating cities could destabilize the CCP?

JW: It was heartening to find that the arguments that I was making resonated with claims from so long ago. While it is clear that land disputes as well as rural unrest arising from other issues are very common in contemporary China, I think that these kinds of small scale disputes are unlikely to lead to the ousting of the CCP. Every year, China sees hundreds of thousands of individuals protest, petition, and block traffic, but because these people and demonstrations are spread out—geographically and temporally—they remain more nuisance than existential threat. A single large scale urban protest movement, on the other hand, can shake a regime to its foundations such as happened in 1989 in China or in Tahrir Square in Egypt in 2011.

CDT: You repeatedly say that the CCP has made a “Faustian bargain,” or a deal with the devil, because of its bias towards cities.  How much would China stand to lose if its urban concentration became too high? What do you see as the most compelling evidence to suggest that “slum-dwellers” in cities could form a stronger identity and collectivize against the CCP? To what extent do people living in slums in China today express dissent towards the central leadership? Also, what other problems would the CCP face, especially environmental, if urbanization efforts escalated?

JW: I argue that urban bias represents a Faustian bargain, a deal with the devil, because it makes sense in the short run but can end up undermining governments in the end. Taxing farmers to subsidize city dwellers may keep the streets of the capital clear today, but over time, more and more of those farmers will move to favored cities—especially capital cities—making them even more dangerous. It is important to clarify that large cities are dangerous for dictators in multiple ways. The first is simply the power of large numbers: great cities have lots of people living inside of them, which makes the possibility of large-scale protests erupting greater as the proportion of the population that needs to turn up to make a big protest declines with the city’s population. By this measure, Beijing (or Shanghai) is certainly a dangerous city as it is massive by any account. The second is slightly different and goes back to urban concentration—the share of the country’s urban population in its largest city. When a country is dominated by one large city (sometimes called a primate city), its street politics can come to dominate the country’s politics. China, due to the hukou system as well as the country’s size, is not dominated by its largest cities—in fact, it has urbanized in a very distributed fashion.

While I do argue that slums are dangerous politically, that danger does not tend to manifest itself through direct political action by slumdwellers. Instead, slums symbolize the government’s failures and can spark mobilization—either by other elites in the form of a coup or among the broader urban population concerned with the health, safety, and employment threats that slums may represent—that can bring down dictators.

China’s urbanization policies have promoted inefficient land use and the growth of smaller cities, both of which have negative environmental and economic effects. While the urbanization of people has progressed rapidly for the past three decades, the urbanization of China’s land has grown even faster. Given its vast population and limited arable land, this style of city growth—ring roads and super-developments—is undermining China’s ability to feed itself. Economically, large cities are engines of vitality for the development of new ideas and industries; the more that China attempts to divert individuals to smaller locales, the more opportunities for the right people to be in the right place at the right time it misses.

CDT: How has China’s hukou system “short-circuited the Faustian bargain of urban bias”? Also, what did you learn about the Chinese government’s management of rural people through the hukou system that surprised you?

JW: The hukou system gave China a loophole to the Faustian bargain of urban bias by allowing the government to still bias policies in favor of urbanites while keeping farmers in the countryside.

Many observers of China think that the regime is mostly concerned about economic growth. While growth is of course important, the hukou system demonstrates that the government is willing to trade off some economic development for political stability. Restricting the free movement of Chinese citizens around the country and implementing discriminatory policies against migrants in cities retards economic growth, but the regime continues to keep these policies in place because of their political benefits. I suppose the biggest surprise for me during the writing of this book was the global financial crisis, which took off after I had essentially finished the dissertation that this book is based on. More people lost their jobs in China during the crisis than anywhere else, but in large part due to the hukou system and the stimulus policies, the crisis passed very quickly and the regime avoided what could have been a tremendously dangerous moment.

CDT: What challenges, if any, do you find in comparing China’s urbanization and regime stability with urbanization and regime stability of other countries?

JW: There is a tension in the argument when it comes to China between urban concentration and the danger of large cities. While the government has enacted policies to restrict migration into Beijing and to ensure that it is filled with those who have been well served by the economic reforms, everyone that lives or visits Beijing knows its enormity. This size represents a danger, despite all of the management of urbanization that the government has undertaken.

CDT: Why have scholars focused more on studying the death, rather than the birth and stability, of regimes?

JW: Stability is a hard story to tell because, like other tales of success, it has many fathers. If one wants to know about what causes some regimes to endure and others to fail, it seems natural to look closely at the failures. When a regime endures, it simply endures. Where to look and to assign credit are difficult to parse. Cities and Stability addresses this problem by examining cross-national patterns of regime survival to provide evidence in support of the danger of cities and urban concentration before returning to China’s management of urbanization.

CDT: What’s next for you?

JW: One of the reasons that cities are dangerous for governments is that it is difficult to see inside of them. Observing and governing threats in the urban environment is an incredibly complex challenge because there are so many people in such proximity to each other. One way that the Chinese government has tried to address this problem is by counting threats and everything else. My next project explores the ways in which the Chinese government has ruled through numbers—GDP, PM 2.5, FDI, kilometers of high speed rail completed—for good and for ill.