The Landlord State

The Chinese state has sought to impose itself as a "landlord state," claiming monopoly ownership over urban land. The state's efforts to profit from its nominal monopoly have motivated a broad state building project. The state has sought to reorganize the state itself, expropriate peri-urban villagers, and impose monopoly prices on real estate developers. As my book project shows, the state was much more successful at rebuilding itself and refashioning its relations with business interests than at imposing its will on villagers; indeed, the state has made policy concessions to villagers that undermine its ambitions as a monopolist. I argue that these ambitions and concessions have been driven by changes in national politics.

The Chinese state has met only mixed success in its ambitious landlord state project. The state has proven adept at using institutional reforms and hierarchical discipline to overcome the resistance of pre-existing state institutions, concentrating control of state land assets in municipal and county governments. Despite persistent corruption, real estate developers have largely been compelled to accept the state's monopoly pricing and its urban planning restrictions. Peri-urban villagers, however, have resisted state efforts to expropriate land, extracting rising compensation over time. This divergence between state-business and state-villager relations is part of a broader pattern in which the state has largely been able to hold businesses in line by leveraging their profit motive, but has made gradual but substantive policy concessions when citizens are incensed. In addition to granting villagers higher compensation for their land, the Chinese state has resorted to two of its more common tactics for managing angry citizens: interposing intermediaries between itself and those from whom it seeks to extract resources, as well as packaging policy concessions as part of ambitious new state schemes.

By examining the Chinese state's landlord ambitions across the Reform Era, I highlight how state-society relations have changed over time in response to nationwide critical junctures. Diverging from the existing literature, I argue for the centrality of temporal variation over subnational variation in our understanding of Chinese politics. Although subnational variation in China is substantial, the landlord state model was actively promoted by the center and imposed on localities. Key shifts in the state's internal organization and its relations with real estate developers and villagers have been driven by national bureaucratic turf battles, transitions in elite politics, and international financial crises. The intense local politics of urban development has followed the broad patterns traced out by these national trends.

If you are more interested in the evidence than the conclusions, you can access the dissertation version here. Comments and suggestions are of course welcome!