The Geography of Contemporary China: A Political Ecology of Reform, Global Integration, and Rise to Superpower


Despite widespread daily reporting on China’s rise to superpower status—and both its challenge to and necessary partnership with the United States—what do we really know about the country? In this seminar, we will explore China’s evolving place in the world through political-economic integration and globalization processes. We will consistently focus our efforts on reframing debates, both academic and in mass media, to enable new insights and analyses. We will begin with an overview of contemporary China, discussing the unique aspects of China’s modern history and the changes and continuities from one era to the next. We will explore Revolutionary China and the subsequent socialist period to ground the seminar’s focus: post-1978 reform and transformation to the present day. Rooted in the questions of agrarian change and rural development, we will also study seismic shifts in urban and industrial form and China’s emergence as a global superpower on its way to becoming the world’s largest economy. We will analyze the complex intertwining of the environmental, political-economic, and sociocultural aspects of these processes as we interpret the geography of contemporary China. Using a variety of theoretical perspectives, we will analyze a series of debates: Is there a fundamental conflict between the environment and rapid development? What is the role of the peasantry in the modern world? What is the impact of different forms of state power and practice? How does globalization shape China’s regional transformation? And, on the other hand, how does China’s integration impact development in every other country and region of the world? Modern China provides immense opportunities for exploring key theoretical and substantive questions of our time. A product first and foremost of its own complex history, other nation states and international actors and institutions such as the World Bank, transnational corporations, and civil society have also heavily influenced China. The “China model” of rapid growth is widely debated in terms of its efficacy as a development pathway, yet it defies simple understandings and labels. Termed everything from neoliberalism to market socialism to authoritarian Keynesian capitalism, China is a model full of paradoxes and contradictions. Not least of these is its impact on global climate change. Other challenges include changing gender relations, rapid urbanization, and massive internal migration. In China today, contentious debates continue on land reform, the pros and cons of global market integration, the role of popular culture and the arts in society, how to define ethical behavior, the roots of China’s social movements—from Tian’anmen to current widespread social unrest and discontent amongst workers, peasants, students, and intellectuals—and the meaning and potential resolution of minority conflicts in China’s hinterlands. Land and resource grabs in China and abroad are central to China’s rapid growth and role as an industrial platform for the world. But resulting social inequality and environmental degradation challenge the legitimacy of China’s leadership like never before. As China borders many of the most volatile places in the contemporary world and increasingly projects its power to the far corners of the planet, we will conclude our seminar with a discussion of security issues, geopolitics, and potential scenarios for China’s future. Throughout the seminar, there will be comparisons with other areas of the world within the context of the broader theoretical and thematic questions mentioned above. We will consistently focus our efforts on reframing debates, both academic and in mass media, to enable new insights and analyses. Weekly selected readings, films, mass media, and books will be used to inform debate and discussion. A structured conference project will integrate closely with one of the diverse topics of the seminar. Some experience in the social sciences is desired but not required.