The Trickle‐down Effect: Ideology and the Development of Premium Water Networks in China’s Cities


This article examines the relationship between networked infrastructure and uneven development in transitional cities through a study of premium water networks in China. Beginning in the mid‐1990s, select buildings and housing enclaves began to bypass municipal tap water supply systems through the construction of small‐scale secondary pipe networks for purified drinking water. I focus on the early development of these premium water networks to highlight the ideological interplay between a new more market‐based approach to networked supply and the existing model characterized by relatively universal and uniform access within cities. I illustrate how this dual water supply model was well suited to the ideological conditions and contradictions associated with China’s economic liberalization in the 1990s. While the emergence of premium water networks can be linked to ascendant forms of market reasoning in the environmental and social spheres, I also argue that they were enabled by unresolved ideological tensions associated with China’s transitional program. Rather than providing a basis for resistance in the early development of premium water supply, the socialist legacy in urban water supply left its mark more in the noticeable absence of debate regarding the distributional outcomes. By examining premium water networks in relation to the politics of ideology in China’s transitional period, my analysis highlights the complex and sometimes unexpected ways that ideologies can influence the development of new infrastructural spaces and processes of splintering urbanism.