Urban Governance and Citizen Rights in China and India | Wilson Center
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Urban Governance and Citizen Rights in China and India

Today, according to Xuefei Ren, 129 cities in China and 45 in India have populations of over a million people. Such large-scale urbanization has created major governance challenges. At a May 23 Asia Program event, cosponsored with the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States and the Comparative Urban Studies Project, Ren, a Wilson Center Fellow, examined two case studies of urbanization-driven governance in China and India, and their effect on citizen rights.


Her first case study involved housing demolitions and urban redevelopment in Shanghai and Mumbai. In Shanghai, nearly a million households were relocated between 1995 and 2008 to make way for hotels, airports, and luxury apartments. City regulations in 1991 and 2001 legalized forced demolitions, and no prior consent from residents was needed.


However, Ren noted that displaced residents “are not quite powerless.” She highlighted the case of a woman who sued the city government after being relocated, and was eventually granted the compensation she had requested. In 2003, China’s central government ordered a freeze on large-scale demolitions. Several years later, it passed a “landmark” property rights law.


Meanwhile, in Mumbai, local officials in the early 2000s had their own redevelopment plans. The Indian city is rife with overcrowded, low-income housing; slums are populated by 7 million citizens (40 percent of the city’s total population), and comprise up to 10 percent of Mumbai’s total land area. In 2004, aware that most of the slums were located in desirable areas—near airports or in central business districts—city planners recognized a major development opportunity. Over the next two years, officials launched a demolition campaign that left 400,000 people homeless. According to Ren, certain categories of residents were theoretically entitled to compensation, but with “legal protections carrying little weight,” most of them received nothing.


Yet as in Shanghai, city dwellers successfully fought back. Housing activists staged a series of acts of “direct agitation,” including street protests and road blockages. Such tactics, said Ren, were “disruptive but effective.” After the Mumbai courts sided against the activists in 2006, India’s Supreme Court issued a ruling in their favor.


Ren’s second case study involving governance in the two countries was land acquisition. In 2011, residents in Wukan, a village in the province of Guangdong, launched a protest movement against land seizures; they alleged that government officials had sold their land to developers and failed to provide residents with appropriate compensation. The protestors made two demands: the return of their land, and the holding of local elections. Notably, Ren said, protestors affirmed their support for the Communist Party, and never framed their movement as an anti-government effort. In March 2012, local elections were in fact held, with two leaders of Wukan’s protest movement voted into office (one as village chief, the other as his deputy).


Ren also discussed an attempt by India’s Tata Motors corporation to acquire land in Singur, a village about 100 miles from Calcutta in the state of West Bengal. The company wanted to use this land to construct a factory for the Nano, a small, cheap car marketed to India’s urban middle class. In 2005, the West Bengal government, which had been controlled by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) for nearly 30 years, actively wooed the firm. State authorities “went overboard” in offering Tata Motors subsidies and highly fertile land. Small landowners were obliged to surrender their plots at low prices, and in 2006 the corporation formally took over the land (nearly 1,000 acres altogether), despite heavy opposition from peasants.


After several months of violence protests, Tata Motors was forced to pull out of West Bengal. Then, in a state election in May 2011, the Trinomool Congress Party, led by the populist leader Mamata Banerjee, swept the CPI-M from power. Banerjee had run her campaign on a promise to restore the land to Singur’s farmers. Just weeks after the new government assumed power, West Bengal passed a law that would allow for about 400 acres from the Tata Motors project to be returned to farmers who had refused government compensation for their land.


Ren acknowledged that in both countries, citizenship rights are not enjoyed by all, and tend to be unevenly distributed across social groups. Still, she concluded, Chinese and Indian cities “have become strategic sites for reassembling citizen rights.” By asserting their land and housing rights, city denizens “are becoming active citizens.”


  • Xuefei Ren

    Assistant Professor of Sociology and Global Urban Studies, Michigan State University and Faculty Associate, Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan