Real Estate Week

Nanjing: The City as Real Estate

By Kelly Liu


How have the location, size, and shape of architecture in Nanjing been determined by local and central state regulations? How have they been determined by the real estate market? How were the two related? What is the logic of chaiqian (demolition-relocation)?


The sources reviewed in this report understand urban space as a site of contention, as a productive medium, and as a terrain for capital accumulation and state-building. Building on the Lefebvre’s insistence that space actively structures everyday life and practices, these authors argue that contemporary urban development in Nanjing, and China more broadly, is driven by the logic of capital intertwined with the rationalities of government, which effaces place attachments, displaces urban residents, and uproots rural villagers. The commodification and revalorization of Nanjing’s urban space have served to build local state capacity, enrich local and foreign investors, and provide a playground for international starchitects at the expense of residents’ right to the city.

Sociologist David Bray’s history of the danwei (work unit) analyzes sociospatial practices in the Maoist era, providing essential context to the commodification of space in the reform era. Danwei refers to a state-owned or collectively-owned workplace that provided its members with panoply of “political, judicial, civil, and social” services (Bray 2005, 3-4).[1] Bray cites the poet He Xinghan, who wrote that “[the danwei] is also in charge of ideological remolding, political study, policing and security matters, marriages and divorce, entry into the Party, awarding merit and carrying out disciplinary action” (Bray 2005, 4). It was thus the basic unit of urban life and spatial organization, and the source of social and political identities. (Bray 2005, 3-4). Bray is primarily interested in the danwei as a spatial formation and its associated practices for organizing socialist subjects. The danwei was a standardized urban unit that was replicated across the country following strict design and construction regulations set by the central government, which directly funded most danwei (Bray 2005, 132). Chinese architects drew inspiration from traditional walled family compounds and from Soviet designs for urban housing, which emphasized standardization and the importance of the built environment in producing “appropriate modes of proletarian social interaction”(Bray 2005, 125, 132-4). Architects designed the danwei to be a walled, self-contained community organized around a central axis (see Fig.1). The main administrative building, which contained the offices of the party branch committee, served as the “architectural focal,” and arranged behind it, along the central axis, were factories, offices, classrooms, and other workspaces. The layout of the danwei compound symbolized the “centrality of labor” and the Party in the socialist state (Bray 2005, 150). Buildings were constructed according a basic design and left unornamented (Bray 2005,133). Residential compounds were composed by groups of housing blocks arranged to facilitate a “collective-oriented lifestyle.” Groups of three to five families shared toilets and kitchens and groups of two to three buildings shared laundry and recreation facilities (Bray 2005, 151). The proliferation of danwei meant that Maoist cities were more like a “collection of self-contained” units than an “integrated urban network” (Bray 2005, 124). Bray’s work is limited in that he treats the danwei as an archetype rather than as spatial formations rooted in a particular local context. However, his discussion describes the general pattern and shape of Maoist urban development.

Beginning in the late 1970s, market reforms have eroded the primacy of the danwei in urban spatial organization. As geographer You-tien Hsing notes in The Great Urban Transformation, due to the establishment of the land leasehold market, the abolition of danwei welfare housing, the restructuring of state-owned enterprises (SOEs), and fiscal decentralization, urban construction has become the main means for capital accumulation and the main site of intra-state and state-society conflict. Hsing argues that urbanization has become the “main aspiration, the tacit and explicit mandate, and the key strategy behind local state building,” driving municipal governments to redevelop inner cities, build up the urban fringe, and encroach into the countryside (Hsing 2010, 5-6). In second-tier cities like Nanjing, where property markets are largely local, urbanization is driven by the “economy of demolition and relocation” (chaiqian), which refers to the systematic demolition of old housing to generate demand for new housing (Hsing 2010, 108). Between 2001 and 2003, the municipal government lowered mortgage rates from 2 to 0.75 percent and demolished over 80,000 homes. In addition, compensation payments, at the rate of 1000 to 5000 yuan per square metre, came with the condition that recipients use them to purchase new homes. Hsing estimates that 37 percent of those payments “went directly” into new housing developments on the urban fringe, where the municipal government has been building “new city” projects since 2001 (Hsing 2010, 109). Urbanization thus hollows out the working-class inner city and transfers its residents to an ever-expanding urban fringe.

Nanjing’s largest and most spectacular “new city” development is the Hexi New Town, a new urban centre that will cover 56 square kilometers of sparsely populated farmland west of the old city (Hsing 2010, 106). In her dissertation on the politics of urban planning in Nanjing, geographer Lili Wang draws on interviews with local officials, urban planners, and developers to argue that the municipal government has driven development in Hexi through its extensive investments in transportation infrastructure and by manipulating zoning laws. Wang and Hsing both note that spectacle has been an essential strategy for promoting redevelopment and revalorization. In 2001, local officials used Nanjing’s winning bid to host the 2005 Tenth National Athletic Games to launch the Hexi New Town and obtain financial support from the central government to improve infrastructure. After investing in roads, bridges, and a new subway line, the local government was able to sell land-use rights to developers at premium prices (Hsing 107; Wang 2016, 168). Property prices in Hexi New City doubled between 2002 and 2004, which also boosted average prices in the old city (Hsing 2010, 112). In the process, 129,000 households were displaced between 2001 and 2004 (Wang 2016, 255).When the market slowed down after the National Athletics Games in 2005, local leaders reassured developers that “the government will not leave them alone” by changing zoning laws and permitting higher density construction. This tided developers over until 2010, when Nanjing won the bid to host the Youth Olympic Games, which spurred public and private investment again (Wang 2016, 261) Thus, local leaders collaborate with capital to continuously generate new demand for urban construction. Today, Hexi boasts the highest property prices in the city as well as a Youth Olympic Center designed by Zaha Hadid (Wang 2016, 223; see Figure 2 for Hadid’s design).

Indeed, Nanjing features an astonishing array of “starchitecture,” from Steven Holl’s Sifang Art Museum and Stefano Boeria’s Vertical Forest in the Pukou district development to Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill’s Hexi Central Business District design (see Figure 3). These spectacular projects are commissioned by state and private enterprises to brand Nanjing as a dynamic site of urban capitalist modernity for domestic and international investors. As I browsed through profiles of the city’s new architectural marvels, I was struck by how each project highlighted its cutting-edge environmental technologies and its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. In “‘Green’ as Spectacle in China,” sociologist Xuefei Ren argues that environmentalism has become a strategy for local states to “revalorize localities, distinguish themselves and attract capital and talent.” Drawing on Debord’s theorization of spectacle as “capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image,” Ren argues that “top-down” environmental initiatives such as the building of eco-cities, public parks, and the pursuit of international environmental plaudits are completely alienated from actual use value. (Ren 2012, 21-2). In addition to displacing existing residents, new buildings contradict “indigenous green practices” such as bicycling, “air-drying laundry on balconies,” and community gardening. In conformance with international standards, new housing projects typically have car garages instead of bike storage. Likewise, balconies are left out of streamlined exteriors and gardens are designed for purely aesthetic enjoyment (Ren 2012, 27). While Ren does not specifically address Nanjing, her analysis is relevant for understanding its proliferation of high-profile green megaprojects, including a new Singapore Nanjing Eco Hi-tech Island.[2]

The logic of chaiqian (demolition and relocation) has generated resistance from elites and local residents. In “The Right to Envision the City?” Chen Hao, Lili Wang, and Paul Waley identify historic conservation and community conservation movements as two forms of resistance against demolition-driven redevelopment. “Historic conservation” is primarily concerned with the preservation of the built environment while “community conservation” calls for the preservation of existing communities alongside investment in public goods (Chen, Wang, and Waley 2019, 5-6). However, the authors argue that the redevelopment of Laochengnan (the old south city, just south of the CBD) shows that elite-led historic conservation movements have gained legitimacy, but community conservation is consistently ignored (Chen, Wang, and Waley 2019, 25-6). In 2006, the municipal government announced plans to develop the city’s last traditional Ming-Qing era inner-city neighbourhoods into high-end residences, office spaces, and imperial-themed tourist attractions (Chen, Wang, and Waley 2019, 14). However, redevelopment was halted when sixteen famous scholars went over the heads of local leaders by sending a petition to the central government arguing that Laochengnan was the “cultural root” of Nanjing and thus an important site for cultural nationalism. The scholars proposed a “gradualist rehabilitation approach” to repairing and restoring historic architecture (Chen, Wang, and Waley 2019, 14). Premier Wen Jiabao personally ordered the provincial government to end demolition and redevelopment (Chen, Wang, and Waley 2019, 19).

In 2009, local officials tried to resume redevelopment but were once again stopped when twenty-nine scholars petitioned the central government. The local government agreed to conserve and rehabilitate Laochengnan. However, the government used the excuse of preserving historic buildings to go ahead with relocating the remaining 1,100 households. Local residents resisted, citing not just property rights but the idea of community conservation. They petitioned the central government, insisting that “old buildings are not Laochengnan; the inhabitants here are” (Chen, Wang, and Waley 2019, 24). Their petitions went unanswered and they received no support from scholars and cultural elites, who were far more concerned with protecting the historic buildings than their inhabitants (Chen, Wang, and Waley 2019, 8).

The works reviewed in this report critique top-down redevelopment and the logic of chaiqian. Ultimately, each author implicitly or explicitly calls for residents’ rights to the city, echoing the work of Lefebvre. Lefebvre notes that all urban space is commodified to serve the logic of consumer capitalism and is thus alienated from its residents. Relevant to Nanjing is his contention that the city “is no longer lived and is no longer understood practically. It is only an object of cultural consumption for tourists, for aestheticism, avid for spectacles and the picturesque” (Lefebvre 1996, 148). He demands that the city’s inhabitants, particularly the working class, have the right to shape the city, the right to demand an urban life that satisfies their needs for work, socializing, and play (Lefebvre 1996, 147). However, these rights are very far from being realized in Nanjing, where development is driven by capital accumulation and local state-building. Urban life has yet to begin in Nanjing.


Bray, David. 2005. Social Space and Governance in Urban China: The Danwei System from Origins to Reform. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Chen, Hao, Lili Wang, and Paul Waley. 2019. “The Right to Envision the City? The Emerging Vision Conflicts in Redeveloping Historic Nanjing, China.” Urban Affairs Review. No issue number because published online.

Hsing, You-tien. 2010. The Great Urban Transformation Politics of Land and Property in China. Oxford: University Press.

Lefebvre, Henri. 1996. “The Right to the City.” In Writings on Cities, translated by Elizabeth Lebas, 146–59. Oxford, England ; Blackwell.

Ren, Xuefei. 2012. “‘Green’ as Spectacle in China.” Journal of International Affairs 65 (2): 19–30.

Wang, Lili. 2016. “Becoming Urban in the Chinese Way: The Politics of Planning and Urban Change in Nanjing, China.” PhD diss., Ohio State University.

[1] Danwei is a broad term that can refer to the one’s place of work or to the workplace compound and its various services.

[2] Located on Jiangxin Island, this project is part of the Hexi New Town development. It is a joint venture between the Jiangsu government and the Singapore Ministry of Trade and Industry. It is slated to be completed in this year.

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