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Structural Change, Land Use and the State in China: Making Sense of Three Divergent Processes


This article uses the case of Chinese economic growth to interrogate the implications of changes in land-use patterns within the context of structural transformation. It argues that although land-use change is an important underlying dimension of the structural transformation accompanying economic growth the dominant theoretical literature on structural change is not cognizant of this fact. It does so by looking at arable land conversion in coastal provinces, the ‘Grain for Green’ program and ‘wasteland’ reclamation. It also argues for an integrated analysis that recognizes that land has a type of scarcity that arises from its location and not just its total availability at the national level. This article shows that the transition of land in China between its uses defies the dominant linear and unidirectional narrative. The processes discussed show that land moves in different directions and purposes as determined by state vision of progress and development.


En s’appuyant sur le cas de la croissance économique chinoise, cet article s’interroge sur les implications des évolutions dans les modes d’usage de l’espace, dans un contexte de transformation structurelle. Il soutient que le changement d’affectation des sols est un aspect important, et sous-jacent à la transformation structurelle accompagnant la croissance économique, mais que pourtant la littérature théorique dominante sur les questions de transformation structurelle ne prend pas ce fait en considération. A cet effet, l’article examine la conversion des terres arables dans les provinces côtières, le programme ‘Grain for Green’ et la réhabilitation des terres dégradées. Il plaide également en faveur d’une analyse intégrée prenant compte du fait que la rareté d’une terre est fonction de son emplacement et non pas seulement de sa disponibilité totale sur l’ensemble du territoire national. Cette étude montre qu’en Chine, la transition entre les différents usages de l’espace remet en question la théorie, dominante, linéaire et unidirectionnelle. Les processus examines montrent que l’évolution des terres prend des directions variées et se fait à des fins différentes en fonction de la vision du progrès et du développement adoptée par l’Etat.

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We would like to thank Max Spoor, Haroon Akram-Lodhi and Shi Xiaoping and the two anonymous referees for their very useful comments and suggestions. Part of this research was conducted as part of the ‘Changing Livelihood Strategies in Rural Xinjiang: Cotton Production, Environment and Poverty Reduction’ project carried out by teams from the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) and Xinjiang Agricultural University. We gratefully acknowledge the financial contributions of the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology (Project Nr. 07CDP028) to this project.

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Correspondence to Murat Arsel.

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Arsel, M., Dasgupta, A. Structural Change, Land Use and the State in China: Making Sense of Three Divergent Processes. Eur J Dev Res 25, 92–111 (2013).

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  • China
  • land
  • state
  • structural change
  • economic growth