URBANization in CHINA’s southwestern borderlands. The case of Jinghong, Xishuangbanna

URBAN CHINA explores urbanization in China’s ethnic-diverse south-western border regions under post-socialism. Existing literature on post-Mao urbanization focuses mainly on traditional large metropolitan or industrial cities in the center with Han majority population. It examines either the structural or the experiential aspects of urban growth. The complex and peculiar dynamics of urbanization in the new cities at the periphery remain understudied.

URBAN CHINA fills this knowledge gap. It investigates how urban spatial re-configuration affects state-ethnic minorities power relations and produces social change on the China-Laos-Myanmar frontier. It takes Jinghong, a fast-growing city with a sizeable ethnic Tai population, as a case study. Using a multi-disciplinary approach, this pioneering project aims at producing a theoretically and empirically innovative analysis that combines a spatial, socio-economic, and political examination with an investigation of the subjective aspects of urbanization, highlighting conflict, negotiation, and strategies in the day-to-day urban interactions between ethnic minority and the state.


Post-socialist urbanization in China

Urbanization is one of the most important economic catalysts of social change and power assertion in contemporary China.
Since the end of the Maoist period some of the largest cities in the eastern provinces have continued to expand and other small and medium cities have grown in the inner and border regions.
The new cities in peripheral areas, many with a sizeable ethnic minority population, disclose different dynamics of urban development and power relations than long established cities in the center.

Aerial view of a new residential/entertainment neighbourhood in Jinghong (2018).

Peripheral urbanization in China’s south-western borderlands. The case of Jinghong

URBAN CHINA studies the spatial, socio-economic, and subjective dynamics of peripheral urbanization in China’s non-metropolitan, non-industrial, and ethnic-diverse border regions under post-socialism. The research takes as a case study Jinghong, an emerging city in southern Yunnan Province, near the border with Myanmar and Laos.

From the XIII to the beginning of the XX century, Jinghong (in Tai ‘Tseng hung’, the ‘city of dawn’) was the government seat of the Sipsongpanna, a semi-independent principality ruled by a Tai-speaking “prince”, and inhabited by a variety of ethnic groups, among which the Tai Lue were politically and demographically dominant. Following the People’s Liberation Army occupation of the region and the ousting of the Tai ruler, Sipsongpanna was annexed to the People’s Republic of China in 1950. Jinghong became the capital of the newly established Xishuang Banna Dai Autonomous Prefecture.

Under communist rule, Jinghong has undergone major socio-economic and structural change. It has been transformed from an impoverished agricultural town into a thriving modern city.
During Mao’s period, urban change was slow and primarily oriented towards the consolidation of communist power. It manifested, inter alia, in the construction of new government and public buildings in a rationalist architectural style.
Jinghong’s urban expansion began to accelerate in the 1990s, following the Opening Up and Reform (kaifang gaige) inaugurated by Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, to intensify between the early 2000s and 2019 under Hu Jintao’s and Xi Jinping’s administrations. Much of post-Mao urban growth is linked to Jinghong’s becoming one of Yunnan’s focal tourism centres and a trade entrepôt of rising politico-economic relevance for China’s reaching out to mainland Southeast Asia.

Downtown Jinghong during Mao’s period (1960s-1970s).
Redevelopment of an inner city ethnic Tai “village” in the 1990s.

Unlike emerging urban areas in China’s core regions where the population is mainly ethnic Han, the Tai/Dai make up circa thirty-five per cent of Jinghong’s total population of about 200,000. However, an increasing number of Han have become the main drivers of the city’s urban and economic growth, competing over land, resources and political power with ethnic minorities.
Whereas under Mao the architectural markers of Tai history were erased, in the post-socialist era these have been commodified to fulfil the developers’ profit ambitions and the “distinction” (Bourdieu 1979) desires of a rising Han middle-class. As the Chinese state continues to pursue the national integration of ethnic minority subjects under the rubric of modernity and economic development, Jinghong's contemporary urban space emerges as a politically contentious arena where to analyse the ways in which long-standing ethnic minority residents strive to carve out a new modern identity as Chinese citizens in the emerging frontier urbanscape.


Research questions

The overall objective of URBAN CHINA is to foreground the complexity and diversity of China’s peripheral urbanization by asking the following questions:

  1. What are the spatial, political and socio-economic peculiarities of urbanization in China’s south-western borderlands under post-socialist rule?
  2. How has recent space re-configuration and urban growth affected the socio-economic fabric of long-established ethnic minority communities in the emerging city of Jinghong? 
  3. How has state-driven land expropriation and real estate boom reshaped power relations between the state and ethnic minority citizens in the borderlands?
  4. How do post-socialist urban planning, normative framework and governance underpinning urbanization relate to discourses of development, ethnicity, nation, civilization, citizenship and social order in the border context? 
  5. How have various frontier urban actors acquired, maintained, or lost rights through the urbanization process?
  6. Which strategies, discourses, and feelings frame frictions, conflict, and compromise between ethnic Tai residents, Han newcomers, developers, and the local government? 
  7. To which extent has border urbanization produced a new form of citizenship for ethnic minority members?
Night view of Jinghong’s state-sponsored spatial reconfiguration (2019).
Tai street food vendors in downtown Jinghong (2018).

Research methodology

URBAN CHINA aims to tackle the above questions by deploying a multi-disciplinary approach that spans methods of Anthropology, Urban Planning, Urban Geography, Urban Studies and Sociology. To delve into processes of spatial transformation through history it will draw on archival research of Chinese, English, and Thai written and visual sources. It will also examine urban plans, design and policy frameworks. To explore the socio-economic and subjective aspect of urban change it will deploy extensive ethnographic fieldwork in Jinghong. Field research will combine participant observation with semi-structured interviews and surveys among a wide range of frontier city actors.


1) Similarly to other urban contexts in China, Jinghong’s urban expansion at the turn of the millennium reflects the economic, social, civilizing and moral aspirations of the post-socialist state. From being labelled as a reactionary and bourgeois process of socio-economic change during Mao’s rural revolution, urbanization (chengzhenhua) is now being reframed as a driver of economic development, modernization, and social improvement. Not only urbanization seeks to “meet the material needs of most citizens” (Liao and Zheng 2003:2), but also to build a civilized (wenming) and harmonious (hexie) frontier society.

2) China’s post-Mao peripheral urbanization is a spatially embedded blending of ‘state soft capitalism’ with socialist authoritarianism. The Chinese government deploys its ultimate right over land property to capitalize on the latter in alliance with private or state owned real estate companies. Long-established Tai ethnic communities in and around the Jinghong urban area have seen their agricultural land requisitioned, not without friction, for the construction of new residential and entertainment compounds.

Jinghong’s modern skyline seen from the Gaozhuang Xishuangjing entertainment neighbourhood (2019).

3) Another distinguishing marker of Jinghong’s urbanization is the strategic deployment of the concepts of “ethnic characteristics” (minzu tese) as a means to legitimate the market-oriented spatial transformation. State urban planners have advocated that the cultural features and particular lifestyles of the thirteen minority ethnic groups or nationalities (shaoshu minzu) that populate the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture be respected and represented in the new urban spatial order (Liao and Zheng 2003:7). However, ethnic inclusivity is only reflected in the architectural décor of the new residential buildings, and little applied to the reshaping of the new city’s social fabric.

4) Urbanization in Jinghong has resulted in enhanced city’s aesthetics, better infrastructures, and improved overall living standards of the majority of long-term Tai residents. However it has also brought about new socio-economic inequalities and fractures. These cleavages have not merely occurred between the Han ethnic majority and the Tai ethnic minority, or between state and local society, but have been transversal, cutting across ethnicity, class, village communities and the political domain. Whereas long-term Tai residents have questioned the legitimacy of the local government’s urban plans, they have nevertheless not challenged the central government’s authority.

5) At first glance, Jinghong’s post-Mao urban growth may seem a linear, top-down course of development featuring a state-directed transformation of the built space in mere opposition to ethnic minority’s place-making. However, URBAN CHINA’s ethnographic fieldwork has revealed that urbanization in Jinghong is sauté (from the Chinese expression ‘chaofang’, literally meaning ‘stir-fry housing’, used by Tai long-term residents to describe urban change): a circular, contested and open-ended process whereby space-building (ville) and place-dwelling (cité) (Sennett 2018) stand in a dialectical relationship with each other. Undeniably, ville-making has prioritised space over place, individual profit over collective wellbeing, aesthetics over meaning, and exclusiveness over inclusiveness. Additionally, it has generated socio-ethnic spatialisation: luxurious residential spaces for an emerging Han middle-upper class separated from Tai lower-middle class neighbourhoods.
However, Tai urban villagers have created their own mode of place-dwelling which in some ways intersects, in some others collides with state-led space-production. They have produced a messy and illegible spatial arrangement of multi-story buildings, transforming themselves from farmers to rentièrs; they have collectively mobilized to transmute rage for land requisition into action for justice and capitalized on land; they have ritualised space-building through reinvented house-warming ceremonies, thus restoring village social solidarity; finally, Tai long-term residents have subscribed to the government’s modernization narrative. In sum, ethnic minority urban citizens are not merely victims, but active participants in the process of border urban transformation.

Making Tai “place” in De village, Jinghong (2018).


  • 6 November 2020. CHINA GOES URBAN. New Insights into China’s Urban Metamorphoses in Post-Socialist Times. Online Conference. Organized within the URBAN CHINA research framework. Hosted by the Department of Asian and North African Studies, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice.
  • 6 November 2020. Presentation entitled “Frontier Urbanization. The Dialectics between Space and Place in China’s South-West” CHINA GOES URBAN. New Insights into China’s Urban Metamorphoses in Post-Socialist Times. Online Conference. Department of Asian and North African Studies, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice.
  • ​​11 May 2020. Seminar entitled “Antropologia e pianificazione. Una riflessione a partire dall’urbanizzazione di frontiera nella Cina sud-occidentale nell’era post-socialista”, Venice Institute of Architecture (IUAV) PhD Talks
  • 19 December 2019. Seminar entitled “Urbanizzazione di frontiera nella Cina Sud-Occidentale nell’era post-socialista” for students at the Liceo Classico “G. Manno” di Alghero (SS), Sardinia, Italy
  • 17 December 2019. Seminar entitled “Urbanizzazione di frontiera nella Cina Sud-Occidentale nell’era post-socialista” for students at the Liceo Scientifico di Pozzomaggiore, associated seat of the school “A. Segni” di Ozieri (SS), Sardinia, Italy
  • 11 December 2019. Talk entitled “La dialettica tra ville e cité in un’emergente città di frontiera nella Cina sud-occidentale” at the Department of Asian and North African Studies “Research Day”, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice
  • 1-4 July 2019. Co-organizer and speaker at the round-table “The Land Where China Meets Southeast Asia: Sipsong Panna in the Wake of China’s Rise”, at the AAS (Asscoation for Asian Studies) in Asia Conference, Bangkok, Thailand
  • 2 June 2019. Documentary film “Tai and the City” shot in Jinghong, screened at the Etnofilm Festival, Monselice (PD)
  • 22-24 May 2019. Presentation “Sauté urbanisation’: the tension between ville and cité in an emerging border city in China’s South-west“ at the Fourth Conference of the Italian Association of Southeast Asian Studies (4th ItaSEAS), Procida (NA), Italy
  • 14-18 November 2018. Presentation “Urbanization at the Margins: Spatial Restructuring, State Legitimacy and Ethnic Resilience in China’s South-west” at the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting, San Jose, CA, USA
  • 28 September 2018. Project poster presentation at the European Researchers’ Night (ERN) organized by the University of Sassari, Sassari, Italy
  • 14-16 September 2018. Presentation “New Frontier Urbanscapes: Ethnic Spatialization and Tourism-Driven Urbanization in China’s South-West” at SPACE International Conference 2018 on Architectural Culture and Society, London, UK
  • 16-17 May and 20 June 2018. Designed and coordinated The Urban Anthropology Seminar Series at the School of Ethnology and Sociology at the Yunnan University. Delivered three seminars to 2nd year Master's students in Ethnology and Sociology:
    1. “Introduction to Urban Anthropology: History and Theories”
    2. “Doing Ethnographic Fieldwork in and of the City”
    3. “Discussion of Students’ Presentations on Research in Urban Setting”