The Territorial City

Under the new party-state leadership of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, the Chinese government has embarked on an ambitious project of urbanisation that has attracted global interest (see also Mi Shih, ‘Making Rural China Urban’). This contribution by Carolyn Cartier – a professor of geography and urban studies at the University of Technology, Sydney and an Adjunct Director of the Australian Centre on China in the World (the host of this site) – sheds light on the administrative-territorial logic behind the Chinese approach to urbanisation. The essay features highlights from a forthcoming article. ‘What’s Territorial About China? From geopolitics to the “administrative area economy” ’, to appear in the journal Eurasian Geography and Economics. Professor Cartier co-authored the chapter ‘Symbolic Cities and the “Cake Debate” ‘ with Luigi Tomba for the 2012 China Story Yearbook and has written ‘Constructing the Civilised City: from ideology to urban governance’ for the 2013 China Story Yearbook (forthcoming).—The Editors


The concept of territory refers to land over which the state holds sovereignty and extends governing power. It typically denotes national boundaries and geopolitical relations. In China, the government pursues its economic agenda by changing the internal territory, the space inside the national boundary (guonei 国内 or jingnei 境内). Economic growth in China often depends on territorial mergers between cities and the dynamics of this process have effectively redrawn the domestic political map.

Beneath the spectacular face of the new Chinese city, there are complex territorial issues.

The practices of Western cartography have accustomed us to think of territory as being delineated by fixed boundary lines on national maps. In China, by contrast, sub-national territories are mutable; also, they are not constitutionally guaranteed. The state retains broad powers over territory and territorial change: it can redraw the boundaries of any sub-national territory and can grant, reclassify or remove the territorial status of any area. The central government has the sole right to decide on changes to what is called the system of ‘administrative divisions’ 行政区划 and, when it has made a decision, the Ministry of Civil Affairs announces the change unilaterally without advance notice or public consultation.[1]

In China, every city corresponds to a level in the administrative hierarchy. Where many countries define cities by population size, China defines cities in the first instance by their rank in the system of administrative divisions: provincial-level city or zhixia shi 直辖市; prefectural-level city or diji shi 地级市; and county-level city or xianji shi 县级市. The international literature regularly omits or confuses these distinctions. For instance, zhixia shi (of which there are four: Beijing, Chongqing, Shanghai and Tianjin) is often mistranslated as ‘municipalities’. This English translation does not convey the meaning of zhixia as a city ‘under the direct control or jurisdiction of’ the central government’. In the Chinese administrative system, cities are primarily places to be governed.

Indeed, because Chinese cities are defined according to an administrative hierarchy that prioritises the role of the state in relation to territory, it is not surprising to learn that Hong Kong – mostly described outside China as a world or global city – is not a city. The formal name of Hong Kong – Special Administrative Region or tebie xingzhengqu 特别行政区 – means a regional territory in the administrative system with different governing conditions. Hong Kong region exists at the same level as a province or a provincial-level city. Special territories have measures of autonomy yet are subject to the rules of the national administrative-territorial system. Hence Hong Kong is not a zhixia shi because provincial-level cities are governed directly by the central government. Similarly, unlike free-wheeling global cities developing mega-events, the Beijing Olympics and Shanghai Expo represent national government decisions and priorities.

One of the most remarkable changes in China since the 1980s is the establishment of hundreds of new cities. From just under 100 in the late 1970s, the number of officially designated cities has increased to over 650. The largest new city established since the start of the reform period is Chongqing in central-western China. In 1997, the central government separated the historical city of Chongqing and surrounding areas from Sichuan province. From the perspective of land area fundamentals, Chongqing is actually a large agricultural and semi-rural region with an urban core. At 82,401 sq km, Chongqing, a provincial-level city (or zhixia shi), is over twice the size of the island province of Hainan (34,000 sq km), and over twice the size of the island of Taiwan (35,581 sq km). Unlike the three other provincial-level cities, Beijing (16,801 sq km), Shanghai (6,340 sq km), and Tianjin (11,760 sq km), Chongqing is an unprecedentedly large-scale administrative-territorial project. It is not a city in any conventional sense. Rather, it is an economic region with the  governing rationale of organising and promoting new development for central and western areas of China.

The establishment of hundreds of new cities has had its most significant impact at the level of the county or xian 县. The county has endured as a territorial governing unit in China since it was first established in the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE): scholars have portrayed the county as the most stable government institution in the history of the Chinese state.[2] Yet since the 1980s, the county has been at the geographical centre of sweeping urban change. A large number of counties have been transformed into county-level cities, to facilitate real estate development (this is because only urban land can be legally leased for development) while many others have been merged into or ‘reterritorialised’ as districts of existing cities. In 1979 there were 2009 counties. By 2012, the number had been reduced to 1464.

Suzhou map showing main regions of the city

Suzhou map showing main regions of the city

‘Urban sprawl’ describes the effects of urban expansion in countries with land markets. Urban expansion in China takes place only when the government extends the area of an existing city by redrawing its boundary or by adding or merging counties, county-level cities or other territories. In 2012, for example, the central government increased the land area of Suzhou by over 60 percent: it changed the status of Wujiang from a county-level city to a district of Suzhou. Wujiang is a famous ancient county: it was the former haunt of Lower Yangtze Valley/Jiangnan scholar-officials and the ‘capital of silk’ in historic Suzhou prefecture. It became a county-level city in 1992. Suzhou now has six districts and also governs four county-level cities. Such complex city formation in contemporary China is resulting in unprecedented ‘urban mosaics’ of recombined and re-ranked historical territories.

Territorial adjustment policies vary historically, are highly contingent and rarely apply uniformly to all regions of the country. Many targeted territorial adjustments are one-off strategic development policies. In addition to the establishment of Chongqing, in 1984 the central government separated the island of Hainan from Guangdong province as a rapid development strategy. With its new island province status, Hainan was able to seek its own investment opportunities free from Guangzhou’s supervision and competing interests. The central government also promulgated an unusual policy for Suzhou in 1994 when it allowed Singapore’s offshore development agency governing control over the development of a seventy-two sq km land area east of the historic core of Suzhou.

The variability of the administrative-territorial system highlights the importance to the Chinese bureaucracy of the ‘administrative area economy’ 行政区经济. This Chinese concept in urban and regional analysis is based on the complex empirical realities of guonei territorial change. The geographer Liu Junde 刘君德, now professor emeritus at East China Normal University, developed the concept to express the relationship between the administration of territory and economic development.[3] The concept addresses five things simultaneously: the land area, population size and distribution, the governing centre of the territory or administrative capital, the level of the territory in the administrative hierarchy and questions about the boundary. ‘Administrative area economy’ also works as an applied concept that assesses how political and economic targets can be reached through territorial changes to administrative divisions.

An aerial photograph of Sansha, showing it's prominent landing strip. Image source: 4th Media

An aerial photograph of Sansha, showing its prominent landing strip. Source: 4th Media

A new example of the administrative area economy in practice is the establishment of the prefectural-level city Sansha ‘in’ Hainan province. Sansha is less a city than an outpost, located on what China calls Yongxing Island, the largest island among the Paracel Islands, named by China as the Xisha Islands. The area is some 300 sq km southeast of Hainan Island. At the ceremony marking the establishment of Sansha, the Hainan province governor presided over the hoisting of the national flag to the accompaniment of the national anthem. The national Vice-minister of Civil Affairs formally announced the establishment of the city. The Hainan Party Secretary confirmed that ‘the provincial government will devote itself to turning the city into an important base to safeguard China’s sovereignty and serve marine resource development’.[4] The establishment of a military garrison for Sansha was also announced and the three political bodies of any Chinese city – the city government, the Chinese Communist Party committee and the People’s Congress – held their inaugural meetings and approved the government’s agenda.

These governing practices demonstrate both the consistency and variability of the territorialisation process. It begins through internal planning and closed-door negotiations. The Ministry of Civil Affairs makes and announces final decisions. As in the case of Sansha, decisions are promulgated without advance notice. The Sansha case was also a form of state ritual, with the announcement of the governing purpose and economic goals of the territorial change made in the presence of the city’s governing elite and Party members. The attendance of the Vice-minister of Civil Affairs affirmed that the establishment of the city was a central government decision. The presence of the provincial Party chief and all relevant city personnel provides confirmation of their commitment to the stated administrative rationale and objectives of the move.

Behind the public face of the territorialisation process there are complex negotiations between state officials and economic elites who contend over power and resources to attain political and economic goals. Descriptions of actual territorialising strategies and practices rarely appear in the international media or academic literature. Rather, much of this literature typically examines economic development goals in relation to ‘planning’ 规划. The focus on planning, in turn, carries normative assumptions about urban and regional planning in liberal market economies or, in the case of Sansha, strategic territorial expansion. But the system of Chinese administrative divisions and its territorial dynamics cannot be equated with planning in other places. The ‘administrative area economy’ provides a window on the complexity of the political economic process that is urbanisation – and territorial governance – in China.



[1] The Ministry of Civil Affairs maintains a website documenting changes to the administrative divisions, see:

[2] John Fitzgerald, ‘The Province in History’, in J. Fitzgerald, ed., Rethinking China’s Provinces, London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

[3] Liu Junde 刘君德, ed.,中国行政区划的理论与实践 (China’s Administrative Divisions: Theory and Practice) 华东师范大学出版社 (Shanghai: East China Normal University Press), 1996; and, Liu Junde, ‘中国转型期‘行政区经济’现象透视兼论中国特色人文-经济地理学的发展’ (Perspectives on the ‘Administrative Area Economy’ in a China in Transition – and the development of human-economic geography with Chinese characteristics), Economic Geography 经济地理, 26:6: 897-901.

[4] ‘China establishes Sansha City’, Xinhua, 24 July 2012.

Image sources:
Sansha photograph: 4th Media 四月网