05 Apr 2019

Critically engaging the 'China Model' of Development: Infrastructures, BRI, and Techno-politics

Double panel organized for the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers.

Galen Murton


This double panel examines contemporary Chinese development interventions in both interior and exterior contexts across a range of scales, registers, and regions. Session 1: China Made, brings attention to Chinese ‘infrastructuralism’ into a theoretical and methodological conversation with the burgeoning interdisciplinary field of infrastructure studies. Session 2: BRI and Questions of Development, places discussion about Chinese development more squarely in the context of the BRI. Together, the two panels focus on and broaden research agendas related to the implications of Chinese infrastructure development both at home and abroad in the 21st century.

1. China Made: Conceiving Infrastructure in a Chinese Register

Over the past decade, China has invested tremendously in infrastructure development, resulting in dramatic social and cultural changes in both rural and urban regions. It has also promoted an infrastructural development model beyond its borders as part of an increasingly outward-looking foreign policy. Yet while China remains in many ways the world’s paradigmatic infrastructure state, there has been curiously little scholarship bringing Chinese ‘infrastructuralism’ into a theoretical and methodological conversation with the burgeoning interdisciplinary field of infrastructure studies. This panel draws from empirically focused research on Chinese infrastructure developments within China to explore the broader implications of China’s infrastructure push for infrastructure studies. In doing so, it seeks to shift the ‘China model’ discussion away from geopolitical and international relations perspectives, most recently dominated by near obsession with the BRI, and instead emphasizes a finer-grained analysis of expert systems, technical planning, historical antecedents, and the on-the-ground social, cultural, and techno-political dimensions of infrastructure construction, use, misuse, disrepair, maintenance, and ruination.


  • Tim Oakes, University of Colorado Boulder
  • Max Hirsch, University of Hong Kong
  • Dorothy Tang, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Andrew Grant, University of Colorado Boulder
  • James Sidaway, National University of Singapore

2. China, the BRI, and Questions of Development

China continues to intensify and broaden its economic role in the world through the suite of projects that fall under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In addition to debates around a so-called new ‘Chinese model' of development, Beijing’s external geoeconomic interventions are providing varieties of development loans and assistance, a range of large-scale infrastructural programs, and the formation of new institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). These interventions are creating new geographies that force us to reconsider the intersections of networks and territory, the transformation of places, and multi-scalar linkages between states, citizens, and many of the institutions that mediate relationships in between. This apparent China model of development increasingly reflects and articulates new geographical representations, such as South-South cooperation, and widespread discursive appropriation of the BRI is being mobilized from South Asia to South America in order to support and gain investment from Beijing’s tremendous financial and infrastructural capacity. Across global landscapes, we are witnessing the transformation of trans-continental and trans-oceanic connections, dramatic changes in the role and character of places, the transformation of nature, the creation of new political and economic subjects, and much more. However, rather than the fulfillment of what proponents of the BRI espouse as a unique model of ‘win-win’ development, this session pays critical geopolitical and ethnographic attention to exterior dimensions and specificities of China’s infrastructural interventions across a range of scales


  • Thomas Ptak, University of Idaho
  • Xiaobo Su, University of Oregon
  • Hasan Karrar, Lahore University of Management Sciences
  • Shaun Lin and James Sidaway, National University of Singapore
  • Colin Flint and Madeleine Waddoups, Utah State University


Galen Murton, LMU Munich and James Madison University

Highland Asia Research Group
LMU, Social and Cultural Anthropology, Oettingenstr. 67
80538 Munich, Germany
martin.saxer@lmu.de | +49 89 2180 9639

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