Beneath the Surface: Speaker Introductions

Beneath the Surface: Speaker Introductions

7 October 2014

Before Northstar hold the Beneath the Surface event, we thought you might like to get some insight into the speakers…


Dr. Kent Deng from the London School of Economics and Political Science kicks off our session on China with a look at how the past has shaped the present.

The success of the Ming-Qing (1368-1911) political and economic system was remarkable in that it not only supported the largest single population in the world but also exported a range of manufactures (porcelain, paper and textiles) and process food (sugar and tea) in exchange for large quantities of silver as the single largest silver importer in the world until 1815.

The road for modern growth and development in China has been very bumpy since 1800 partly due to China’s internal problems with how to adopt modern growth and development.

The first model adopted by the Chinese elite in the second half of the 19th century was called “the Chinese learning as the foundation and the Western learning for utility”, and this formula underpinned the “Westernisation Movement” for various decades. But ultimately the Chinese foundation was also questioned, and Maoism replaced it with an unmistakably Eurocentric narrative of modernity.

The industrial pursuit of the Maoist regime was a complete disaster. The public resistance (often passive) was high. As a result, Mao had to mobilize party and society continuously. Towards the end of his rule, China’s economy was on the brink of total collapse. China’s per capita income was among the lowest in the world.

Deng Xiaoping’s reforms after 1978 have resumed the same spirit of the “Westernisation Movement” over a century ago. The essence of Deng’s reforms was its appreciation of education, private wealth and private property rights and the market economy, something that the Chinese culture approves. In this context, Deng’s reforms are China’s second Westernisation Movement. It is therefore only natural for the pendulum to swing back and stick to it.

The result speaks for itself: within only one generation, China has become the second largest economy in the world and the country has now qualified as a middle-income country in per capita terms.


Dr. Hans Steinmüller from the London School of Economics and Political Science looks at the impact of changing countryside on the Chinese middle class.

A large part of China’s urban population and workforce have relatives in the countryside or have themselves grown up in villages. Only a few years ago China reached the benchmark of more than 50% of urban population and the movement of 150 million internal labour migrants between the countryside and the city is unprecedented in world history.

This talk examines the interplay between urban development and the social condition of the Chinese countryside, providing a background picture to China’s fast urbanization. The focus is on the experience of social change in the countryside, with examples of the transformations of family structures, rituals, and local politics.

Since the 1980s there has been a broad tendency towards nuclear families. Local ritual has been revived in many places, but many of the young are increasingly indifferent to traditional worship. In terms of rural politics, perhaps the most important change is the introduction of subsidies to the rural population over the last decade.

All these changes are intimately linked with various aspects of urban development: traffic and communication networks connect the countryside and the city much more efficiently than in the past; labour migrants return to the countryside and bring new ideas having lived and worked in the cities; and those who settle down in the city often maintain close connections to the countryside.

This session provides a description of the social changes in the countryside which are of crucial importance for the understanding of the new middle class in China’s cities.


Dr Sam Geall is Executive Editor of and is speaking about China’s environmental challenges.

 The Chinese leadership recently made “Ecological Civilization” one of its most prominent slogans. But underlying this buzzword is a complex, unenviable and worsening problem. In this talk, Sam Geall will introduce China’s response to the environmental challenge in theory and in practice.

On the one hand, China has launched an ambitious raft of top-down environmental targets, regulations and policies, not least those launched under China’s 12th Five-Year Plan, for 2011 to 2015. Yet it is a common misunderstanding to assume that China’s political structures facilitate rapid and effective policy implementation.

Drawing on recent examples of environmental controversy in China, this talk will demonstrate how power in the People’s Republic is highly negotiated: policies, laws and regulations are not only weakened through protracted bargaining among bureaucratic elites, but also frequently ignored further down the system.

Environmental policy is thus a complex and changing field in China, and citizen pressure – particularly in the context of an increasingly urban, networked public– presents a new challenge to business-as-usual, for policymakers and for polluters.

Navigating this requires an understanding of public participation in planning and development in China, both in legal theory and political practice. New anxieties, as well as novel forms of grassroots innovation and transparency-oriented activism in China, highlight the need for early and full public buy-in to create more environmentally and politically sustainable development decisions.


Hyun Bang Shin is Associate Professor of Geography and Urban Studies at the LSE Department of Geography and Environment and is looking at how Chinese cities are different from each other.

This talk on China’s urbanisation provides an overview of the main drivers behind China’s urban transformation, its impact on the society and how the impact is unevenly spread across populations and geography.

It begins with a brief historical summary of China’s urbanisation focusing on the post-Liberation period, that is 1949 onward, and highlights the emphasis being made by the current leadership.

As part of discussing what makes the development of Chinese cities distinctive, three issues are highlighted: (i) industrial production and uneven development; (ii) the importance of land as key resources to finance urban construction; (iii) the key role of the local state in pursuing urbanisation.

Based on these discussions, the talk concludes by reflecting on the future of China’s urbanisation and what it means for the economy, society and politics.

Please get in touch with Matthew Sell or Noah Roychowdhury to learn more about the event or click HERE to sign up for the event!


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