The Buji Crossing

A few days ago, I went to the Buji crossing, one of seven border crossings internal to the Shenzhen municipality. This border is called the 2nd line (二线), and divides Shenzhen into the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) and Baoan and Longgang Districts. Buji is one of Shenzhen’s major manufacturing areas. It is also a center of migrant laborers, who either work in Buji, or enter the SEZ at Buji. So it is an area filled with semis and buses, as goods and people are hauled from one place to another.

Buji is one of those places where I viscerally feel the contradiction between vague research commitments to, if not the truth, then at least some version of the whole story and my bodily aesthetics. Here, goods and people clog the area, pressing into my skin and I inhale carbon monoxide and sweat. I walk quickly past numerous terminals where thin, sun-darkened men load and unload semis, while rural migrants get off long-distance buses carrying bulging plastic bags and dragging wheeled suitcases. Some stare back at me and my camera remains dormant; I am embarrassed to be seen observing what many would rather hide, or failing that, disavow. Along these streets, women hawk fruit, prepared foods, and bottled drinks. Venders and homeless migrants have variously occupied the areas under pedestrian overpasses; these spaces stink of rotting foods and urine and I find myself wondering if there are any public bathrooms nearby. Is it possible to bathe or defecate in private? I notice children working beside adults and am reminded that many of my students are in summer school, already preparing for next semester’s tests. I have come to take photos, but find it difficult to stop and pose my objects because I want to be already beyond the crowded heat and stench. Instead, I snap a photo here and there, refusing to meet anyone’s gaze, moving determinedly forward. I am reduced from methodological exposition to shamed confession. Such are the lessons of the Buji crossing.

The Buji crossing is an interstitial place, where rural and urban Chinese crash into one another, before separating again, abruptly transformed into their appropriate places. Mary Douglass defined dirt as matter out of place and, according to most folks I’ve asked, Buji is dirty, both literally and metaphorically. Dried mud covers trucks, garbage piles up in dank corners, and grime accumulates under fingernails. Moreover, it is difficult to know who belongs where. Buji, as a friend said, is 复杂, a term that doesn‘t only mean mixed or complex, but also implies moral judgment; anything could happen here–gambling, robbery, prostitution, rape, black marketeering, coercive beatings, and possibly even murder, by definition unsolved?because social norms no longer obtain. Imaginations run wild once set loose in Buji. People come to Buji only to discover that they and no longer who they were because whatever social forms once held them in place have evaporated. Most move through, but many stay. What kind of person, another friend asks, would choose to live at the Buji crossing? And even if her implication is clear?only the less than human would choose to live there, nevertheless a different emphasis reformulates the question, which gnaws at the heart of Shenzhen’s rush to a modern future: what kind of life conditions make living and working at the Buji crossing a viable option? How do we arrive at the Buji crossing?

Chinese administration has been based on a division between urban and rural regions. This has been more than a designation of population demographics, but also a designation of how a region fits into the national economic plan. Under Mao, rural areas were responsible for producing grain and food for the country, while urban areas were responsible for industrial production. Within the rural category, communes had quotas of grain and foods that had to be produced and turned over to the government for redistribution to cities. Within the urban category, cities were distinguished from each other by the kind and amount of industry permitted within their borders.

Importantly, under state socialism, the transfer of rural surpluses to cities (in the form of food supplies and payments for industrial products) financed urban industrialization. E. Preobrazhensky coined the term primitive socialist accumulation to refer to state-imposed mechanisms that transferred surpluses from agriculture, defined as outside the state economy to the state for reinvestment in heavy and light industry. This model privileged heavy industry as the motor of a modern economy. The goal was to accelerate industrial production such that it would occupy a greater percentage of total GNP. To paraphrase Levi-Strauss, the production, allocation, and consumption of agricultural products constantly reproduced the socialist polity by converting raw backwardness (some form of the rural) into cooked socialism (some form of the industrial urban).

Under such a system, keeping people in their (rural or urban) place became a key to insuring the stable transfer of rural surpluses to urban areas. Indeed, this form of economic development guaranteed the relative backwardness of rural areas, which were kept at survival levels with respect to urban areas, which were being modernized.

(Of course, the question begged here is how to productively work with material differences between rural and urban areas. Indeed, how even are we to define rural versus urban? In industrialized countries, patterns of investment have leveled these differences as a majority of the population lives in cities, and rural areas have been industrialized. Contemporaneously, a lack of investment in non-industrialized countries has reinforced a distinction between rural and urban regions. In trying to come to terms with what a modern standard of living should be? the distribution of food, housing, education, medical care, and cultural activity, including interesting forms of work. China’s recent history provides much food for thought, as yet undigested.)

In 1958, the Chinese government promulgated the household registration system (户口), specifically linking residence to the distribution of social goods and access to employment opportunity. On the one hand, the controlled distribution of food insured the stability of the household registration system; indeed, this was the most tangible for of the transfer of rural surpluses to urban areas. Under Mao, as in other socialist systems, there were no free markets to purchase food. Instead, food rations were based on household residency, and both farmers and workers could only collect their food rations in their legal residence. During times of strict enforcement of the ration system, in order to travel between places, people had to either carry their food with them or travel with cards that would allow them to collect food in another area.

On the other hand, linking employment to residence further enforced the household registration system. Specifically, rural residents could only work in agricultural occupations, while urban residents could work in jobs related to industrial production. The basic forms of administering these two systems were the commune (in rural areas) and the work unit (in urban areas). In rural areas, the commune assigned farmers to a position within commune production, depending on their economic background. Although barred from moving to the cities to work, farmers were eligible for land on which to build a house, which was again, assigned by the commune. This foundation land was the primary form of compensation that farmers received for their labor. In contrast, in urban areas, (again depending on economic background) residents had access to education, medical care, and cultural activities. In cities, the state assigned youth to positions within industrial production. Moreover, the state also controlled housing, assigning houses based on one’s position within industrial production. Those unemployed (or waiting for work as the unemployed are still called) were ineligible for housing.

The household registration system entailed a territorial distribution of the social services necessary to produce farmers and workers, respectively. For example, most rural areas only had elementary schools, with upper level education located in urban areas, and universities located in top-ranked cities, usually provincial capitals and the independent cities, Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai. Importantly, by legislating two-different economic forms, the household registration system required two different forms of government, one applicable to rural regions and another for urban regions.

As a consequence of the household registration system, rural and urban forms of Chinese socialism have been very distinct, producing what Chinese socialists recognize as two distinct societies. In a manner of speaking, what we in the west commonly think of as socialism, i.e. state provided housing, food, education, medical care, and cultural activity only existed as such in cities. In rural areas, farmers could only be farmers. There were only two ways for farmers to move to cities and become workers: education or the military. Urban youth entered the rural system voluntarily as part of the youth rustification movement (下乡上山).

In 1980, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the state introduced a series of measures that were aimed at closing the growing gap between rural and urban areas, as well as ameliorating conditions within respective regions. Key to all of this was loosening control over food production and distribution. In fact, the first signs of reform were free markets, where farmers could sell and urban residents could buy food. Although, the household residence system continues to shape opportunity, the legalization of food sales made it possible for people to move between different regions of the country. Of course, once movement between areas became freed up, government controls over housing also lessened. In a nutshell, these reforms made it possible for rural residents to migrate to cities and work in the factories.

(Significantly the one area where household residence continues to regulate opportunity is in the education system. Although folks are now free to move around the country, tuition is tied to household residence, making it necessary for poorer children to attend local schools. More importantly, admission to universities is tied to test scores that are calibrated according to household residence?the higher ranked a city, the lower the test scores needed to get into a prestigious university. The college entrance exams are so competitive that it has become common to talk about college exam immigration (高考移民), where families from areas that need high scores to get into a prestigious university move their household residence (a story in itself) to a part of the country from which lower scores are accepted. Some Shenzhen residences have joked that they‘ll be moving to Hainan once their kindergarten age daughter enters middle school. And with that bit of a teaser, I’m going to return to the rural urban divide and how it informs my trip to Buji.)

Shenzhen constituted a particular form of reforming the rural urban divide. In 1980, Baoan County was elevated to the status of Shenzhen Municipality, legalizing industrialization on commune grounds. The key phrase here would come to be rural industrialization (农村城市化), previously an oxymoron. Elevating Baoan to Shenzhen meant that a Shenzhen household registration was now an urban registration. So, two levels of transformation: agricultural lands into manufacturing zones and farmers into workers. However, the speed of transformation could not keep up with legislation, in part because one cannot build a city overnight, but also in part because the local residents had been educated to be farmers; they could not build an industrial city. Consequently, the state needed to negotiate the transfer of commune lands to the state system and the concomitant identification of legal Shenzhen residents. Broadly speaking, this process was conceived of as having two parts, but in actuality had three.

Part the first. When Baoan County was first elevated to Shenzhen Municipality, there were approximately 300,000 residents with Baoan household residency. As rural residents they were entitled to an agricultural job and foundation land on which to build a house. However, once the state annexed their lands into the state system for industrial development, they would be without the means to either pursue a livelihood or build their house. To ensure rural stability, the state therefore designated rural areas within the larger urban system. Within this rural areas, residents had land for industrial production (to insure livelihood) and rights to land for housing. Membership in the rural units was based on traditional village membership and position in the commune (some commune cadres had come in from other parts of Guangdong and were given village membership in their respective communes). These rural units are known as New Villages. Thus, Baoan household residence was redeployed. Although, Baoan residents still had rural residence and concomitant rights, they could now use their land in non-agricultural ways.

Part the second. To build the city, the state first identified areas for industrialization and assigned different ministries to oversee subsequent development in their areas. The state then transferred urban workers from other cities. Early workers came primarily from Guangdong, but also Shanghai and Chongqing, where the Huazhong and Huaxi architectural schools were located, respectively. In the main construction workers came from the military‘s engineering corps. These were the first holders of a Shenzhen household residence. In practice, the expression Shenzhener (深圳人)refers to these immigrants from other cities to Shenzhen and holding household residence.

Part the third, the floating population, which was and remains outside state considerations of how to build Shenzhen. Urban planning in Shenzhen has been and continues to be based on the official population, that is, on the number of residents with Shenzhen household residence. However, because loosening state control over food and housing made it possible for folks to move around the country, rural residents from other parts of China have also come to Shenzhen looking for work. What planners did not anticipate was the number of economic migrants, who would eventually path break Shenzhen. In 1982, for example, the urban plan projected a total urban population of 100,000 residents. However, in actuality, the total population reached one million within several years. At this writing, the number of residents with Shenzhen residence is around four million, (including Baoan residents), but the estimated number of inhabitants is close to eleven million.

Throughout its history, Shenzhen’s urban planning has been based on the legal population of New Villagers and Shenzheners. This means that the construction of urban infrastructure (ranging from housing to schools to hospitals) has been planned with respect to a population that constitutes about 1/3 of the actual population, creating all kinds of social glitches. For example, many of Shenzhen‘s public schools are overpopulated because schools are built to accommodate the children of a much smaller population. Likewise, Shenzhen’s roads are increasingly jammed by unplanned numbers of cars. Nevertheless, it has been members of the floating population that have provided the labor for Shenzhen‘s factories, construction sites, and everyday activities. Indeed, one of the reasons their labor remains so undervalued is precisely because the Municipality does not provide them with either basic housing or social services. Instead, most migrant workers live in temporary housing?dormitories, construction site shanties, and buildings that have been designated to be razed, for example, remitting money back home to pay for their children’s education and parents‘ old age. Of course, it is possible to live in temporary housing for years, especially if one moves from site to site. Moreover, many buildings (like the housing from Baoan’s old villages or early Shenzhen) have been designated to be razed for over a decade. If migrant workers become ill or injured, they return to their hometowns to recuperate.

Now, when Baoan County was first elevated to Shenzhen Municipality in 1980, the entire area was considered special or eligible for incorporation into the state system. Individual urban work units would negotiate with particular villages the terms of transferring collective land holdings to the relevant state work unit or ministry. However, officials soon realized that the Shenzhen was too large to govern effectively, and in 1983, they redistricted the municipality into two administrative sections: the Special Economic Zone and New Baoan county. The boundary between the SEZ and New Baoan was based on the borders that had been established between communes (which in turn, had been based on traditional village borders). As such, urban laws applied to the SEZ, except for designated village spaces, while rural laws were reinstituted for New Baoan, with the provision that industrialization was now legal. The line dividing the SEZ from New Baoan was called the 2nd line () and functioned like an internal border. Among Chinese nationals, only Shenzhen and Baoan residents could cross the border freely. All others needed and continue to need a special travel and/or work pass.

Since 1983, the administrative structure of Shenzhen has undergone a series of modifications, each of which was designed to calibrate the relationship between the New Villages and Shenzheners. In 1987, the terms of transferring collective lands to urban units was more or less standardized, fixing the borders between New Villages and the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. In 1990, Shenzhen‘s governmental structure was reformed in order to incorporate rural New Baoan into the urban state. Initially, administration of Shenzhen was double (rural New Baoan and the urban SEZ) and two-tiered, with city and administrative levels of government. In 1990, however, a third tier was established, today’s Districts. Accordingly, administrative levels were redistricted as neighborhoods. Then, in 1992, New Baoan was divided into two urban Districts, Baoan and Longgang, reproducing in New Baoan the pattern of rural villages within the urban whole that had characterized administration in the SEZ. A sixth District, Yantian was established in 1999.

Once New Baoan had been administratively designated urban, the Municipality began a rural urbanization movement that effectively brought all outstanding rural administrative areas under urban administration. From the perspective of Baoan residents, the most important aspect of these changes has been that their children no longer have the same rights to foundation land, and can only inherit what their parents were allocated. These later changes have more or less conformed Shenzhen’s administrative structure to that of other cities, standardizing the relationships between New Villages and the Municipality.

However, important differences between New Villages inside and outside the 2nd line continue to shape the Municipality. Baoan and Longgang New Villages tend to be larger, both in terms of land and population, than are New Villages in the SEZ. This is because Baoan and Longgang New Villages were designated based on commune boundaries, which had been based on xiang (乡), or village associations. Consequently, several villages constitute Baoan and Longgang New Villages. In contrast, SEZ New Villages reproduce traditional village, rather than xiang, boundaries. Crudely, with a few telling exceptions, New Villages outside the 2nd line are richer both collectively and per capita than are SEZ New Villages. The bigger presence--territorial and economic--of Baoan and Longgang New Villages translates into the fact that Baoan and Longgang have more influence over daily life than do New Village organizations in the SEZ. More importantly, because the SEZ has been upgrading its economic base from manufacturing to commercial and financial services, most of Shenzhen‘s manufacturing takes place in Baoan and Longgang, rather than within the SEZ. This means that most migrant laborers live in New Villages outside the 2nd line, working for New Villagers. There are some Baoan and Longgang New Villages in which the ratio of New Villager to migrant worker is 1:30, representing the majority of the population. In contrast, within the SEZ the ratio of New Villager to migrant hovers somewhere between 1:7 and 1:11. Importantly, these figures to not represent the SEZ’s demographic majority. Most Shenzheners live in SEZ urban developments and are not include in these figures. Indeed, administrative changes notwithstanding, most of Shenzhen‘s inhabitants consider the SEZ to be urban and Baoan and Longgang to be rural. (Of course, rural~ and urban refer to post Reform definitions, with rural meaning manufacturing and urban meaning higher levels of economic production.)

The point of all this meandering history is that the 2nd line in general and the Buji crossing in particular actualize an important redeployment of the household residence system. Previously, the household residence system enabled the state to plan and practice primitive socialist accumulation. At the time, movement between rural and urban areas was strictly controlled. Today, in contrast, the household residence system is latent in the organization of urban activities (manufacturing versus commerce and finance, for example) as well as in urban planning to distribute social benefits and services. Basically, rural migrants are more likely to find jobs in Baoan and Longgang, then they are in the SEZ. In contrast, migrants from other cities are not only more likely to find jobs in the SEZ, but also to obtain Shenzhen household residence. In other words, the 2nd line enables control over labor, by designating forms of belonging to the Municipality, and hence determining rights to the city, to paraphrase James Holston. The Buji crossing is one of the places, where these contradictions burst open, refusing to be contained, disrupting our bodily aesthetics, messing, if you will, with our minds. Images, here.

One thought on “The Buji Crossing

  1. Pingback: shenzhen hukou update « Shenzhen Noted

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