Urban Studies Shanghai
Mi Shih
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0019


This article primarily focuses on Shanghai since the late 1980s, a period in which the city began to undergo rapid urbanization, and the resulting sociopolitical, economic, and spatial consequences and dynamics. Shanghai’s acceleration into a highly urbanized society is manifested in several ways. The city’s urban area increased at least fourfold, to over a thousand square kilometers, between 1989 and 2016 (Chengshi Jianshe Tongji Nianjian (城市建设统计年鉴), Zhongguo Chengshi Tongji Nianjian (中国城市统计年鉴)). In the same period, investment in the city’s basic infrastructure grew 33 times to over 155 billion (renminbi) and construction of buildings increased tenfold to almost seventy-five square kilometers (Shanghai Statistical Yearbook, cited under Statistics and Other Official Sources). Urbanization, however, has also dismantled the city’s older fabric and socialist institutions. Several sources, including those cited in this article, show that more than one million households have been relocated from their original neighborhoods since the early 1990s. Large-scale residential relocation and prevalent privatization have, in turn, given rise to a new phenomenon of great sociopolitical significance—weiquan (维权) or rights protection. Contemporary Shanghai, therefore, is an excellent site for study of the unprecedented transformation (in the sense that everything is being turned on its head [fantianfudi, 翻天覆地]) that urbanization has brought to the Chinese people and cities in the reform era more broadly. Changes to institutions, power structures, societal dynamics, identities, the state-market duality, and cultural and historical meanings are all caught up in the urbanization process through which Shanghai has grown into a global city in the 21st century. To study Shanghai and its urbanization processes, this article aims to highlight two general approaches. First, while the role of the state is central to understanding why policies are designed as such, the actual implementation is always filtered through the agency of nonstate societal actors and their contestation and negotiation. Second, while external forces such as globalization and the free- market economy hold important shaping power, it is crucially important to understand how Shanghai handles these forces on its own terms. In other words, context-sensitive nuances, dynamics, particularities, and complexities help us to better understand Shanghai under urban transformation. The cited works to various degrees reflect these two approaches. Many other topics about Shanghai can be found in other Oxford Bibliographies articles, especially those in history, literature, and modernity.

Urban Transformation

Deng Xiaoping, in his “Talk in the South” (nanfang tanhua, 南方谈话) in the early 1990s, asked Shanghai to embark on a journey consisting of “one landscape in a year, a great change in three years” (yi nian yige yang san nian da bianyang, 一年一个样 三年大变样). The transformation of urban space in Shanghai since then has manifested this state-backed call for urbanization. Scholars have examined the changing urban spaces and the mechanisms through which urban transformation has been actualized in Shanghai. Yeung and Sung 1996 is an early edited volume that provides insights into the institutional reform of central–local relations that enabled key undertakings in urban and economic restructuring in Shanghai. Gamble 2003 provides ethnographic accounts of residents’ lived experiences in the early days of the post-1979 reform era. Gaubatz 1999 and Wu 1999 document the physical restructuring processes in relation to state planning and marketization in the 1990s. He and Wu 2005 is a case study of urban redevelopment of traditional lilong neighborhoods. Demolition is a common theme in the discussion of Shanghai’s urban (re)development. Ren 2011 and Ren 2014 detail the intricate relationship between demolition, preservation, urban redevelopment and Shanghai’s building of its global city status. There has been scholarly effort to frame the particularities of Shanghai’s urban transformation through broader theoretical lenses. Zhu 2002 sees market inefficiency in Shanghai’s urban development process as a result of incomplete property rights in China. In contrast, He and Wu 2009 sees the simultaneous increase in market operation and state intervention, albeit in different areas, as an inherent feature of neoliberal urbanism.

  • Gamble, Jos. Shanghai in Transition: Changing Perspectives and Social Contours of a Chinese Metropolis. London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.

    This ethnography of Shanghai reports residents’ lived experiences in the post-1979 reform era prior to the 2000s, a time when the early impact of transition was strongly felt by ordinary people. It offers rich description and a grounded understanding of changes to quotidian events and taken-for-granted meanings by the reform, such as those in the urban environment, workplace, stock market, and commercial sphere.

  • Gaubatz, Piper. “China’s Urban Transformation: Patterns and Processes of Morphological Change in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.” Urban Studies 36.9 (1999): 1495–1521.

    DOI: 10.1080/0042098992890

    This early piece documents and explores the physical transformation of Shanghai. Shanghai is juxtaposed with Beijing and Guangzhou, all of which have experienced common spatial and structural changes in land use, transportation, and building height under similar processes of urban planning, urban renewal, and privatization.

  • He, Shenjing, and Fulong Wu. “Property-Led Redevelopment in Post-Reform China: A Case Study of Xintiandi Redevelopment Project in Shanghai.” Journal of Urban Affairs 27.1 (2005): 1–23.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.0735-2166.2005.00222.x

    This is a case study of Xintiandi (新天地), Shanghai’s iconic landscape and tourist attraction. The article frames the case as an instance of property-led redevelopment driven by Shanghai’s pro-growth coalition between private developers and urban governments.

  • He, Shenjing, and Fulong Wu. “China’s Emerging Neoliberal Urbanism: Perspectives from Urban Redevelopment.” Antipode 41.2 (2009): 282–304.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467–8330.2009.00673.x

    With special attention to Shanghai and its urban redevelopment, this article argues for the emergence of neoliberal urbanism in China. It highlights the simultaneous increase in market operation and state intervention, conflicts between intensified marketization of land use and social resistance, and tensions between the central and local states.

  • Ren, Xuefei. Building Globalization: Transnational Architecture Production in Urban China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226709826.001.0001

    Constructs a binary that distinguishes production cities (centers that produce and export design ideas) from consumption cities (whose booming real estate markets demand design ideas) in the realm of transnational architecture, and Shanghai ranks at the top in the latter group. Chapter 3 discusses Shanghai’s traditional row houses, shikumen, and how the two forces chai (拆 or demolition) and bao (保 or preservation) have reshaped them.

  • Ren, Xuefei. “The Political Economy of Urban Ruins: Redeveloping Shanghai.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38.3 (2014): 1081–1091.

    DOI: 10.1111/1468-2427.12119

    Building on images of urban ruins captured in Greg Girard’s photo album Phantom Shanghai, this article examines the central role of demolition in Shanghai’s transformation into a global city. It discusses the multiple and entangled functions of urban ruins in Shanghai, such as the economic (i.e., demolition economy), the political (i.e., redefining the relationships between residents, the state, and capital) and the cultural (i.e., historical preservation).

  • Wu, Weiping. “City Profile: Shanghai.” Cities 16.3 (1999): 207–219.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0264-2751(98)00047-X

    This piece documents and describes major urban physical restructuring processes in infrastructure building, inner-city redevelopment, and the development of Pudong New Area in the 1990s in Shanghai.

  • Yeung, Y. M., and Yun-Wing Sung. Shanghai: Transformation and Modernization under China’s Open Policy. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1996.

    This edited volume offers insights into early reform undertakings that have had transformative effects on Shanghai. Particularly useful are chapters 3 to 6 that lay out the key institutional context of central–local relations with regard to Shanghai’s officially designated role as an economic growth center, the city’s fiscal autonomy, and the political representation of local interests. Chapters 11 to 14 describe major infrastructure investments and urban spatial restructuring projects.

  • Zhu, Jieming. “Urban Development under Ambiguous Property Rights: A Case of China’s Transition Economy.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 26.1 (2002): 41–57.

    DOI: 10.1111/1468-2427.00362

    Sees Shanghai’s intensifying urban development and rent-seeking activities as a manifestation of distorted market mechanisms. The root cause is China’s ambiguous property rights system. The article contends that clearly delineated property rights are a precondition for achieving efficiency of land use and that they are still absent in China. This article shows the influence of the Coase Theorem on many studies of land and property rights in China.

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