Former Studies

Urban Poverty and Property Rights Changes in China

ESRC project
Principal Investigators: Professors Fulong Wu and Chris Webster
Research Fellow: Dr. Shenjing He


Rural poverty in China is on the decrease but the number of urban poor is rising. Since the late 1990s, urban poverty has becoming a growing problem (Khan and Riskin 2001, Hussain 2003, Wang 2004). Chinese cities are swamped by rural migrants with low-skills and living in marginal conditions and these have formed a substantial informal sector (Zhang 2001). Adding to the problem is large-scale industrial restructuring and enterprise reforms, which have led to millions of laid-off workers swelling the ranks of the urban poor (Solinger 2002). This project is to investigate the alarming rise of urban poverty in China; in particular, examining patterns of urban poverty and the institutional causes. We also look for evidence of institutional innovations that have emerged as individuals and organisations seek to negotiate more secure access to vital civic goods and services. The work is innovative in a number of respects:

  • We explore poverty through the lens of property rights. Using the generalised concept of property rights introduced by Alchian and Demsetz (1973), developed by Barzel (1998) and applied to the economics of cities and urban management by Webster and Lai (2003) we will show how the ‘urbanisation of poverty’ is driven by space constraints, the associated scarcity of public goods and the consequent reallocation of rights by government and market processes.
  • Practically, it will be the first time that a neighbourhood-based poverty study will be conducted in the context of a transitional economy using a methodology that reveals the nature of household poverty, the aggravating nature of neighbourhood poverty, a systematic analysis of rights deprivation and an analysis of the institutional causes.

Research purpose, objectives and questions

There is a lack of systematic research on the formal urban institutions that mediate the relationship between poverty and rapid urbanization. By formal institutions, we mean the systems of government and market rules and sanctions that allocate rights over land, housing and other scarce urban resources necessary for life and livelihood. Our project is for an explicitly dynamic analysis of the urban growth-poverty paradox from the perspectives of property rights and institutional evolution. The study is located in China and justified by the scale of urban impoverishment in that country but its methodology is applicable to other countries in which marginalisation results from institutional change during a period of rapid urbanisation.

Central to our enquiry is the proposition that state-led land development projects in rural areas, on the urban fringe and in cities (the redevelopment of land formerly controlled by state enterprises) are displacing vast numbers of low income households. This has the effect of stripping rural migrants and displaced urban workers not only of the security of former land tenancy arrangements but also of the vital services bundled into those arrangements. Such people are becoming not only landless but stateless within the state. From this follow the following research objectives:

  • To examine the mechanisms of poverty generation present in China’s contemporary urbanization processes;
  • To assess China’s current urbanization policies and urban social policies and identify the institutional gaps that result in an undersupply of essential civic goods and services;
  • To do this by systematically relating the current welfare of a sample of urban poor to changes in property rights (over land and land-related civic goods and services and other vital resources) that have arisen through formal institutional change;
  • In particular, we will investigate the impact of the removal of rights through the processes of (a) rural-urban land conversion (b) re-location between territories and (c) intra city dislocation from former state enterprises.
  • To examine the emerging spatial partitioning of the urban poor and relate this to the spatial partitioning of rights;
  • To assess to what extent Chinese cities are evolving into divided cities with greater spatial segregation;
  • To identify coping strategies of rights-deprived peoples;
  • To identify and review the scope for policy innovation to address emerging patterns of rights deprivation.

Specific research questions include:

  • What different kinds of poverty neighbourhoods are emerging and what are their distinctive characteristics in terms of (a) demographic composition (permanent households, migrants from other regions, local farmers etc.); and (b) property rights arrangements (land and housing tenure and consequent access to public facilities – i.e. the pattern of ownership and control of, and access to, facilities, and the mechanisms of access such as payment or administrative entitlement).
  • How are rights defined, allocated and upheld? (Formally or informally defined, allocated by price or rule, upheld by state, informal or individual force)?
  • How are the downward or upward trajectories of individual poverty households related to their changing property rights?
  • How have formal urban policies changed those rights, especially with reference to land requisition and urban expansion and redevelopment?
  • How do these policies affect the poverty neighbourhoods as a whole?
  • What are the emerging strategies used by individuals and neighbourhoods to negotiate or fight for the restitution of old rights, the retention of threatened rights and acquisition of new rights?
  • What are the spatial configurations of different property rights arrangement?
  • What scope for change is there within the existing institutions governing urbanisation processes to reduce the degree of marginalisation?

Research design and methodology

A case study approach is taken given the complexity of the issue and the size of the Chinese urban population. We conduct case studies of 6 cities and 4 neighbourhoods in each. These cities are distributed in the costal, central and western region respectively, including Guangzhou, Nanjing, Harbin, Wuhan, Kumin, and Xi’an. Guangzhou represents a type of higher-level of marketization and openness in the coastal region. Nanjing represents a provincial capital with a strong industrial base. Haer’bin is an industrial city with severe de-industrialization consequences. Wuhan represents the city in the central region with heavy industries. Kumin is in the underdeveloped western region and lacks industrialization. Xi’an is an industrial city in the western region.

The major research tasks include the following:

  1. Identification of poverty neighbourhoods.
  2. Identification of poverty groups and retrospective property right changes.
  3. A series of policy analyses.
  4. Static and dynamic analysis of property rights impact.
  5. Spatial concentration analysis.


Specific key outcomes of the research will include:

  • a classification of poverty neighbourhoods in terms of their relation to property rights delineation (who retains what rights). This will help to assess potential for reorganising (‘granting’ or ‘clarifying’) property rights at the neighbourhood level;
  • a causal relation between resource scarcity, institutional change, property rights changes and the upward or downward trajectory of individual poverty households’ life courses. This will help us assess the role of emergent informal and formal, state and market institutions in poverty alleviation.


Alchian, A.A. and Demsetz, H. 1973 The property rights paradigm.  Journal of Economic History 3(1): 16-27.

Barzel, Y. 1997 Economic Analysis of Property Rights Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 

Hussain, A. (2003) ‘Urban Poverty in China: Measurement and Patterns Policies’, In Focus Programme on Socio-Economic Security, ILO, and Geneva.

Jargowsky, P., A. (1997) Poverty and Place: Ghettos, Barrios, and the American City. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Khan A. and C. Riskin (2001) Inequality and Poverty in China in the Age of Globalisation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Leaf, M. (2002) A tale of two villages: globalization and peri-urban changes in China and Vietnam.Cities 19(1) 23-31.

Solinger, D. J. (2002) Labour market reform and the plight of the laid-off proletariat. The China Quarterly 158: 304-326.

Wang, Y. P. (2004) Urban Poverty, Housing and Social Change in China. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Webster, C. and Lai L.W.C (2003) Property Rights, Planning and Markets: Managing Spontaneous Cities. Cheltenham, UK/Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

Zhang, L. (2001) Strangers in the City: Reconfiguration of Space, Power, and Social Networks within China’s Floating Population. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Research progress

a) Fieldwork in six Chinese cities have been conducted, in total 1800 questionnaires are collected.

b) A co-authored book on China’s urban poverty, proposal accepted by Edward Elgar.

c) Two internationally refereed journal articles are published; other three articles are under review for publication in international journals

d) One start-up workshop has been held in March 2007, in Guangzhou, China. Policy makers and academics were invited to discuss the issues addressed by our research.

e) Another workshop entitled “Comparative urban marginalisation and poverty” is to be held in Cardiff from 12th-13th June 2008. This workshop is to disseminate our findings to academics and British and European international development agencies.

Publications and dissemination


Wu, Fulong, and Ningying Huang. 2007. New Urban Poverty in China: Economic Restructuring and Transformation of Welfare Provision. Asia Pacific Viewpoint 48 (2):168-185.

Wu, Fulong. 2007. The Poverty of Transition: From Industrial District to Poor Neighbourhood in the City of Nanjing, China. Urban Studies 44 (13):2673-2694.

Liu, Yuting, He, Shenjing and Wu, Fulong. 2008. “Urban pauperization under China's social exclusion: A case study of Nanjing”. Journal of Urban Affairs 30(1), pp21-36.

He, Shenjing, Liu, Yuting, Wu, Fulong and Webster, Chris. 2008. “Poverty incidence and concentration in different social groups in urban China, a case of Nanjing”. Cities (in press).

He, Shenjing, Liu, Yuting, Webster, Chris & Wu, Fulong “Property rights redistribution, entitlement failure, and the impoverishment of landless peasants” (under review)

He, Shenjing, Webster, Chris, Wu, Fulong & Liu, Yuting “Profiling the poor in a Chinese city: a case study of Nanjing” (under review)

Conference presentations:

He, Shenjing, "Property rights redistribution and the impoverishment of landless peasants”, paper presented at International Symposium on Planning, Law and Property Rights II, 13th -15th February 2008, Warsaw, Poland

He, Shenjing, “Poverty concentration and determinants in China’s poor urban neighbourhoods and social groups”, paper presented at “Perspectives on Development V: A University of Wales Colloquium ‘Global and Local Agendas’” 23rd – 25th January, 2008, Gregynog Hall, Newtown, Powys, Wales, UK

He, Shenjing, “Poverty concentration and determinants in China’s poor urban neighbourhoods and social groups”, paper presented at International Conference on China’s Urban Land and Housing in the 21st Century, 13th-15th December 2007, Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong.

He, Shenjing. "Property rights redistribution and the impoverishment of landless peasants, A tale of two villages", paper presented at International Conference on China's Urban Transition and City Planning, 28th-30th June 2007, Cardiff, UK.


Fieldwork was conducted in six Chinese cities: Guangzhou, Nanjing, Harbin, Wuhan, Kumin, and Xi’an from Dec. 2006 to May 2007.

Photos taken from the fieldwork:

  1. an urban village in Wuhan
  2. inner city neighbourhood in Xi’an
  3. workers’ village in Kunming


New urban poverty and changing low-income communities under market transition: a case study of the Chinese city.

British Academy Larger Research Grants, Fulong Wu (PI), (2004-2006). (LRG-37484).


  • The British Academy under the British Higher Education Links scheme, titled 'the new urban poverty, its distribution and alleviation measures in China's transition towards a market-oriented economy'.
  • The British Academy Larger Grant Scheme (LRG-37484), titled 'new urban poverty and changing low-income communities under market transition'.


The project concentrates on the phenomenon of the emerging lower income groups including the rural immigrants engaged in informal sectors in urban areas and laid-off workers in industrial restructuring, their distribution and impacts on urban spatial structure in terms of social spatial polarisation, and the measures that will be considered in the formulation of urban redevelopment plan so as to improve the conditions of poverty residential areas.


Chinese new urban poverty has been created under market transition and is mainly composed of laid-off workers, unemployed persons, poor rural migrants, poor workers and retirees.

The new urban poverty can be understood in its broadest sense as the product of 'transition', namely of the political-economic environment and consequently of state social policy. It demonstrates the nature of the incompatibility between the old institutions of welfare delivery and the new political-economic environment.

The state as the manipulator of institutions and policies does matter in the creation of new urban poverty, and that the cleavages between the old and new institutions further intensify it.

The spatial distribution of the urban poor is presented as concentration in three types of poverty neighbourhoods: inner-city dilapidated residence, degraded workers' villages and rural migrants' enclaves.

While urban redevelopment and urban expansion under housing marketization have increased the socio-spatial differentiation of contemporary Chinese cities, the emergence of concentrated poverty is rooted in the pattern of state-led urban development and the socialist housing provision system.

Poverty concentration has not resulted in serious social problems, except for poverty per se. The smaller spatial scale and the shorter formation time of these poverty neighbourhoods are probably the reasons for this.


Wu, F.L., 2004, Urban poverty and marginalization under market transition: the case of Chinese cities. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 28(2): 401-23.

Liu, Y.T. and Wu, F.L., 2006. The State, Institutional Transition and the Creation of New Urban Poverty in China. Social Policy and Administration, 40(2): 121-137.

Liu, Y.T. and Wu, F.L., 2006. Urban Poverty Neighbourhoods: Poverty Concentration and Typology under China's Market Transition, a Case Study of Nanjing. Geoforum, 37(4): 610-626.


Other Projects

  • Urban poverty neighbourhoods and life chances of the new urban poor in comparative perspective, Project funded by the Foundation of Urban and Regional Studies, Yuting Liu (PI), (2005-2006).
  • Polycentric Urban Structure in Chinese Cities. National Science Foundation, China. Feng Jian (PI, Beijing University), Fulong Wu (CoI), 2006-2008.
  • The use of GIS and urban dynamic modelling in the simulation of density and pattern of land use. RGS-IBG/EPSRC Geographical Research Grants, Fulong Wu (PI), (2004-2005).
  • Urban Spatial Structure Changes under the institutional reform: a case study of the Yangtze River Delta. National Science Foundation, China. Zhang Jingxiang (PI, Nanjing University), Fulong Wu (CoI), 2005-2008.
  • Gaining from globalisation? Singapore's extra-territorial grip on multinational enterprise, The British Academy (SG-39277). Nick A Phelps (PI), Fulong Wu (CoI).
  • The new urban poverty, its distribution and alleviation measures in China's transition towards a market oriented economy. Project funded by the DFID / British Council Higher Education Link, Fulong Wu (PI), (2002-2005). (SHA/992/313).
  • Socio-spatial segregation and neighbourhood change in urban China. Project funded by the British Academy, Fulong Wu (PI), (2002-2003). (SG-33836).
  • Spatial restructuring, urban planning and politics. Projected funded by the Urban China Research Network (UCRN) / Andrew Mellon foundation (USA) (2001-2004). John Logan (PI), Fulong Wu (working group coordinator).
  • Urban Development and Spatial Structure under Non-public Economic Sector, National Science Foundation, China. Zhou Chunshan (PI, Zhongshan University), Fulong Wu (CoI), 2002-2004.
  • Globalisation and local governance: the transformation of city planning in China. Fellow project funded by the Leverhulme Trust, Fulong Wu (PI), (2001-2002). (RF&G/10374).
  • Chinese local governance and city planning in transition. Project funded by the British Council, China Studies Grant, Fulong Wu (PI), (2001-2002).
  • Globalisation, urban development strategies, and the development finance of Chinese cities. Project funded by the British Academy, Fulong Wu (PI), (2000-2001).
  • Urban redevelopment in the transition towards a more market-oriented economy and its social spatial implications. Project funded by the Nuffield Foundation, Fulong Wu (PI), (2000-2001).
  • Fertility and rural development in China. ODA Pilot research project. Neil Harvey Thomas and Neil Price, 1993