Spatial Control and State Power in Disaster-Stricken Cities: China’s 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake
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CitationGao, Huan. 2019. Spatial Control and State Power in Disaster-Stricken Cities: China’s 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractMy dissertation examines how spatial order, defined as the physical environment and institutions that govern the use and production of physical space, shapes state-society relations. I hypothesize that an open spatial order characterized by accessible public spaces facilitates collective action, while a cellular spatial order characterized by closed communities and restricted-use spaces facilitates surveillance and control by a single authority. Maintaining a cellular spatial order by creating restrictive boundaries and strategically siting social activities is an important method of social control for authoritarian rule. To test this proposition, I examine patterns of citizen activism and the development of non-government organizations (NGOs) in the changed spatial landscapes that result from major natural disasters.
The dissertation focuses on the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in China, one of the deadliest natural disasters in the 21st century. I find that after the earthquake, the most intense and autonomous grassroots mobilization took place in and around large, accessible, and densely populated emergency shelters, in stadiums, universities, and town squares where tens of thousands of evacuees lived alongside numerous emergency personnel and volunteers. With a constant flow of people and an open spatial order, citizens were able to create lasting organizations without much direction or interference from the authoritarian state. Conversely, in less affected or more isolated localities that did not have such mega-shelters, government bureaucrats were much more successful at organizing and constraining volunteers and NGOs, and citizen initiatives were comparatively rare. As the earthquake reconstruction progressed and the state reinforced and expanded the pre-disaster spatial order, characterized by enclosed, exclusive, and highly securitized gated communities, it constrained the further development of emerging grassroots NGOs. By restricting NGOs’ access to potential clients and by strategically placing NGOs in designated spaces, local governments recruited NGOs to work within specific urban cells, thereby eroding their autonomy and networks. The final chapter of the dissertation looks beyond China at Hurricane Katrina in the United States and two earthquakes in Japan. Based on this comparative analysis, I suggest that disruptions to the existing spatial order create new spaces for activism in any political system. China’s unusual capacity to control citizen activism stems in large part from its ability to shape and reshape the spatial order in which activists operate.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:42013149
- FAS Theses and Dissertations 
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