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Economic Transition, Development Zones, and Urban Land Expansion in the Yangtze River Delta, China

Yehua Dennis Wei

September 2015, English

Since the reforms launched in the late 1970s, China has been undergoing rapid economic growth and urbanization. With the pursuit for competitiveness and growth, Chinese cities have recorded massive urban land expansion, accompanied by disappearing rural agricultural land, serious environmental consequences, and intensified social conflicts. This report investigates urban land expansion and structural change in the Yangtze River Delta (YRD), with an emphasis on Nanjing city, by integrating official land use statistics and remote sensing data. We investigate development process and changing contents of government policies and analyze development zones and key projects as privileged, trait making, and even path breaking particles of the development process. We find that Chinese cities have recorded unprecedented urban land expansion, and the magnitude of this expansion is generally consistent with the process of urbanization and economic development. Urban land expansion in the YRD has been driven by rapid industrialization, especially institutionally driven development referred to as “development zone fever.” We highlight the transition and paradox of the Chinese state in urban development process, and the broad institutional contexts underlying urban land expansion in China. We argue that state sponsored development aimed at capitalizing on globalization and promoting economic growth has contributed greatly to urban expansion in large cities of China. The local growth-oriented government has become a predominant agent of urban expansion. Development zone and project fevers, and lagging administrative reforms, however, have made cities heavy with debt and led to wasteful development, corruption and social unrest in China. China must deepen institutional and land reforms to better manage urbanization and make development more equitable and sustainable.

Keywords: Urbanization, urban expansion, development zone, Yangtze River Delta, China