‘National Level New Areas’ and Urban Districts: Centralization of Territorial Power Relations in China

Original Article


The central government established Pudong in Shanghai as the first national-level new area (new area). It replicated this territorial experiment in major cities, particularly during the last decade. As territories directly under the supervision of the central government, new areas receive large amount of preferential funding and exercise sub-provincial-level powers over land use change, infrastructure development and taxation. However, new areas are not the same territory located in different cities, but territorial configurations that heterogeneous nested hierarchies of power constitute. This paper conceptualizes new areas as dynamic centralizing strategy of the central government towards urban governance. During the last decades, the central government has established an increasing number of urban districts, enhancing the administrative capacities of city governments. New areas are part of this strategy by which the central government is gradually reconfiguring cities. This paper adopts a geographical approach to analyze territorial change in China as the underlying political dynamic that governs intertwined processes of investment and production that ultimately materialize urban transformation. New areas, as territorial strategies, propel further rounds of administrative centralization that extend the scope of urbanization. The introductory section of this paper presents a preliminary discussion about the political and economic context in which the central government designed and implemented new areas as a national strategy of development. The second section discusses new areas in relation to the power relations they form with other administrative territories in cities. Further rounds of land redistricting in the context of new areas are discussed in the third section. Finally, the last part of this paper remarks the importance of the central government in shaping urban transformation through territorial reforms.


New area Urban district Centralization Territorial power relations 

1 Introduction

The central government, through the State Council, established Pudong New Area (PDNA) in Shanghai as the first ‘national-level new area’ (new area) in China 26 years ago. PDNA’s iconic skyline is a contemporary landmark of economic development and urban transformation in reform era China. The central government replicated the territorial reform of Shanghai’s PDNA throughout the country, along with a new round of infrastructure development state-owned enterprises (SOEs) reform (Huang 2008), establishing more new areas in major cities, particularly during the last decade. New areas are territories directly under the supervision of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and recipients of preferential financial capital provided by state-policy banks and sectorial ministries of the State Council (Gu 2016; Liu and Xun 2017; NDRCa 2016). For instance, throughout the 1990s, the Ministry of Finance (MOF) highly subsidized development of PDNA to transform it from a vast rural periphery with small-scale manufacturing sector into a service-oriented and high added-value manufacturing urban economy (Xie and Shi 2016). By 2017, the central government established 19 new areas throughout the country in the cities that concentrate the bulk of investments and production in their respective provincial jurisdictions (Li and Gui 2017). During the last 10 years, new areas have been gradually becoming a common administrative denominator of major cities. The main goal of this territorial strategy of the central government is not merely to carve out space for land use conversion to increase fiscal revenues of localities, as it was the case of local projects such as industrial parks (gongyeyuanqu) and development zones (kaifaqu) during late 1990s (Cartier 2001). New areas are capital-intensive territories that reshape the economic trajectory not only of the major cities where the central government establishes them, but also of its urban and rural peripheries (Lu and Lu 2016; Peng 2016).

This paper contributes to the understanding of political geography in contemporary China by looking at the establishment of ‘new areas’ as a layer of territorial governance from where the central government further centralizes power relations of major cities. In contemporary China, cities are administrative territories at three levels of the system of administrative divisions (xingzhengquhuatixi) that configures the country into four main ‘scales’ of government: provincial, prefecture, county and township (Ma 2005; Chan 2010). The concept of ‘scale’ in geography considers the intersection of social and political processes as underlying dynamics of space production (Gregory et al. 2009), which outcome constitutes ‘nested hierarchies’ of power that contain each other (Clifford et al. 2009). Cartier (2005) discusses that in contemporary China, state power through territorial adjustment of the system of administrative divisions (xingzhengquhuatixi) shapes scale production and regulation in relation to urban transformation. When the central government, through the Ministry of Civil Affairs of the State Council, establishes or reconfigures an existing administrative territory at upper levels of the hierarchy it centralizes power relations. In contrast, when the adjustment is towards or at lower levels, it decentralizes power.

Cities are territories that the central government establishes and reconfigures at provincial, prefecture and county levels. Additionally, the State Council of the central government established some major prefecture-level cities at sub-provincial level, a ‘meso-scale’ of governance between the province and the prefecture (Cartier and Hu 2015). The prerogatives, decision-making power and access to the central government’s funding the city governments can receive are directly related to their rank in the system of administrative divisions (Chan 2010; Chung and Lam 2004, 2009; Li et al. 2015). Thus, the four cities at provincial level (Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Chongqing), the highest rank, are centralized territories, government apparatus of which concentrate on decision-making power and enjoys preferential access to direct financial support from the sectorial ministries of the State Council and state-owned national policy banks (Leng 2010; Martinez and Cartier 2017). Provincial-level cities are territories of urban agglomerations that produce high tax revenues that went approximately from 15 to 20% of their GDPs in 2016, being above the national average (Gilley 2017). Reflecting this condition, Shanghai and Chongqing city governments maintain a system of fiscal transfers and subsidies to their new areas: PDNA and Liangjiang New Area (LJNA), respectively (Wang and Lu 2016). Cities contain different settings of ‘nested territorial hierarchies’ according to their position in the administrative hierarchy. The territory of the four cities at provincial level is integrated by urban districts and counties. Meanwhile, cities at prefecture and sub-provincial levels contain urban districts, counties and in some cases even county-level cities. Comparatively, power in provincial-level cities is centralized in only two administrative layers; whereas cities at prefecture and sub-provincial level are generally highly decentralized administrative units.

The establishment of a new area, as a new layer of power in the administrative system, is a process that overlaps with the already existing territorial configuration of cities. Despite all new areas are directly under supervision of the NDRC, they overlap with the different and heterogeneous power relations of the cities that lodge them. In other words, new areas are not merely the same territory reproduced across different major cities in provinces. In this sense, a new area established in urban districts of a provincial-level city forms a centralized territorial relation at a higher administrative level than the one a new area forms with counties of a prefecture-level city. As territories of the central government, new areas seek to bypass the multi-scalar borders of the territorial system in major cities to ultimately centralize urban governance (Cao 2016; Li et al. 2017; Liu and Xun 2017). Although all new areas are granted sub-provincial-level administrative powers over infrastructure development, taxation and public policy (Cao 2016; Liu and Xun 2017), only the ones in provincial or sub-provincial-level cities are able to access a larger pool of funds and resources. New areas in urban districts of cities at high levels of the territorial system increase centralization of power relations over the most developed urban core areas that generate a large stream of revenues (Martinez and Cartier 2017).

This paper argues that the central government has gradually centralized administrative power in major cities by abolishing counties and county-level cities and establishing urban districts in the context of fostering development of new areas. Urban districts are administrative territories at county level, directly under the control of city governments and with limited decision-making power over investments, taxation, land use, etc. (Chung and Lam 2009). Therefore, the establishment of districts strengthens the administrative capabilities of city governments at prefecture, sub-provincial and provincial levels. The abolishment of counties and the establishment of districts are part of the process of territorial change with which the Party-state constantly reconfigures the government apparatus in relation to national and regional developmental goals (Cartier 2015). In other words, urbanization in China, as a process of spatial transformation through capital investments, is propelled by changes in its domestic political geographical configuration. For instance, during the last decades the central government has gradually been abolishing counties and county-level cities to establish urban districts (Chan 2010; Cartier 2011; Geng 2017) recentralizing control over the economy after almost two decades of territorial decentralization. This national-scale territorial adjustment gradually replaced a territorial decentralizing approach that two decades before spurred the increasing rescaling of counties into county-level cities (Donaldson 2017). During the 1980s and early 1990s, governments of counties and county-level cities had enough administrative autonomy and space of maneuver to start their own development zones and industrial parks, concentrating resources to foster development based on short-term small-scale infrastructural projects (Cao 2016). The establishment of county-level cities undermined the administrative powers of the central government over the national economy (Wedeman 2003; Misra 2003; Feng 1997; Shih 2008; Wong 2000), forcing it to change its approach to urban governance. New areas emerged in the early 1990s then as a strategy the central government gradually implemented in major cities to reproduce the already existing process of territorial centralization.

The following section of this paper discusses new areas in prefecture-, sub-provincial and provincial-level cities in relation to already existing nested territorial power relations. This section provides a political geographical perspective from where we understand new areas as relational territories overlapped with counties, urban districts and county-level cities. The third section of this paper assesses the main territorial adjustments that the central government approved in major cities in the context of expanding the administrative capacities of recently established new areas. This section starts with a brief discussion about the administrative characteristics of urban districts and then it discusses centralization of power relations through the abolishment of counties and county-level cities. The final section of this paper remarks the role of the central government in establishing new areas to reconfigure power in cities as the underlying process that governs urbanization. This strategy centralizes power relations, enhancing capacities of city governments. The territorial assessment this paper proposes ultimately highlights the importance of the central government in governing the expansion of urban transformation in contemporary China.

1.1 New Areas in Major Cities: Common Territorial Variable of Centralization

The central government has established 19 new areas in cities at provincial, sub-provincial and prefectural level by 2017, as Table 1 presents. While the new areas in provincial-level cities and some sub-provincial-level cities contain urban districts with strong urban economies, most of the recently established new areas are in counties and county-level cities of prefecture-level cities, where emerging and relatively small urban areas intersect with large semi-urban and rural peripheries.
Table 1

National new areas in major cities in China.

Adapted from Li (2015)


National-level new area

Main city



Pudong new area


Shanghai (province-level city)


Binhai new area


Tianjin (province-level city)


Liang Jiang new area


Chongqing (province-level city)


Nansha new area




Xihaian new area




Xixian new area




Tianfu new area




Jiangbei new area




Jinpu new area




Xiangjiang new area




Haerbin new area




Changchun new area




Zhoushan new area




Fuzhou new area




Lanzhou new area




Guian new area




Dianzhong new area




Ganjiang new area




Xiongan new area



The approval of land use conversion, public expenditure, capital investments, etc., in new areas is a fragmented process negotiated and decided differently in each case (Li et al. 2017). After the central government establishes a new area, authorities from all local governments within it constitute a provisional administrative committee that assumes control over public finance and large-scale infrastructure development and designs a regional economic strategy (Zhu and Lu 2016). Generally, the city governments hold the prerogative to appoint the head of this provisional committee. In some instances, even provincial-level governments are able to join the process, stepping in to coordinate the local bureaucracies of counties, urban districts and county-level cities to improve the efficiency in the daily operation of the new area committee (Wang and Lu 2016). Meanwhile, public services delivery and welfare remain decentralized under direct responsibility of urban districts, counties and county-level cities (Li 2015). Therefore, the territorial layers that constitute the multi-scalar governing apparatus of each of the new areas shape the governance of its economic development (Zhu and Lu 2016; Wang and Lu 2016; Gu 2016). The more nested administrative territories a new area contains, the more fragmented and dislocated its decision-making power is. This territorial approach to new areas allows us to conceive them as diverse and heterogeneous administrative units, despite of being territories under direct supervision of the NDRC.

The State Council streamlined power in PDNA and BHNA establishing their own Party Committees as the only decision-making institutions that exercise direct administration over economic development in both areas (Li et al. 2017; Zhu and Lu 2016). Corresponding to this centralizing institutional reform, the central government rescaled PDNA and BHNA into territories at sub-provincial level, being at the same administrative level as Guangzhou, Dalian, Chengdu, Qingdao, Changchun, Haerbin and Nanjing, major cities that lodge new areas. The Party Committees of PDNA and BHNA hold direct control over urban planning, public budget management and infrastructure development, process in which the city and urban district governments of Shanghai and Tianjin, respectively, have no direct and decisive power. Except for these two new areas, the rest of them form complex ‘nested territorial power relations’ with cities where the central government established them, as Table 2 presents. The first three new areas were established in provincial-level cities (Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing), whereas the rest are in sub-provincial or even prefecture-level cities.
Table 2

New areas as nested territorial power relations.

Sources: Li et al. 2017; Li 2015; DJPNABUC 2017; PDNAPC 2007; GZNAAC 2015; PNAG 2010; QWCAAC 2015; BNALRA 2016; LJNAAC 2011; LZNANN 2013; GANA 2015; NSNAIC 2016; XNADAC 2015; CPMB 2013; ZSNAICO 2011; XJNA 2016; NGPB 2015; NDRCa 2015; NDRCb 2015; NDRCc 2016; NDRCb 2016; Xinhua News Agency 2017

Nested territorial power relations

National-level new area (year established by the State Council)

Sub-provincial new area

PDNA (1992)

BHNA (2009)


Provincial-level city


LJNA (2010)




 District–county–county-level city


 County–county-level city




Sub-provincial-level city


NSNA (2012)

XHANA (2014)

JBNA (2015)

HEBNA (2015)

CCNA (2016)



 District–county–county-level city


 County–county-level city

XXNA (2014)

TFNA (2014)

JPNA (2014)

XJNA (2015)




Prefecture-level city


ZSNA (2011)




 District–county–county-level city

GANA (2014)

DZNA (2015)

FZNA (2015)

GJNA (2016)


 County–county-level city



LZNA (2012)

XANA (2017)


All new areas that extend over urban districts are in provincial- or sub-provincial-level cities, being ZSNA the only exception. The opposite case, as Table 2 shows, are the six areas which territorial configuration is a complex multi-scalar amalgamation of territories, nested in prefecture-level cities. Among them, XGNA and LZNA are the only two new areas that contain exclusively counties. PDNA and BHNA are the most centralized administrative territories. Despite that the territorial configuration of LJNA in Chongqing, HEBNA in Haerbin, NSNA in Guangzhou, CCNA in Changchun, XHANA in Qingdao and ZSNA in Zhoushan is formed entirely by urban districts, the State Council has not yet approved the establishment of their respective Party Committees. Therefore, economic governance in these all-urban districts’ new areas remains fragmented mainly between city and urban districts’ Party Committees. In sharp contrast, new areas that the central government established in prefecture-level cities overlap with three or even four different administrative levels. For instance, the temporary administrative committees of GJNA and DZNA are formed by authorities from prefecture-level cities, counties, urban districts and county-level cities. In the first case, the new area extends mainly over Qingshanhu district and Xinjian county within Nanchang prefecture-level city, and partially over two jurisdictions of Jiujiang prefecture-level city: Gongqingcheng county-level city and Yongxiu county. The central government established the largest part of DZNA in three jurisdictions of Kunming prefecture-level city: Anning county-level city and Xundianhui and Sonming counties. The rest of DZNA extends over counties of Qujing and Yuxi prefecture-level cities and Chuxiong prefecture. The process of economic development unfolds at different time frames and scales in new areas.

For instance, planning and funding of infrastructure development in a highly centralized new area as BHNA and a highly decentralized new area as DZNA are shaped by the divergent nested power relations of both territories as fundamentally different institutional processes. In sum, the State Council of the central government established nine of all the current new areas in urban districts of major cities, whereas the rest are in decentralized territorial relations, predominantly formed by counties and county-level cities within prefecture-level cities.

The provisional administrative committees of LJNA and ZSNA are integrated by urban districts of Chongqing and Zhoushan, respectively. Though both have similar territorial setting, the different administrative levels at which the main cities that lodge them are widens the gap between their future developmental trajectories. Chongqing, as provincial-level city is a territory that the central government integrates in regional and national developmental strategies and policies, channeling preferential financial support to its city government (Martinez and Cartier 2017), whereas Zhoushan, as a provincial-level city of Zhejiang province, is a territory with decentralized power relations. Counties of cities at prefecture level are the only administrative units that constitute the territorial configuration of both LZNA and XANA, according to Table 2. Although decision-making processes in these two new areas are shaped by only two layers of territorial management (county and prefecture levels), their access to financial and other productive resources is limited compared to what other cities at higher administrative levels of the territorial system offer. In other words, a centralized territorial condition of a new area shaped by few layers of power is not necessarily in direct relation to the management of an increasing pool of resources. Even though the urban districts of cities at provincial level are smaller in terms of land area compared to the large rural counties of prefecture-level cities in the interior, their urban economies provide wide revenue streams and financial resources for their respective new areas. On the other hand, counties and county-level cities offer a reduced developmental space of maneuver, characterized by peripheral urban areas with small-scale and fragmented transport infrastructure projects and mixed land use.

Four of the cities that contain new areas are territories entirely structured by districts: Shanghai and Tianjin at provincial level and Guangzhou and Nanjing at sub-provincial level. The exceptional case among the provincial-level cities is Chongqing. Its large land area is still predominantly rural, with an emerging and manufacture-oriented urban core (Martinez and Cartier 2017). During the last years, the central government gradually abolished most of the counties in the urban core areas of Shanghai, Tianjin, Nanjing and Guangzhou before establishing new areas. The State Council approved in January 2017 the abolishment of Chongming, the last large-size county of Shanghai, adjacent to PDNA, establishing it as district. In the case of Tianjin, in 2016 the State Council abolished its last county, Jizhou, a large-size rural hinterland in its border with Hebei province, transforming the provincial-level city into a territory of urban districts. The territorial process to turn Nanjing into a city of districts took place in two main phases: in 2002, the State Council merged two large-size counties (Liuhe and Jiangpu) into two urban districts (Dachang and Pukou), establishing two new large-size districts. Finally, in 2013, 2 years before the establishment of JBNA, the State Council abolished the last large rural county in Nanjing’ southern urban periphery, Lishui, to establish it as district. Two years after NSNA was officially opened in Guangzhou, the State Council reconfigured power relations of the city by abolishing the last two county-level cities, Conghua and Zengcheng, to establish them as districts, and merging Luogang district into Huangpu district. Therefore, PDNA, BHNA, NSNA and JBNA are in cities of urban districts where circulation of financial capital and investments happens at a larger scale and shorter time frame than in economies of counties and county-level cities.

The economies of urban districts in sub-provincial and provincial-level cities are characterized by intensive capital investments that produce large tax revenue streams. The main source of fiscal revenue in new areas is corporate tax (Liu and Xun 2017), being SOEs the main contributors in this category (Gilley 2017), particularly, large SOEs that finance and develop large-scale infrastructural projects in manufacture, transportation and real estate (Zhan 2009). City governments collect tax revenues and employ part of this capital to finance their own infrastructure development SOEs that reproduce state-owned wealth in further waves of investments. In this sense, new areas reproduce urban territories with abundant state-owned wealth that are heavily taxed (Gilley 2017). On the contrary, the new areas established in prefecture-level cities during the last 7 years still register reduced fiscal revenues, maintaining an accentuated dependency on financial transfers and subsidies from the provincial and central governments (Wang and Lu 2016). Administrative committees of new areas in prefecture-level cities invest the bulk of their financial capital in short-term manufacture or infrastructural projects (Xie and Shi 2016). Urban districts, counties and county-level cities register a drastic increase in fixed capital investments immediately after the central government establishes a new area (Li and Gui 2017). In the case of PDNA, from 1990 to 1997, capital investments increased on an average of 50%, with 83% being its highest point (Xie and Shi 2016). By 2016, capital investments in PDNA decreased, registering a ratio of only 0.2 in relation to the new area’s GDP. In sharp contrast, TFNA, the new area located in Chengdu sub-provincial-level city, registered a 0.85 capital investments–GDP ratio (Liu and Xun 2017).

New areas in sub-provincial and prefecture-level cities in the interior register an astonishing economic performance in the first quarters after their establishment (NDRCc 2016), such as the case of GANA, with 45.4% of GDP real growth, and LZNA with 33% in the same rubric (Li and Gui 2017). This reflects the initial and large subsidies and transfers that these recently established new areas receive from the central government (Peng 2016). In sum, new areas in urban districts of major cities have access to large resources to develop integrated and large-scale infrastructural networks that generate high production rates and tax revenues. Contrasting with this, new areas in counties and county-level cities of prefecture-level cities have limited resources and base their accelerated economic growth on subsidies or initially ambitious but unsustainable capital investments. The following section discusses the establishment of urban districts in the context of centralizing power relations of new areas in major cities.

1.2 ‘New areas’ and the Establishment of Urban Districts

Urban districts are the locus of intensive capital investments, the main generators of large revenue streams for cities and providers and managers of large-scale urban public services (White 1989; Mahadevia 2007). Districts are territorial units at the same administrative level as counties and county-level cities; however, their power over land use change, taxation, capital investments, etc., is determined by the city government they are subordinated to (Chung and Lam 2004, 2009). In other words, urban districts have reduced autonomy to design and implement land use change and infrastructure development as part of their urban plan, compared to the large space of maneuver with which governments of counties and county-level cities operate. Consequently, the increasing establishment of urban districts expands the administrative prerogatives of city governments, expanding their control over resources and strengthening its economic capabilities. The territorial relation that urban districts form with city governments constitutes a centralized administrative power over the economy. The more urban districts a city has under its direct control, the more resources it can employ to plan and implement land use change, infrastructural projects and public services provision. In this sense, the central government has increasingly established urban districts in cities to expand and accelerate large-scale urban transformation (Donaldson 2017). On the other hand, counties and county-level cities are territories with more autonomy in their decision-making processes, and economic developmental strategies of which often diverge from the plans of the prefecture-level city governments they are subordinated to. Counties and cities at county-level are territorial economies of small-scale short-term urban infrastructure projects. In sum, centralized power relations through the establishment of urban districts materialize fast-track large-scale urban transformation in cities.

The efficiency of the provisional committee in coordinating the different administrative territorial layers is a crucial operational factor in new areas where urban centers are small and a vastly urban–rural dual-track economy still prevails. For instance, large-scale land use change and population relocation for infrastructure development are current and key policy issues in LZNA, GANA, TFNA, XJNA and GJNA (Li et al. 2017). The central government established these new areas in districts, counties and county-level cities of sub-provincial-level and prefecture-level cities. Their decentralized territorial relations integrate a multi-layer bureaucratic administrative committee which policy planning and implementation regarding land use change, budget management and other economic development-related decisions remain as an inefficient and fragmented process. There are two territorial adjustments through which the central government could accelerate the approval of land use change, capital investments, etc., in highly decentralized new areas: either establishing the new areas’ Party committees or abolishing counties and county-level cities to establish urban districts. As Table 3 presents, the central government has subsequently centralized power relations in eight cities, mostly by abolishing counties and county-level cities and establishing new urban districts. These cities are Anshun, Nanchang, Fuzhou and Changsha prefecture-level cities and Dalian, Xi’an and Chengdu sub-provincial-level cities. Furthermore, PDNA in Shanghai is the only case where the central government has directly expanded the administrative powers of the new area by merging other administrative territory into it.
Table 3

Establishment of new urban districts in ‘new areas’

Sources: Cartier (2015); GPCON (2015); Guizhou Metropolitan Daily (2015); Jiang (2017); Xi’an City People’s Congress (2017); Yang (2017); Zhang (2016)


National-level new area






Nanhui district





Pingba county

Pingba district




Xinjian county

Xinjian district




Pulandian county-level city

Pulandian district




Jianyang county-level city


Chengdu sub-provincial-level city



Changle county-level city

Changle district




Huyi county

Huyi district




Ningxiang county

Ningxiang county-level city


The central government, through the formal approval of the State Council, implemented the first significant territorial adjustment of new areas in the first one it established. In 2009, the central government merged former Shanghai’s Nanhui district into PDNA, strengthening the administrative powers of the PDNA Party Committee (Cartier 2015). This territorial change enlarged PDNA’s land area by adding approximately 809 square kilometers. Six years later, the central government started to evaluate and approve further territorial adjustments in major cities in relation to the establishment of more new areas. According to Table 3, in 2014, the central government centralized power relations in the administrative units where it previously established Guizhou’s new area (GANA). It abolished Pingba county, in Anshun prefecture-level city and established instead Pingba district. Months later, the central government abolished Xinjian county and established it as Xinjian district in Nanchang prefecture-level city, part of GJNA in Jiangxi province. In the same year, Pulandian county-level city, a territory in the urban fringe of Dalian sub-provincial-level city and part of JPNA, in Liaoning province, was established as urban district. In 2014, the central government extended the jurisdiction of Chengdu sub-provincial-level city by granting its city government direct control over the largely rural Jianyang county-level city. Although this territorial reform was not directly in the administrative units that form TFNA, it enlarged the capabilities of its main city, Chengdu. Finally, last year the central government approved three more reforms in major cities that lodge new areas. It abolished Changle county-level city in Fuzhou prefecture-level city, establishing it as urban district within FZNA. The territorial reform in Xi’an sub-provincial-level city, as main city of XXNA, extended its administrative power southwest from its urban core by abolishing the largely rural Huyi county and establishing it as district. The last territorial adjustment the central government approved in cities of new areas was in Changsha prefecture-level city, within XJNA. It abolished Ningxiang county and established it as county-level city under the direct administration of Changsha. The last territorial adjustment the central government approved in new areas was the abolishment of Ningxiang county to establish it as a city at county level in Changsha, part of XJNA. Even though counties and county-level cities are territories at the same administrative level, cities hold larger prerogatives over resource management and allocation, particularly regarding land use conversion (Chung and Lam 2004; Cartier and Hu 2015). As presented in Table 3, the central government approved administrative adjustments mainly in prefecture-level cities in the interior. Currently there are still ten sub-provincial-level cities (Ningbo, Jinan, Changchun, Xi’an, Chengdu, Dalian, Hangzhou, Shenyang, Haerbin and Qingdao) which territories are formed by urban districts, counties and even county-level cities; however, the central government has not yet established new areas in all of their jurisdictions.

The establishment of districts in major cities constitutes a reform to the configuration of the provisional administrative committees of new areas. The centralization of power that strengthened the city governments abolishes administrative layers, rescaling power in decision-making processes of new areas. The reconfiguration of power relations in cities remarks the crucial role of the central government in shaping developmental trajectory of major cities in China. Initiatives and policies of the sectorial ministries of the State Council and policy banks are fundamental determinants of fluctuations in public revenue and expenditure, land use change and other economic processes that shape urban spatial transformation at large in sub-national territories (Wedeman 2000; Shih 2004; Yang 2006). Nevertheless, the adjustments in the territorial configuration of cities are the underlying dynamics through which the central government implements policy and regional planning.

2 Conclusions

This paper analyzed the domestic territorial configuration of China as a dynamic process through which the state reconfigures its capacities and administrative powers in relation to economic goals. Urban transformation in contemporary China through intertwined processes of capital investments and land use change is a conceptual task that requires consideration of the changing and complex territorial administrative system that structures the country’s political geography. After a decentralized approach during the 1980s, characterized by the increasing establishment of counties as county-level cities, the central government adopted a centralizing territorial strategy through which the city governments have been gradually enhancing its administrative capacities. The territorial core of this centralized approach to urban governance is the establishment of urban districts in the national administrative system. Following the same policy line, the central government designed and approved PDNA in Shanghai as the first new area in 1992. The opening of new areas in major cities has increased, particularly during the last decade. This paper conceptualized and discussed new areas as unstable ‘meso-scales’ of nested territorial relations which developmental conditions and trajectories are in direct relation to the administrative changes the central government continues to approve. Despite all being territories under direct supervision of the NDRC with sub-provincial-level powers, new areas are fundamentally different from each other in terms of its administrative configuration.

As discussed in the previous section of this paper, there are eight cases where the central government launched further recentralization of power relations in the context of expanding new areas’ space of development and administrative capabilities. This would suggest that new areas function or work as a preliminary territorial step or platform towards further rounds of land redistricting that centralize city management facilitating the abolishment of counties and county-level cities. The central government might target the highly decentralized territories of prefecture-level cities for further reforms, as well as some cities at sub-provincial level that despite their high rank still have several counties within their jurisdictions. The State Council could approve the establishment of new areas in these cities as preliminary step towards abolishment of counties. If administrative power continues to be rescaled to upper levels of territories, this would suggest that the future configuration of major cities (mainly at sub-provincial and provincial level, as well as some provincial capitals) might be entirely of urban districts, with a new area in a strong and consolidated urban core area oriented to the secondary and tertiary economic sectors (Li and Gui 2017). The operation of more administrative committees of new areas in all-urban district cities would accelerate circulation of funding and infrastructure development.

The discussion around new areas and territorial administrative change in this paper suggests that the central government, through the sectorial ministries of the State Council, is a decisive agent in shaping the time and scale of urban transformation in major cities in contemporary China. Furthermore, the establishment of territories such as urban districts and new areas concentrate decision-making processes by constantly reducing the bureaucratic apparatus. Even though cities are sub-national territories and can be regarded as ‘local governments’, their different positions in the administrative hierarchy is a crucial factor to consider when assessing power relations. The strengthening of capacities of city governments at high administrative levels constitutes a centralization of territorial power relations at the expense of the abolishment of jurisdictions at lower levels. The assessment of territorial change in contemporary China, as research method, allows us to place the institutions of the central government, as well as its regional and national developmental strategies, as decisive agents in shaping accelerated urban transformation.


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Copyright information

© Fudan University and Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2018
corrected publication April 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Xi’an Jiaotong - Liverpool UniversitySuzhouPeople’s Republic of China

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