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Contentious Space and Politics of Scale: Planning for Inter-City Railways in China's Mega-City Regions

XU Jiang

This project is funded by the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong. The aim of this project is to examine the nature and spatial impacts of the politics of scale in planning intercity railways in China's mega-city regions. In particular, the research aims to develop an insight into the planning processes and participants' strategies for negotiations, notably (1) how they position themselves in such practice; (2) their ways of developing and bargaining for their own interests; and (3) how the negotiated results impact on their cities in terms of urban structure and accessibility.

Geographers have defined mega-city regions as conurbations of contiguous cities or metropolitan areas, which are administratively separate but intensively interlinked, and clustered around one or more larger cities. Examples include the Pearl River Delta (PRD) and the Yangtze River Delta (YRD). Very often, such regions are developing at a phenomenal rate and each houses more than 50 million people in a proportionately small land area. Relatively unstudied, they often experience problems because of their rapid but fragmented growth and comparative lack of experience in managing infrastructure, and development that straddles administrative boundaries. As a means of mapping the growth characteristics of Chinese regions, geographers have noted, over the past decade, that these regions are coming to represent a new spatial scale for capital accumulation, state regulation, and political compromise. Such observation signals a critical swing away from pre-reform state socialism and a significant alternation to post-reform neoliberal urbanism. Regions are believed to represent emerging state spaces, which are shaped by the existence of overlapping competencies among contending actors at multiple scales of governance. The 'politics of scale' thesis has thus been helpful in drawing attention to this complex political ballet.

However, the growing importance of regional space is punctuated by several inadequacies and missing links in academic inquiry and political discourse. Among these are: (1) a tendency to apply a hegemonic interpretation of city-regionalism, at the expense of knowledge of place-specific practice; (2) a lack of detailed case studies revealing the key political processes and relationships that reflect historical contingencies and path-dependencies under transition; and (3) a reluctance to conduct empirical investigation to reveal the outcomes of the politics of scale in geographical terms. It is these considerations that prompt us to set out the scope of this research.

In this work, we will go some way towards addressing the shortage of geographical research by including an awareness of the politics of scale. To this end, we use the PRD Intercity Railway Network as a case study to explore the ways in which planning decisions for this mega-regional project are initiated, planned, negotiated and implemented in the context of a diffuse regional power structure and an inadequate institutional environment. We also intend to reveal the geographical impacts these might bring. Based on a pilot study, we propose to examine four aspects which will reveal the manifold features of the politics of scale in planning intercity railways. They are inter-ministry conflicts, inter-scalar tensions, inter-city politics, and state-market relations. The study will first examine how these four aspects are inherently involved in key planning decisions, especially in terms of the number of stations, their location, the route design and alignment for selected railway lines. It will then assess how the final, negotiated choices – as outcomes of the politics of scale – affect spatial structure and accessibility of cities. The research findings will have a significant impact on policymaking in terms of helping to decide what should be done to better overcome administrative fragmentation in infrastructure provision. It will further refine our theoretical interpretation of state-space theory in studies of geographical areas under transition.

Fig. 1 The Pearl River Delta Intercity Railway Network


Fig. 2 Sample stations for one railway line (to be operated)