AAG Annual Meeting 2019

Critically engaging the ‘China Model’ of Development: infrastructures, BRI, and techno-politics

Denver, Colorado – April 5, 2019

This double panel examines contemporary Chinese development interventions in both interior and exterior contexts across a range of scales, registers, and regions. Session 1: China Made, brings attention to Chinese ‘infrastructuralism’ into a theoretical and methodological conversation with the burgeoning interdisciplinary field of infrastructure studies. Session 2: BRI and Questions of Development, places discussion about Chinese development more squarely in the context of the BRI. Together, the two panels focus on and broaden research agendas related to the implications of Chinese infrastructure development both at home and abroad in the 21st century.

China Made: Conceiving Infrastructure in a Chinese Register

Over the past decade, China has invested tremendously in infrastructure development, resulting in dramatic social and cultural changes in both rural and urban regions. It has also promoted an infrastructural development model beyond its borders as part of an increasingly outward-looking foreign policy. Yet while China remains in many ways the world’s paradigmatic infrastructure state, there has been curiously little scholarship bringing Chinese ‘infrastructuralism’ into a theoretical and methodological conversation with the burgeoning interdisciplinary field of infrastructure studies. This panel draws from empirically focused research on Chinese infrastructure developments within China to explore the broader implications of China’s infrastructure push for infrastructure studies. In doing so, it seeks to shift the ‘China model’ discussion away from geopolitical and international relations perspectives, most recently dominated by near obsession with the BRI, and instead emphasizes a finer-grained analysis of expert systems, technical planning, historical antecedents, and the on-the-ground social, cultural, and techno-political dimensions of infrastructure construction, use, misuse, disrepair, maintenance, and ruination.

China, the BRI, and Questions of Development

China continues to intensify and broaden its economic role in the world through the suite of projects that fall under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In addition to debates around a so-called new ‘Chinese model’ of development, Beijing’s external geoeconomic interventions are providing varieties of development loans and assistance, a range of large-scale infrastructural programs, and the formation of new institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). These interventions are creating new geographies that force us to reconsider the intersections of networks and territory, the transformation of places, and multi-scalar linkages between states, citizens, and many of the institutions that mediate relationships in between. This apparent China model of development increasingly reflects and articulates new geographical representations, such as South-South cooperation, and widespread discursive appropriation of the BRI is being mobilized from South Asia to South America in order to support and gain investment from Beijing’s tremendous financial and infrastructural capacity. Across global landscapes, we are witnessing the transformation of trans-continental and trans-oceanic connections, dramatic changes in the role and character of places, the transformation of nature, the creation of new political and economic subjects, and much more. However, rather than the fulfillment of what proponents of the BRI espouse as a unique model of ‘win-win’ development, this session pays critical geopolitical and ethnographic attention to exterior dimensions and specificities of China’s infrastructural interventions across a range of scales.

Tim Oakes, University of Colorado Boulder, Zone infrastructures: China’s new urban paradigm and export product 8:00 AM

This paper offers a critical engagement with the idea of ‘the zone’ as a Chinese development model and export product. Ever since Rem Koolhaas’s Pearl River Delta-inspired musings on the ‘generic city’, China’s ‘model’ of infrastructural urbanism has stimulated the imaginations of urbanists, planners, architects, geographers, and journalists around the world. Through an exploration of the history and development of one particular New Area development zone in Southwest China, the paper contrasts the on-the-ground practice of zone development in China with the mythic ‘instant city’ ideology that has appropriated the zone idea both within and beyond China. While the mythic ideal of the zone as an export infrastructure and ‘new urban paradigm’ has had significant influence in China’s foreign development projects -particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia – zone infrastructures themselves convey a much more complicated and contradictory story about ‘the China model.’ Although conceived as state-of-the-art ‘creation cities’ built tabula rasa, China’s new zones are in fact chaotic spaces of accretion, haphazard appropriation, and popular hacking by unplanned-for users. That such spaces have, in turn, constituted an export ‘model’ for infrastructure development suggests the power of the ideological work that such a model is being called upon to perform.

Max Hirsh, University of Hong Kong, Technical Experts and the Production of Airport Infrastructure in Asia 8:20 AM

This paper studies the technical experts who plan, design, and manage airport infrastructure projects in Asia. These planners and engineers have played a crucial role in the introduction of infrastructural expertise into Asia’s national planning cultures. Working simultaneously on multiple projects, technical consultants offer a “bird’s eye view” to local clients on broader urban development trends. Tasked with harmonizing global standards with local building codes and cultural practices, they adapt international norms to the site-specific design constraints of rapidly developing cities in China. By planning the overwhelming majority of Asia’s hubs, they have guided the development of a cross-border aviation system that critically underpins regional integration in Asia. To date, scholars of urban infrastructure have overlooked the role of these experts. Their absence can be attributed to the relative invisibility of the specialist consultancies where most technical experts work. While large corporate architecture firms and state-run aviation authorities manage the public face of megaprojects, they rarely devise specific planning, design, and engineering guidelines. The niche consultancies that perform these tasks maintain a low profile, are unknown outside of industry circles, and remain unaccounted for in the existing literature. The paper studies three airport planning and engineering firms that have designed most of the airports in China over the past 50 years. It investigates how these firms interact with local planning agencies, and how their technical plans are subsequently adapted in accordance with local social, spatial, and regulatory norms.

Dorothy Tang, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Modeling Sponge Cities: the governance of urban runoff and spatial practices in Shenzhen 8:40 AM

In 2013, President Xi Jinping announced a program to convert all Chinese cities into “Sponge Cities” by 2030 to lessen urban flooding. The program adopts an ecological approach to managing urban runoff through dispersed landscapes that reduce peak flow, encourage infiltration, and improve surface water quality through bioretention and bioremediation technologies. By 2016, thirty pilot cities received central funding to retrofit their drainage infrastructure as the rest of the nation gears up to meet this ambitious environmental goal. In particular, the southern city of Shenzhen has emerged as an exemplar for the planning and implementation of sponge city projects. Shenzhen’s success is attributed to the technical expertise developed at the Urban Planning and Design Institute of Shenzhen (SUPDI) and setting up “Sponge City Offices” in each district for coordination, regulation and construction. SUPDI is now positioned as an authority in sponge city planning and they have started to systematically disseminate the Shenzhen experience nation-wide. This paper traces this model of planning and implementation of sponge city projects in two districts of Shenzhen, including road construction, public parks, new developments, and neighborhood upgrades, to understand how centrally mandated policies are carried out at the district level. Public-private partnership financing models play a pivotal role in the construction of these new infrastructural landscapes and shape development patterns of the city. In addition, the existing urban composition dictate the types of infrastructural conversions possible and its specialized maintenance regimes reinforce spatial inequalities.

Andrew Grant, University of Colorado Boulder, Infrastructure, Civilization, and the Politics of Memory in a Sino-Tibetan City 9:00 AM

Infrastructure, in its capacity to evoke the technological sublime and breathe life into unilinear developmental models, is a political technique that in contemporary China operates at the level of civilizational achievement. This paper focuses on the role of infrastructural and urban redevelopment in 21st century redevelopment of Xining, the largest city on the Tibetan Plateau. The expansion and transformation of Old Xining has obliterated older urban geographies and given birth to towering new urban districts. Urban authorities act as editors, bulldozing some sites, resuscitated others, and reimagining regional culture to speak to a harmonious past civilizationally unified with China. I argue that memory work being conducted within the built environment has a two-fold effect: it represses the evocation of histories from certain sites and it conjures spectacular futures based in past imaginings. These effects work to depoliticize to what civilization Xining belongs as well as delimit its possible futures. This paper illuminates the various Chinese, Islamic, and Tibetan chronotopes by focusing on the materiality of walls, the development of ecological civilization green corridors, and the hyperbuilding of skyscraping urban centers. Ultimately, China’s BRI projects find historical and practical antecedent within the urbanization projects of China’s frontier places. The editorial and infrastructural processes found in Xining City speak to a trend in contemporary China to use infrastructure and construction to propel Asian societies into a future redolent of a mythical civilizational past.


James Sidaway, National University of Singapore 9:20 AM

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