China’s urban areas are expanding and changing, with significant physical and social consequences. The analysis of such consequences often constructs the violence and demolition that precedes the redevelopment of villages and neighbourhoods as the direct result of the authoritarian nature of the Chinese state. Such violence is visible in countless cases where the state prevails over the rights of homeowners, farmers or simple citizens in the process of building, rebuilding or pacifying the cities. Much of this violence, together with the agency it generates among local communities, advances processes that elsewhere have been classified as ‘gentrification’, resulting in the replacement of one class with another and an increase in the market value of (state-owned) land. This essay argues that this process is not epiphenomenal to urbanization; rather, the upgrading (of people and buildings) is central to both local and national state projects to develop cities, the goal of which is to increase control over the territory while increasing the market and symbolic value of urban areas.