GaWC Research Bulletin 232

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This Research Bulletin has been published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, NS 33 (1), 149-151 and 152-153.

doi:10.1111/j.1475-5661.2007.00276.x (Sidaway)

doi:10.1111/j.1475-5661.2007.00283.x (Taylor)

Please refer to the published version when quoting the paper.



Globalizing the Geohistory of City/State Relations

J.D. Sidaway

City-States and Globalization

P.J. Taylor

Globalizing the Geohistory of City/State Relations: A Commentary on 'Problematizing City/State Relations: Towards a Geohistorical Understanding of Contemporary Globalization' by Peter J Taylor

J.D. Sidaway*


In a wide ranging and complex paper, Peter Taylor (2007) explores the ways that city/state relations have been conceptualised and offers a new historical interpretation of city/state relations through six vignettes. Taylor (2007, 142) explains that:

Six examples have been chosen to put some flesh on the relatively abstract geohistory of modernity presented thus far....In terms of economic and political elites, the vignettes [of city/state relations] represent the whole span of the geohistory....

Whilst there is much else in Taylor's paper that might be productively engaged with (the interpretations of Jacobs and Scott for example), in this short commentary, I want to focus on the consequences of a geohistory confined to examples from Europe. Taylor's vignettes range broadly across time (from the thirteenth to the twenty-first century). However their spatial range is more limited. The Baltic and North Sea centred Hanse/England, Genoa/Castille, Amsterdam/United Provinces, Venice/Italy, Salonika/Greece and London/EU are utilized to define the range of city/state relations. In the first half of the twentieth century, Salonika for example went from being one of the largest cosmopolitan trading cities in the Mediterranean (as a port within the Ottoman Empire) to Greece's second city, becoming a relatively isolated commercial backwater. Nation had subordinated city. London, by contrast is becoming partially disembodied from the rest of the UK space-economy as it grows as an international financial centre, latterly interacting closely with the regulatory and financial space of the EU. In this case, nation, city and supranational community are in complex interrelations and (sometimes uneasy) modus vivendi . Taylor finds antecedents, comparisons and contrasts via the other vignettes.

However, the entire range of these is drawn from Europe (although Hong Kong crops up in an endnote). The rest of the world figures only through commerce, sometimes (as in the vignettes that include Castille and the United Provinces) mediated via empires. But what happens when Taylor's six vignettes are supplemented by some from beyond Europe? In particular, Taylor's conclusion that ‘rules out the popular ‘city-state' scenario as a globalization outcome' (p. 133) might be problematized by several non-European examples: Dubai, Hong Kong (and Macau) and Singapore.

Singapore is the most obvious example. In the conventional indices of ‘globalization' (partial as these may be in many ways), Singapore is paradigmatic. The city-state has been regularly ranked first in a globalization index compiled by Foreign Policy and an American management consultancy firm (,4,1,116). A vignette of city/state relations of the style that Taylor develops for European cases might look like this:

Singapore broke from (or to be more exact, was forced from) the Malaysian Federation in 1965. From the 1820s to 1940s it was part of a British colonial entity with other cosmopolitan trading centres: including Malacca and Penang (known collectively as the Straits Settlements). Subsequently (after a brief interregnum as Shonan-to within the Japanese empire), Singapore reverted to being a British colony, incorporated after independence into the new state of Malaysia until the separation in 1965. Since then, Singapore has been a city-state pursuing a fast-track development strategy: managing complex relations with its hinterland – at a variety of scales1 - and with the great powers. Singapore is not the only contemporary city-state, although the other postcolonial city-states are all oil rich: Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait (and more arguably Brunei). Hong Kong and Macau have long functioned as city-states, albeit for most of their history under colonial guardianship and now as semi-autonomous territories within greater China. And Dubai and its neighbours (such as Abu Dhabi) resemble city-states, despite being part of a federation of seven emirates.

How could a vignette look for Hong Kong (and its near neighbour across the Pearl River, Macau)? In what have now both become Chinese Special Administrative Regions (SARs), it is perhaps still too early to judge how far or in what ways Hong Kong and Macau will follow the Salonica example (of subordination to the nation-state project ). It could be argued however, that rather than a straightforward subordination to a dominant nation-state, there is evidence that Hong Kong and Macau's late colonial trajectory has helped to set the longer-term economic agendas in South China – producing a distinctive commercial/guardian relationship (Yang, 2005). Building on what had evolved in Hong Kong in the 1960s and 1970s; Guangdong became a global manufacturing export zone through the 1980s and 1990s. The example and proximity of Hong Kong in particular shaped the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) experiment, setting trends in post-Mao China that have since been replicated and modified in elsewhere. Carolyn Cartier (2001) calls this ‘zone fever' and Aihwa Ong (2000) refers to ‘graduated sovereignty'. Such zones and graduations pose complex analytical questions about urbanization, sovereignty and scale (Sidaway, 2007).

What of the Dubai case, where a quasi city-state has emerged? A British colony (one of the Trucial States) for longer than Singapore (from the early nineteenth century till 1971), Dubai was also incorporated into a federal postcolonial state: the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Unlike Singapore, Dubai remained inside a postcolonial federation, probably because the UAE is an extremely loose structure based on a network of powerful ruling families and containing many more migrants than citizens (Davis, 2006). Here the city overshadows the state (the UAE). People speak of going to/working in Dubai (or perhaps Abu Dhabi), not often of going to the UAE. That Dubai has established a successful airline: Emirates (appropriating part of the title of the state) better known and with many more destinations and passengers than both the more recently constituted ‘national' UAE airline (Etihad airways) and Gulf Air (a business venture between another UAE constituent Abu Dhabi, the city-state of Bahrain and Oman) epitomizes a city/state/business relationship increasingly viewed as an example to learn from by western corporate commentators. The latest issue of the globalization index which recently rated the city-state of Singapore as the most globalized place, also writes of Dubai's ‘dash to global prominence', but without mentioning what state Dubai is part of.

Other examples might be marshalled. Aden, quickly subsumed within a greater Yemen (Wedeen, 2004) less than three decades after independence and following the collapse of a revolutionary process, or Alexandria, which followed a similar trajectory to Salonika, though at a slower pace (Haag, 2004) for example. Shanghai was also under international guardianship until 1949 (Dong, 2000), after which it was subordinated to the new national capital at Beijing for 30 years, before resurfacing as an aspirant global city in rivalry with Beijing since the 1980s (Kong, 2007). The most extreme case of a state (or perhaps of the countryside) eclipsing a city comes from another Asian revolution: that enacted by the Khmer Rouge, who forcibly evacuated Phnom Penh during their ill fated national revolution. And Taylor's paper also invites us to ask further questions about the roles of outside powers as ‘guardians' for example. Whilst this might risk becoming an ever lengthening list of questions and examples, it is clear that Europe cannot define the geohistorical range of city/state relations and imperial and postcolonial geopolitics underpin city/state relations in globalization.


Cartier C Globalizing south China Blackwell Oxford

Davis M 2006 Fear and money in Dubai New Left Review 41 47-68

Haag M 2004 Alexandria: city of memory Lock Haven, Yale University Press

Kong L 2007 Cultural icons and urban development in Asia: economic imperative, national identity, and global city status Political Geography 26 (4) 383-404

Ong A 2000 Graduated sovereignty in south-east Asia Theory, Culture and Society 17 (4) 55-75

Sidaway J D 2007 Spaces of postdevelopment Progress in Human Geography 31 (3) 1-17

Sparke M, Sidaway J D, Bunnell T and Grundy-Warr C 2004 Triangulating the ‘borderless world': geographies of power in the Indonesia-Malaysia-Singapore growth triangle Transactions Inst Br Geogr NS 29 (4) 485-498

Taylor P J 2007 Problematizing city/state relations: towards a geohistorical understanding of contemporary globalization Transactions Inst Br Geogr NS 32 133-150

Trocki C A 2006 Singapore: wealth, power and the culture of control Routledge, London and New York

Wedeen L 2004 Seeing like a citizen, acting like a state: exemplary events in unified Yemen in Al Rasheed M and Vitalis R eds Counter-Narratives, history, contemporary society and politics in Saudi Arabia and Yemen London, Palgrave Macmillan 247-284

Yang C 2005 Multilevel governance in the cross-boundary region of Hong Hong-Pearl River Delta, China Environment and Planning A 37 2147-2168.


* James D. Sidaway, School of Geography, University of Plymouth, Email:

1. Singapore thus articulates a region and simultaneously negotiates relatively powerful neighbours. Increasingly this takes the form of extensive cross-border investments (Sparke et al, 2004). In the context of these developments, Carl Trocki (2006, 176) notes that ‘To the historian, it seems ironic that the same geographical and socio-economic combinations that gave birth to Singapore's nineteenth-century economy should be revived at the end of the twentieth century.'


City-States and Globalization: A Reply to Sidaway

P.J. Taylor**


I agree with James Sidaway's (2008) conclusion that ‘it is clear that Europe cannot define the geohistorical range of city/state relations and imperial and postcolonial geopolitics underpin city/state relations in globalization' (p. 5). My paper (Taylor 2007) is a preliminary intervention into what I argue is a relatively neglected but important topic. The study of city/state relations is a very big subject and I took the conventional academic safeguard of including ‘towards' in my title: to claim to provide anything more in the confines of a single essay is self-evidently foolhardy. Having made my excuses I can thank Sidaway for identifying a feature of my essay that requires clarification. The point is that a selection of case studies is never neutral and this needs to be made clearer for my six vignettes.

By the phase ‘the whole span' I intended to indicate the whole temporality (rise and fall) of modernity. Therefore my selection represents not all modernity but a particular trajectory that covers this temporality. My starting point is Wallerstein's (2004) position that modernity is concretely expressed as the modern world-system, which was created in the ‘long sixteenth century' (c.1450-1650). This culminated in sovereign (European) territorial states and (European) cities with worldwide commercial links. Since this early modern world-system was initially a European world-economy the story begins with Europe and European agents. Subsequently it is in Europe that both the ‘modern' (nation-) state is invented and the ‘modern' (industrial) city is invented. Today London as an archetypal global city and the European Union as a classic political reaction to contemporary globalization provide a coherent (one world-region) ending to my series of vignettes. Thus it cannot be denied that my story is Euro-centric in content but I contend gainfully so for my specific purpose.

Sidaway's critique relates to a much deeper issue in geographical bias. In my world-systems analysis there is, of course, no intension of invoking Weberian implications that Occidental cities have a unique history of freedom in contrast to Oriental despotism so that Europe1 is the only possible source of modern capitalism (Weber 1958, 91-120). The guardian and commercial syndromes (and resultant behaviours) are in no sense ‘western'; they are generic. For instance, Jacobs (1992, 28) has no truck with linking commercial precepts to bourgeois traits as western values. She argues that commercial precepts are found

… wherever commercial life is viable, East or West. They apply to Islamic innkeepers, Buddhist batik makers, Hindu brass craftsmen, or Shinto brake manufacturers, just as they do to Christian, Jewish or atheist auto mechanics …

However I do invoke the proposition that the tradition dominance of guardians has been disrupted by commercial practice in sixteenth century Europe and it is this that enabled a modern world-system to consolidate in Europe and become self-consciously modern (as opposed to traditional). The system expanded through both guardian and commercial practices (formal and informal imperialisms respectively) to become global by the end of the nineteenth century. My use of Jacobs' moral syndrome analysis elucidates city/state relations through defining these modern times.

There are myriad trajectories of city/state relations in the modern world-system and Sidaway has usefully provided other non-European vignettes. The reasoning behind his choices is explicit: he challenges my dismissal of city-states as likely major players in contemporary globalization. However, it is not that I have ‘missed' contemporary city-states because I tell a story based upon a world-region where they have long since been eliminated, rather their omission derives from my interpretation of the changing nature of city/state relations and their meaning for contemporary globalization.

City-states are particular situations in which guardian and commercial interests are interwoven in a single polity. This creates a powerful spatial frame in which contrary moral syndromes have to co-exist; one concerned for protection and territory, the other for profit and networks. But ultimately city-states are states and therefore guardian values will prevail: instead of a messy vibrant city, simplification priorities will produce a neat ordered city (Scott 1998).2 Since it is messy vibrant cities that are the ultimate sites for economic expansion (Jacobs 1969), absent guardians are not necessarily detrimental; that is the message of vibrant Hong Kong both before and after 1997. Singapore , on the other hand, as a sovereign city-state is currently successfully producing an ordered city. But the argument I present doubts whether the city-state's current growth is reproducible in the medium to long term.3 This is where Sidaway and I depart company: for me Singapore and Hong Kong are essentially different in their city/state relations. And it is the latter's situation – relative autonomous commercial practice combined with distant/facilitating guardian oversight – that is the more likely outcome as dominant city/state relation in an unfolding globalization.


Jacobs J 1969 The economy of cities Vintage, New York

Jacobs J 1992 Systems of survival: a dialogue on the moral foundations of commerce and politics Vintage, New York

Parker G 2004 Sovereign city: the city-state through history Reaktion, London

Pierce N R 1993 Citistates: how urban America can prosper in a competitive world Seven Locks, Washington , DC

Scott, J C 1998 Seeing like a state: how certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed Yale University Press, New Haven , CN

Sidaway J D 2008 Globalizing the geohistory of city/state relations: a commentary on ‘Problematizing city/state relations: towards a geohistorical understanding of contemporary globalization' by Peter J Taylor Transactions Inst Br Geogr NS 32

Taylor P J 2007 Problematizing city/state relations: towards a geohistorical understanding of contemporary globalization Transactions Inst Br Geogr NS 32 133-150

Wallerstein I 2004 World-systems analysis: an introduction Duke University Press, Durham, NC

Weber M 1958 The city The Free Press, New York


** Peter J. Taylor, Department of Geography, Loughborough University, Email:

1. Actually Weber's geography was finer than this: ‘the southern medieval European city form a transitional stage between Asiatic and North-European cities' (Weber 1958, 95).

2. See vignette two in Taylor (2007, 143-4) in which Florence, Milan and Venice attended to their territories as city-states and declined while Genoa attended to its networks and ‘silently' ruled Europe.

3. The concept of city-state can be taken to mean a variety of degrees of autonomy with the sovereign city-state the most autonomous from external control (see Parker, 2004 Table 4, p. 222). Pierce (1993) has invented a new concept of ‘citistate'; despite presenting a genealogy through city-states, the concept is very different and is much closer to my ideas of separating guardian and commercial spaces. He argues that ‘the time for metropolitan government in America has come – and gone' (p. 32). Instead he considers the ‘invisibility of the citistate' – large-scale city-regions with fluid, dynamic borders (pp. 291-2).


Edited and posted on the web on 15th August 2007

Note: This Research Bulletin has been published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, NS 33 (1), 149-151 and 152-153