Book Review: The End of the Village: Planning the Urbanisation of Rural China

Nick R. Smith, The End of the Village: Planning the Urbanisation of Rural China (University of Minnesota Press, 2021)

Reviewed by Brooke Wilmsen (La Trobe University)

(This is a prepublication version of this review. You can find the published version in Thesis Eleven Journal, on the T11 Sage website)

When speaking to a county official in 2019 in Hubei province I asked whether he thought we were witnessing the last generation of small-holder farmers? His response was “yes, in the next decade households will give way to rich business people from cities who will shift their investments from industry to agriculture”. Although I was aware of the Central push to scale-up farming and engage large corporate entities, this comment took me by surprise. Since 1997, I had observed the incredible growth of the smallholder orange industry in Hubei. In part a government-driven response to the mass displacement caused by the Three Gorges Dam, the orange industry had received unprecedented investment to grow into one of the most important citrus locales in the country. Farmers had transitioned from impoverished smallholders producing low quality mandarins to wealthy households employing e-commerce to sell a lucrative cash crop of diverse varietals. Smallholder farmers were doing so well that they were attracting their young people back to the farm.  Despite such success, this county government official was clear that the future of rural production in this part of Hubei is urban. At the time, I wondered what this meant for the future of the villages whose steep mountains I had scrambled up for twenty years. As such I was delighted to receive a copy of Nick R. Smith’s book, The End of the Village, documenting his research in nearby Chongqing. 

It is impossible to do justice to the depth of exploration and breadth of research that has gone into Smith’s highly engaging and thoughtfully penned exploration of rural China under rapid urbanisation. For me this was a holiday read and as such I dragged my feet to it while my other novels laid unopened on my beach towel. I was, however, pleasantly surprised by Smith’s capacity to transport the reader to the streets of Chongqing and Hailong village. Smith begins by introducing us to Feng Shunde and I’m immediately struck by the intimate engagement that underpins his thesis. Smith’s descriptions of the people and places are immersive – I could imagine myself sitting next to him on a little wooden stool, the smell of the Chongqing peppercorns choking my airway, the rough growl of Chongqing dialect as he casually converses. Mr Xu joins in and openly shares his lived experience of displacement – a life in limbo and a past erased. Smith listens carefully, he bears witness to Mr Xu’s loss, whilst also deriving meaning for broader rural change in China. I devoured the rest of the book over the next few days.  

In the first three chapters of his book, Smith explores various engagements with the centrally imposed policy of urban-rural coordination that seeks to destabilise the rural-urban binary, long administered through the system of household registration. Interesting here is the different interpretations and “distinctive narratives” of urban-rural coordination told through the voices of those who interpret the program or live its enactment. The story of urban-rural coordination is a dialectical one; a struggle for control that will obliterate the rural essence. For municipal planners in Chongqing, rural-urban coordination is an urban project of rural incorporation to expand its urban limits. Through Smith’s engagement with Duan Leishi, a Chongqing city planner, we learn about how “scientific” planning and politics rub up against each other to produce orderly urban space from what is viewed as the “messy and irrational disorder” of the rural. Hailong village cadres; however, seek to derail the municipal trajectory by asserting village independence through catalysing village development. This response is presented through the animated story of Yan Jing, the card playing bully of a village party secretary who through re-collectivisation seeks to fortify the designation of the administrative village. At this point in the story, Yan appears as a humorous caricature that is tolerated by the villagers but is not yet threatening. As the book progresses, Yan and his affiliates emerge as self-interested protagonists responsible for the demise of Hailong village.  

In chapter 4, the battle for Hailong is depicted in all its complexity. Through Smith’s vivid description of its intricacies, we understand that the relationships between the rural and the urban are continually negotiated between the party-state, municipal planners and residents. To Smith these negotiations are more integral to the planning process than the plan itself. As will be made clearer in chapter 6, among these actors and despite their attempts to maintain the socio-spatial essence of Hailong village, it is the residents who have limited power to withstand the forces of urbanisation. As a temporary salve to the dispute between Hailong’s cadres and the municipal government, Hailong is split into two separate planning areas – one rural and one urban, highlighting the artificial nature of urban/rural difference.  

In chapter 5, Smith continues to explore the clash between municipal and village government plans for urbanisation. To seize control, the cadres of Hailong exploit the shifting nature of rural land use rights and the liminal boundary that lies between the rural and the urban. By working within fuzzy policy and plans, the cadres of Hailong solidify their control of the village and its economic independence. However, whilst fighting the municipality to save the village from expropriation they cause their own incalculable damages. Village cadres seize control over village assets, exclude residents from decision making and expediate corporate led urbanisation. Paradoxically in trying to save the village from municipal absorption, Hailong is lost – no longer recognisable to its residents as a village. Whilst the village administratively remains, it loses its critical socio-spatial characteristics and collective welfare function.  

As openly criticising the government is dangerous for the villagers of Hailong, they speak of their losses with Smith through “ghost talk”, which is presented in Chapter 6. Ghosts are those who are forgotten after they die and therefore not recognised as ancestral spirits. They represent what is anti-social and are therefore used by Smith as a “socio-spatial diagnostic” of the residents’ experiences of deterritorialization. Smith spends time with Zheng Zhihui who returns to the rubble of his home to remember the past whilst openly lamenting the hardship that characterises the present. In a thoughtful presentation of their discussion, Smith invites us to imagine a village that remains in name only, “a ghost of its former self”.  As witness to the sad end of vibrant Hailong village, Smith exposes the tailings of urbanisation.  

In the concluding chapter, Smith names his thesis, “disjunctural urbanization”, referring to the dialectical strategies of different actors that advanced the urbanization agenda in Hailong. Rather than following the teleological path of the development plan, resources and opportunities were distributed based on the interests of the powerful. Put simply, urbanization in China is politically manufactured. While Smith’s rich and evocative story of Hailong may be considered niche if read superficially and only of consequence to those with a burning interest in stories of rural change in China, it is so much more. It speaks to the complexity of changing rural futures, it magnifies the significance of powerful individuals in catalysing localised urbanization – their clever engagement with administrative structures to push forward their own interests – and finally, reiterates that social change is always political.  

As a last point, I’d like to indulgently reflect on the nature of research in China. In 2021, my long research partnership in China came to an end – a casualty of the political tensions between China and Australia. I may never set foot in China again and I’ve been forced to abandon more than 20 years of longitudinal fieldwork on livelihood change in China. I’ll miss the vibrant discussions over bottles of Snow beer and spicy potatoes as we marvelled and struggled to understand what we were fortunate to witness in our lifetime. The likelihood of a boy from a smallholder farm in Hubei and girl from a blue-collar suburb of Melbourne coming together to grow 20 years of friendship, fieldwork and academic knowledge, is probably unlikely in the coming decades; at least, not with the academic freedom I took for granted. I know I’m not alone in my pessimism, with many of my colleagues unable to gain entry to China and others abandoning their research for fear of repercussions. Many wonderful partnerships between Chinese and non-Chinese researchers that have produced a unique and vibrant critique of China’s transformation, mostly during the reform period, are unlikely to continue. The freedom that such partnerships enjoyed for so many years are gone, now viewed with suspicion by both sides. It makes me wonder about the lives of Mr Xu, Lu Xiaowei and Zheng Zhihui who lost their homes and their way of life to China’s blinkered urbanisation. Without research like The End of the Village, produced with supportive partners in China, will their stories be lost forever? Will we need to wait for the scores of memoirs penned post-Xi to understand this period of change in China? My pessimistic self expects few books as rich as The End of the Village to be published in the coming decades, but my hopeful self looks forward to Smith’s next book so that I may return to China … at least in my imagination. 

One thought on “Book Review: The End of the Village: Planning the Urbanisation of Rural China

  1. A wonderfully engaging Review that endorses an enormously significant and informative book. A Distillation of the Research Process. Thank you. Jen Ginsberg


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