Andrew M. Marton, China’s Spatial Economic Development. Restless Landscapes in the Lower Yangzi Delta

This book by Andrew M. Marton, a geographer at Nottingham
University’s Institute of Chinese Studies, provides a high quality contribution
to understanding the mechanisms of the spatial transformation of the Chinese countryside
in general following the death of Mao Zedong, with particular focus on the Yangtse
delta area. He combines two complementary approaches—one theoretical, the
other empirical.

The first and last chapters thus form a well documented inventory
of the theoretical debates on the geography of development, as well as the justification
for employing certain recent concepts. Focusing on the Lower Yangtse region, and
more particularly on the city of Kunshan, Marton sets out to apply the new concept
of “mega-urbanisation” (or “mega-urban regions”, T. McGee,
I. M. Robinson, 1995), that was initially conceived to cater for the peri-metropolitan
areas of Southeast Asia. According to the originators of this concept, mega-urbanisation
denotes a new type of urban area that includes a vast ring of outer suburbs (known
as an “extended metropolitan area” or desakota, N. Ginsburg,
1991) which are characterised by high density development and an intermingling
of rural housing and industrial premises. So as to broaden our knowledge of this
type of area, the author takes up the idea of “transactional environment”
that was put forward by Preston (1975) and later expanded by Rondinelli (1983)
and Unwin (1989). The “transactions” embody all the interactions and
inter-relationships that link urban and rural environments—the flows of raw
materials and energy, of manufactured goods, of services, of people, of information
and of capital. The particularly dense nature of these flows in the countryside
of the Lower Yangtse region leads the author to declare that the distinction between
urban and rural no longer applies to that region. Marton systematically summarises
this theoretical approach along with its application to the workings of the distinctive
land of the Kunshan region in the form of a final organisation chart (Fig. 7-1,
p. 188).

The empirical approach, supported by hitherto unpublished
written sources as well as numerous interviews, questionnaires and surveys carried
out in the field, forms the core of the book. Following a general introduction
(mainly statistical) to the Lower Yangtse region, Marton devotes nearly one hundred
pages to the study of the changes that have taken place in the city of Kunshan
(pp. 86-180). Disappointed by macro-economic studies on China’s transition,
the author reveals the full complexity of local development mechanisms. Without
neglecting the role of exogenous factors, he steadfastly inscribes his words in
the framework of endogenous development theories. His analysis of this area, situated
between Shanghai (55 km) and Suzhou (36 km), highlights the specific roles of
the various parties involved in development (local government, businesses, urban
markets, investors and workers). It is viewed on two complementary scales in turn—beginning
with Kunshan city as a whole, and followed by more localised case studies (Dianshanhu
town, Tongxin village, special development zones).

The viewpoints opened up by Marton’s book call for further
research. The subtitle, based on the dynamic landscape of the Lower Yangtse, may
be misleading. The reader will find neither cartographic study nor qualitative
description of the changes in land usage on the scale of the Lower Yangtse delta
or even that of Kunshan. Only a cartographic approach on a very detailed scale,
difficult to undertake admittedly in China’s current situation, could enable
the idea of the disappearance of the distinction between rural and urban to be
truly shown, and to make headway in the analysis of this truly unique phenomenon
of desakota. Further studies should try to elaborate upon the typology
of these rural areas so as to bring out the spatial differentiation at a detailed
level. There is also cause to wonder about how representative Kunshan, which in
just 15 years has become a real mushroom city thanks to the vast number of Taiwanese
companies that have established themselves there, really is, as from now on, it
is a matter of a “Kunshan-style model”. This external supply of capital
brings into context the idea of a prevailing endogeny in the process of local
development. Beyond the specific case of the Lower Yangtse, the new concept of
mega-urbanisation forms a stimulating conceptual tool, but it also raises questions.
The neologism of mega-urbanisation that is put forward does not command total
support. Besides, while it is true that the Chinese landscape contains various
forms of industrialisation in rural locations, the actual rate of urbanisation
remains very low. It seems to be more a matter of “peri-metropolitan areas”,
in the specific context of overpopulated, over-industrialised regions and people
with insufficient means of transport. The internal spatial zoning of such a region
should be explained by analysing the specific links between the exogenous and
endogenous forms of development for each Chinese megalopolis.

These comments do not in any way call into question the overall
value of this book, which hinges on its rigorous methodology, its conceptual emphasis
and its familiarity with the subject matter. It demonstrates, if need be, the
relevance and the requirement for a geographic rather than a purely economic approach
to matters of development in China. The transition process from a planned economy
to a market economy affects all macro-economic aggregates and social indicators,
but here it applies to a continent-like country that is exceptionally diverse.
The transition is therefore not only economic, but also spatial, on several levels.

Translated from the French original by Bernie
Mahapatra

Back to top