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SMITH, Nick R. 2021. The End of the Village: Planning the Urbanization of Rural China. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Elena Meyer-Clement
p. 87-88

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1New apartment blocks all over China’s countryside bear witness to the rapid, and in many ways extreme, transformation processes that China’s villages have experienced over the last decades. Nick R. Smith delves into one of these processes in his in-depth study of the demise of a village close to the municipality of Chongqing. Rich in both empirical data and reviews of secondary literature, his book provides a meticulous account of how a place can lose some of the core socio-spatial features that make it a village. During the period of Smith’s field visits between 2011 and 2015, a series of events transformed the village of Hailong first into a “model site” for village modernisation and then into an urbanised outpost of municipal development. His multilayered account of these events adds vital insights into the processes and effects of China’s state-led urbanisation.

2The investigation of Hailong’s transformation is laid out in six chapters that focus on three groups of actors, namely municipal officials and planners, village cadres, and residents. The multiplicity of perspectives is impressive and mostly enriching. However, the attempt to separate analytically the positions and visions of these groups of actors (Chapters One to Three) from their role in the transformation processes (Chapters Four to Six) comes at some expense to overall comprehensibility. Chapter One provides an excellent overview of planning in China, including the ambiguous position of planners caught between science and politics, and the political exploitation of the idea of scientific rationality by policymakers. Based on the case of Chongqing, the chapter traces how the rural was integrated into the rationale of hitherto urban planning. Later on, in Chapter Four, it becomes clear how this phase of changing conceptions and power relations opened up a battleground for different actors, including village planners and different bureaus in the municipal administration, to compete over the authority to plan the village’s future and extract its resources. Backed by important patronage, even up to the then-Party secretary of Chongqing, Bo Xilai 薄熙來, different plans contested the urban-rural boundary within the village’s territory.

3Chapters Two and Five focus on the village leaders. Smith assigns a prominent role in the village’s transformation to the charismatic Party secretary. Once a migrant entrepreneur, he persuaded villagers to decollectivise land resources and founded several shareholding companies to finance his own visions of village development. This village-led urbanisation started by promoting industrialisation, but soon focused on real estate strategies, thereby presenting a kind of microcosm of China’s urbanisation. Interestingly, the village’s Party organisation was reinvigorated by regaining control over collective land and capital assets. Chapter Five goes into detail about the changing land market regulations in the early 2000s, which gradually legitimised the ongoing commodification of rural construction land and strongly contributed to village leaders’ motivation to flesh out their own strategies of development. However, the chapter also shows that these strategies are based on a perceived ideal of urbanity, and on urban perspectives on ideal rural environments, respectively. The village becomes “Hailong City” on billboards, and a feasibility study imagines a commodified version of rural utopia. Accordingly, the end of the story, as Smith tells it, already shines through here. What started as an attempt to save the village from municipal expropriation in the course of urban expansion ultimately leads to the village’s demise.

4This fate is mapped out most clearly in Chapters Three and Six, which juxtapose a village community system based on mutual support against the loss of this world after village reconstruction. The inclusion of residents’ perspectives is important for understanding the effects and obstacles of planning and strategies, and Smith provides a suspenseful glimpse into the complexities of rural life at the urban fringe. The adoption of another, mostly anthropological, approach in these chapters inevitably makes one wonder why the behaviour of “normal” villagers is treated differently to that of the officials and planners in the other chapters. Having said that, the investigation of villagers’ life choices and survival strategies still convincingly shows that urbanisation plans from above threatened more than just economic resources: they took away the freedom and flexibility associated with control over land use. As demolition and reconstruction continued, villagers’ opinions in Hailong shifted towards opposition and nostalgia for the past. The focus on ghost talks in Chapter Six is a fascinating account of villagers’ ways of dealing with their powerlessness and resignation towards losing their social world.

5Are we currently witnessing the end of China’s villages, as the book’s title suggests? Without a doubt, Smith’s study provides important insights into how the urbanisation of a village in peri-urban China can play out on the ground. The book is highly recommended to anyone interested in the processes, competing ideas, and strategies that accompany the expansion of China’s cities into the rural hinterland. Historically speaking, the period of Smith’s investigation is, of course, a specific one. It was a phase of political experimentation with state-led urbanisation, when the testing of alternative pathways, such as the ones in Hailong, was possible. In some ways, the story of Hailong is thus a story of the past, and the demise of Hailong in the book may well represent the end of opportunities for village-led urbanisation. However, it remains crucial to study such cases even for researchers of China’s current urbanisation, as many of these local experiences have found their way into subsequent policy initiatives. Despite the current centralisation of urbanisation and urban-rural planning, the diversity of urban categories and processes has not completely vanished and continues to inform urban and rural change.

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Bibliographical reference

Elena Meyer-Clement, SMITH, Nick R. 2021. The End of the Village: Planning the Urbanization of Rural China. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.China Perspectives, 133 | -1, 87-88.

Electronic reference

Elena Meyer-Clement, SMITH, Nick R. 2021. The End of the Village: Planning the Urbanization of Rural China. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.China Perspectives [Online], 133 | 2023, Online since 01 June 2023, connection on 30 September 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Elena Meyer-Clement

Elena Meyer-Clement is Associate Professor of China studies at the University of Copenhagen. University of Copenhagen, Department of Cross-cultural and Regional Studies, Karen Blixens Plads 8, building 10, 2300 Copenhagen S, Denmark (

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