Call for Papers for a session that I am to organise in anticipation of the 2015 annual conference of the Association of American Geographers in Chicago. Please feel free to disseminate and share.

The Politics of Desire and Despair: Contextualising Rights in Urban Protests against Displacement in Asia and Beyond

Association of American Geographers (AAG) Annual Meeting, 21-25 April 2015, Chicago

Co-Sponsored by the Urban Geography Specialty Group, Cultural Geography Specialty Group, China Geography Specialty Group

Organiser: Hyun Bang Shin, London School of Economics and Political Science,

Session Outline

The proposed session is a call for researchers who work on the rights of displacees due to forced eviction and involuntary relocation, attempting to provide space for discussions on how rights concepts emerging out of displacees’ protests can be contextualised in both historical and geographical terms. Here, the notion of rights would include, but not limited to, the right to survive, the right to housing, or the right to the city. The regional focus is Southeast and East Asia including China, where condensed urbanisation and speculative urbanism have resulted in developmental projects that aim to maximise the extraction of exchange value from the built environment, leading to mega-displacement. However, researchers working on other countries displaying comparable urban experiences (e.g. selective cities in Turkey, India, Brazil, Russia or South Africa) are also welcome to contribute.

Flattened former rural village in Guangzhou (Photograph by Hyun Bang Shin, 2010)
Flattened former rural village in Guangzhou (Photograph by Hyun Bang Shin, 2010)

The session is on the basis of an understanding that contemporary discussions on the Right to the City or urban inhabitants’ rights in general do not adequately capture the local historical and socio-political processes of how people have come to perceive the concept of rights in their struggles against the powerful. These limitations tend to restrict the contextual application of such concepts as the ‘right to the city’ to non-Western contexts. In late-industrialising Asian countries, it is particularly important to consider the role of the developmental and authoritarian state as well as its political alliance with particular societal actors (e.g. South Korean state’s alliance with large conglomerates from the 1960s or Singaporean state’s populist alliance in the aftermath of its independence) (Haila 2000; Park 1998). Legitimising the rule of the dominant class through the use of state apparatus requires co-opting the national population based on a particular set of state ideologies including nationalism, and this inevitably has repercussions on how protesters frame their demand for a certain set of rights vis-a-vis the hegemony of the state and capital.

For instance, when examining the historical evolution of the rights awareness in China, as China’s reform and transition has accompanied socio-economic, institutional and cultural reconfigurations, one’s notion of rights has also been made complicated by the range of new opportunities (e.g. housing as commodity, investment in stock markets) as well as the loss of old benefits (e.g. lifelong guarantee of jobs or access to employer-provided public housing). The loss of old-time entitlements and/or the exclusion from new opportunities let people’s claims of rights grow “rooted in history?, invoking various promises and slogans that characterised the collectivisation and the Cultural Revolution period (Perry and Selden 2003). One may further argue that despite the changes to the social order during the last few centuries, China’s rights awareness currently rests largely on the rights to subsistence or economic security, without going further to claim rights against the state (e.g. political freedom in more liberal traditions) (see Perry 2008; Shin 2013).

In a similar vein, in South Korea’s democratisation and late industrialisation contexts, tenants’ protests against large-scale redevelopment projects initially evoked their claims to secure the ‘right to survival’ in the 1970s and 1980s, which then evolved to their claims for the ‘right to adequate housing’ in the 1990s. The evolvement of such rights concepts and their framing reflect the socio-political struggles against the backdrop of socio-economic, institutional and cultural reconfigurations in Korea’s condensed urbanisation and late industrialisation contexts. The claim of the right to the city to contest the state and capital has not received much attention in South Korea. Part of the reasons may be due to the ways in which the rights claims by tenants and poor homeowners were often overshadowed by the politics of desire and a particular ‘culture of property’ (e.g. Ley and Teo, 2014), which creates a myth that urban redevelopment brings benefits to the society as a whole and creates opportunities to accumulate real estate assets.

By adopting a strategic-relational perspective that pays a particular attention to the struggles among socio-political actors, the proposed session aims to understand how the concepts of rights have evolved over time in the context of each country’s social, economic and political development.

Abstract Submission

If you would like to participate in this session, please send an abstract (max. 200 words) and contact details including affiliation and e-mail address to Hyun Bang Shin ( by 3rd October 2014. All accepted contributors will then need to register for the AAG conference online at the AAG website by 31st October 2014 ahead of a session proposal deadline of 5th November 2014.


Haila, A. (2000) Real estate in global cities: Singapore and Hong Kong as property states. Urban Studies 37(12): 2241-2256

Ley, D. and Teo, S-Y. (2014) Gentrification in Hong Kong? Epistemology vs. Ontology. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38(4): 1286-1303

Park, B-G. (1998) Where do tigers sleep at night? The state’s role in housing policy in South Korea and Singapore. Economic Geography 74(3): 272-288

Perry, E. J. (2008) Chinese conceptions of “rights?: From Mencius to Mao—and now. Perspectives on Politics 6: 37–50

Perry, E. J. and Selden, M. (Eds.) (2003) Chinese Society: Change, Conflict, and Resistance. London: RoutledgeCurzon

Shin, H.B. (2013) The right to the city and critical reflections on China’s property rights activism. Antipode 45(5): 1167-1189