Michael Leaf

Associate Professor

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Dissertations completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest dissertations.

Cities in the Age of Global Migration: Integration of Mainland Chinese in Vancouver, Canada (2015)

Since the late 1990s, the People’s Republic of China has emerged as the largest source of foreign students, tourists, skilled and low-skilled workers for the Pacific cities and regions. Upon arrival, the ‘new’ Chinese migrants have to carve out a place for themselves, which entails more than looking for jobs and shelter. In particular, they find themselves in a social milieu shaped by both new and long-established Chinese groups in the receiving places. Using migration flows between Mainland China and Vancouver as a case study, I explore specific processes and mechanisms that directly shape the diversity of migrant integration experiences and the variegated relations between migrant integration and the socioeconomic and spatial transformation of the Vancouver region. Specifically, I seek to understand how certain political economic characteristics of place (in terms of economic structures, political cultures, processes and institutions) have hindered and facilitated the livelihood production of migrant groups in multifaceted ways. Two methodological approaches inform my study: comparative historical analysis and agency-structure linkage. I argue that specific historical trajectory of urban development in localities in China and Vancouver offer very different structures of opportunities that enable individual migrant families to build different human capacity, hence, their capacity to adapt to a new life when they move from place to place. Group differences challenge the taken-for-granted claims of ‘Chineseness’ and the stale concept of ‘Chinese community’ in public debates and policy-making. By placing the multiplicity of Mainland Chinese experiences at the centre of my research, I have opened up new lines of theorizing about the substantive meaning of integration as opposed to providing definitive answers to when and how to achieve integration. The impossibility of presenting a coherent, unified trajectory through which one settles down with a definitive sense of belonging attests to the complexity and precariousness of migrant integration.

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Urbanization as State Building: A Case Study of Governance Reform in the Guangzhou Luogang District, China (2014)

Over the past three decades, China’s urban population has increased by more than 400 million. How could this rapid, unprecedented process of urban transformation come about without causing widespread social upheavals in socialist China? With an in-depth case study of the Guangzhou Luogang District, this dissertation takes a micro-historical approach to understand this swift urbanization process and its impact on the transformation of rural society as well as the restructuring of local governance. By examining how the local state, village organizations, villagers and other non-state actors have dealt with their land-based conflicts and struggles arising from state-led urbanization, this study argues that the requisition of rural land for urban expansion was not merely a process of land grabbing by corrupt and unscrupulous local state to facilitate economic growth. Rather, it should also be interpreted as a process of state building, whereby the local government reshaped its governance strategy so as to mitigate potential social unrest and to strengthen its legitimacy in the eyes of villagers. The findings of this study will shed new light on how and why socialist China has been able to maintain such unparalleled and unprecedented rates of urban growth despite incessant land disputes and numerous social tensions at different localities. It is also hoped that this research will arouse broader intellectual discourse on governance restructuring and local government, specifically about the relationships between power decentralization, public-private partnership, citizen empowerment and civic engagement in governance strategies that attempt to realize collective interests under the present epoch of economic globalization and neo-liberalization. 

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On the edge : a history of livelihood and land politics on the margins of Ha No#i (2011)

This dissertation takes an historical approach to explore the territorial formation processes on the near periphery of Hà Nội, the capital city of Việt Nam. It relies on methods inspired by the ethnographic tradition to document how a small locality, named Hòa Mục, has made the shift from rural village to urban neighbourhood over the course of the 20th century. The analysis centres on the evolution of villagers‟ livelihoods and land strategies in relation to the ebb and flow of state regulations and territorialization projects. Secondary literature and policy documents contextualize this micro-study and position it within the wider framework of socio-political and institutional changes in Northern Vietnam. The results are presented chronologically along four broad historical stages: i) the late colonial era (1920-1940), ii) the socialist revolutionary transformation process (1940-1960), iii) the anti-American war and subsidy era (1960-1980), and iv) the đổi mới reforms (1980-2009).By placing the periurban formation process in a longer historical context, the study shows that some territorial orders from the pre-reform period have travelled across different political-economic regimes and thus continue to influence the ongoing urban transition. This provides an important counterpoint to understandings of state policy as key determinants of urban change in contemporary Việt Nam. The discussion instead shows how local practices and norms interact with the state‟s regulatory function to shape the periurbanization process. As part of this dynamic system, the state responds in flexible ways to territorial claims from the grassroots and to emerging socio-spatial configurations on the urban edge. The case of Hòa Mục, thus indicates that the state can and does rely on systems of exceptionalism, deliberate institutional ambiguity, and the selective reproduction of informality to govern urbanization on the edge of the capital. In a context like that of Việt Nam, this suggests the need to enlarge the repertoire of what we call planning activities.

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Shequ construction : policy implementation, community building, and urban governance in China (2011)

China’s nationwide Shequ (Community) Construction project aims to strengthen neighbourhood-based governance, particularly as cities wrestle with pressing social issues accompanying the country’s economic reforms. This policy has produced astounding outcomes, even though it is implemented through experimentation programs and the interbureaucratic document system rather than through legislation. It has professionalized the socialist residents’ committees and strengthened their capacity to carry out administrative functions and deliver social care. Thousands of service centres have been built, offering a range of cultural and social services to local residents. This research addresses how the centrally promulgated policy is being implemented locally and what its impacts are in various neighbourhoods. The lens of community building is used to explore how the grass roots organize themselves and how they are defined and governed by the state. The research thus seeks to analyze the impact of Shequ Construction, not through measuring outcomes against the intentions set out in policy documents, but through considering the wider, sometimes unforeseen, implications for other processes going on in the city. Based on fieldwork in Nanjing, the chapters explore the meaning Shequ Construction has in four areas of urban governance: 1) fiscal reform and decentralization of public services, 2) suburban village redevelopment, 3) community-based social service provisioning through the emergent nonprofit sector, and 4) role of homeowners’ association under housing privatization and neighbourhood inequality.By examining the interaction of Shequ Construction with a diverse set of policies, this research demonstrates how policy becomes interpreted during the course of implementation by local agencies as they contend with realities on the ground; and conversely how the Shequ policy alters the course and outcome of other policies and projects simultaneously unfolding. Furthermore, the perspective of policy interactions sheds light on the policy-making process in China. In presenting the Chinese experience, this dissertation seeks to contribute to the broader planning discourse on the function and appropriation of community building as a means of urban governance.

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