The Critical Classroom – “Urban Redevelopment, Displacement, and Governmentality in Nanjing’s Historic Inner-City”

Zhao Zhang (Zhejiang University of Technology) and Niamh Moore-Cherry (University College Dublin)

Forthcoming in May 2022 in Antipode 54(3), and available online now, “Urban Redevelopment, Displacement, and Governmentality in Nanjing’s Historic Inner-City” focuses on understanding the ways in which the Chinese state (and beyond) has adapted new approaches and rationalities – “arts of government” – to counter potential resistance to urban redevelopment in a historic urban setting. In the paper we illustrate how rather than directly confront those engaged in resistance, the state over time has adapted legislation and policy, and introduced financial mechanisms to control resistance in new, less overt ways and enable redevelopment to progress.

This paper is suitable for discussion in upper-level undergraduate, masters, and doctoral courses in urban geography, urban studies, social justice, critical geographies, and public policy. The paper could be used to engage in open discussion centred on the following prompt questions:

  • China’s urban redevelopment simultaneously demonstrates neoliberal and authoritarian features. Explore these different features and explain how the new “art of government” both enables displacement and mitigates resistance.
  • Chart how the approach to urban redevelopment and the state–society relationship has changed in Nanjing over the last 30 years. Explain the dominant processes at work and why they have shifted over time. How does the concept of “governmentality” aid our understanding?
  • Outline the different “dynamics” (e.g. people’s subjectivities, legal rationalities, and technocratic toolkits) we need to consider when we study cities and how they are governed.
  • How does “power” operate in cities? Regardless of ideology and political systems, what kind of “soft paternalism” is being increasingly identified in both the global North and South? What does this mean methodologically for how we as scholars study cities and conceptually in terms of traditional ideas (e.g. neoliberal, authoritarian, entrepreneurial)?

The overall aim of the discussion would be to support students to engage critically with ideas such as neoliberalism, authoritarianism, urban entrepreneurialism, governmentality, resistance, and financialisaton and to rethink the relationships between these concepts. A key learning outcome would be to understand in a more nuanced way how urban governance operates and, in particular, how simplistic and homogeneous understandings of the role and actions of the citizen and the state need to be challenged. In particular, students would be encouraged to think about the toolkits that governments deploy, how they impact on the right to the city, and how they might be contested.


Zhao Zhang and Niamh Moore-Cherry (2016) “Case Study – Low Income Housing Development in China.”

This short video (8:24) explores the growth of indemnificatory housing (IH) in China. We journey to Nanjing to examine the Chinese government’s attempts to deal with a great demand for housing as the consequences of massive displacement. The construction of IH in China since 2008 is an example of a “spatial fix” to stimulate economic growth.

Mi Shih (2010) Legal geographies – Governing through law: Rightsbased conflicts and property development in Shanghai. Urban Geography 31(7):973-987

This paper provides an alternate case study to explore how the practices of the Chinese state have shifted over time to smooth out and enable a more entrepreneurial approach to redevelopment through the amendments of local bylaws and interventions in the displacement-related legal processes.

Carla Huisman (2014) Displacement through participation. Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie 105(2):161-174

This paper introduces how the rationalities of displacement can become reinforced in the liberal-democratic context through citizen participation. It highlights the challenges of, and warns against, participation without genuine power transfer and the disruptive unintended consequences that can result.

Sarah Rogers and Brooke Wilmsen (2020) Towards a critical geography of resettlement. Progress in Human Geography 44(2):256-275

Taking an alternative and more critical approach to resettlement, this paper calls for more in-depth understanding of displacement processes beyond the simple material compensations and coercive approaches employed.

Mitchell Dean (2010) Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern Society (2nd edn). London: SAGE

In this book, the author offers a detailed analysis of the mentalities and techniques of rule in modern societies through Foucauldian governmentality theory. Examined from a dialectical and genealogical perspective, the author argues that governmentality has become deeply embedded in society across a range of different settings.