The adverse effects of rapid urbanization are of global concern. Careful planning for and accommodation of accelerating urbanization and citizenization (i.e., migrants gaining official urban residency) may be the best approach to limit some of the worst impacts. However, we find that another trajectory may be possible: one linked to the rural development plan adopted in the latest Chinese national development strategy. This plan aims to build rural areas as attractive areas for settlement by 2050 rather than to further urbanize with more people in cities. We assess the political motivations and challenges behind this choice to develop rural areas based on a literature review and empirical case analysis. After assessing the rural and urban policy subsystem, we find five socio-political drivers behind China’s rural development strategy, namely ensuring food security, promoting culture and heritage, addressing overcapacity, emphasizing environmental protection and eradicating poverty. To develop rural areas, China needs to effectively resolve three dilemmas: (1) implementing decentralized policies under central supervision; (2) deploying limited resources efficiently to achieve targets; and (3) addressing competing narratives in current policies. Involving more rural community voices, adopting multiple forms of local governance, and identifying and mitigating negative project impacts can be the starting points to manage these dilemmas.
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