Despite common national institutions and incentives to remake urban landscapes to anchor growth, generate land-lease revenues and display a capacious administration, Chinese urban governments exhibit varying levels of control over land. This article uses a paired comparison of Dalian and Harbin in China's north-east to link differences in local political economies to land politics. Dalian, benefiting from early access to foreign capital, consolidated its control over urban territory through the designation of a development zone, which realigned local economic interests and introduced dual pressures for enterprises to restructure and relocate. Harbin, facing capital shortages, distributed urban territory to assuage the losers of reform and promote economic growth. The findings suggest that 1) growth strategies, and the territorial politics they produce, are products of the post-Mao urban hierarchy rather than of socialist legacies, and 2), perhaps surprisingly, local governments exercise the greatest control over urban land in cities that adopted market reforms earliest.