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Provincial Power in a Centralizing China: The Politics of Domestic and International “Development Space”

In a Xi Jinping era of rising central power and policy activism, what role is left for Chinese provinces? This article argues that, notwithstanding centralizing tendencies, China’s recent economic development trajectory cannot be understood without taking into account the distinctive policy roles and priorities of provincial governments. Successive waves of governance restructuring have in many ways strengthened rather than weakened provincial authorities, reinforcing their role as central-local gatekeepers within China’s political economy. In particular, we draw attention to the ways that provinces create and shape “development space” (fazhan kongjian 发展空间) for different industries and localities and alter the contours of China’s international economic engagement. We explore how provinces use their position as brokers of development space to concentrate investment in privileged areas of the economy while neglecting other aspects of development, deviating from central priorities in the process. Using case studies about industrial policy, rural development, and foreign economic relations, we show how—even in an era of centralism—provinces’ developmental drive remains untamed.