Coffee Hour: Privatizing Space, Atomizing Lives—Melissa Y. Rock

Friday, March 16, 2012 - 3:30pm to 5:00pm
319 Walker Building for refreshments at 3:30 p.m. 112 Walker Building for lecture at 4:00 p.m.

Privatizing Space, Atomizing Lives: Splintering Social Networks Within Beijing’s Neoliberal Urbanism

Beijing Olympics Welcome Sign


The restructuring of Beijing, China in the years leading up to and following the 2008 Summer Olympic Games constitutes a government-sponsored project of neoliberal urbanism—a project through which the meanings of both place and belonging are being reconfigured with far-reaching implications for the city’s residents. This talk first highlights the ways China’s state government operationalizes selective neoliberal logics in order to shape multi-scalar urbanization policies and practices. Subsequently, Rock grounds her analysis within the spaces of the home to investigate the socio-spatial implications of urban dislocation in a modernizing Beijing.

The spatial move out of Beijing’s center city and up into the residential spaces of high-rise buildings elicits corresponding social transformations that tend to socio-economically fragment and isolate former hutong (alleyway neighborhood) residents from the practices and the community ties that had previously defined their everyday lives. Residents pushed out to the urban periphery often move to newer, high-rise buildings constructed in clusters on Beijing’s urban fringe where the transportation infrastructure and social services (including education, child and elder care, health clinics, and hospitals) are woefully inadequate for the large and growing population in these neighborhoods.


Beijing High Rise


The combined effects of the government’s decentralization of fiscal responsibility to lower administrative units and increased privatization of residential housing complexes lead to a corresponding reduction in access to state-sponsored social services. The move up into the high-rise complexes also contributes to shifting management of care-giving responsibilities within households. Whereas the previous residential spatial configurations in the hutong neighborhoods facilitated a more distributed responsibility of care giving beyond the nuclear family unit, high-rise spatial configurations create distinct socio-spatial boundaries that redefine the spheres of public and private care and responsibility.  Rock draws from fieldwork conducted in 2009 to show how the spatial move into high-rise complexes concentrates caregiving work at the scale of the nuclear family unit. Furthermore, she argues that this concentrated shift is disproportionately borne by women in contemporary Beijing.



Melissa Y. Rock is a critical urban and feminist geographer interested in the politics and processes of contemporary urbanization in China. Her research investigates the intersection of numerous global and local forces (political, economic, historic and cultural) that shape the form, function and feel of Chinese cities, particularly Beijing. She centers her work on the interplay between the making of ‘modern’ cities and citizen-subjects under China’s socialist market economy by highlighting the ways urban and economic transformations impact and shape practices of every day life. She first traveled to and studied in Beijing in 1995 where she observed a dramatically different urban landscape than the one seen and experienced during the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. She has returned to China on numerous occasions over the past decade and a half—to travel, study, live and work—as a NSEP Boren Fellow (2004-05), an NSF East Asian Pacific Summer Institute Fellow (2007), and most recently as a Fulbright Fellow (2008-09).


Rock is a dual-degree candidate in Geography and Women’s Studies at The Pennsylvania State University. She defended her dissertation in October 2011 and will be graduating in May 2012.  During her time at Penn State she has taught numerous courses including Human Geography, Cultural Geography, Geography of International Affairs, and the Honors International Service course to India.  She currently holds a Postdoctoral Fellowship at Dartmouth College’s Department of Geography where she teaches two courses: Urbanizing China and Global Cities.