Located at the Dongguan border in the middle of Baoan District, Guangming New District (光明新区) remains surprisingly (within Shenzhen) agrarian. The settlement layout at the District center feels like a small market town and still runs along village paths, even though trucks rumble over the newly imposed traffic grid. The New District’s development has lurched along, hindered by its distance from both the Guangshen Highway and the Kowloon-Guangzhou Railway. In fact, according to a local villager, until the 1970s, no actual road connected the area to Shajing (in the west) and Loucun (in the east). Instead, villagers pushed wheelbarrows on a network of paths that threaded through lizhi orchards, around vegetable gardens, and into rural settlements.
Under Mao, Guangming was a farm (农场), a non-rural designation which had the same administrative rank as a commune (公社), but a different personal policy. Like a commune, farms were responsible for agrarian production. In contrast to commune farmers (农民), however, farm workers were state employees, receiving a monthly rice ration, food coupons, and housing. Practically speaking, farm workers were farmers with socialist benefits. In the Reform era, as Guangming was gradually integrated into the state apparatus, the farm remained not only the most organized institution in the area, but also the one with the most direct access to government monies, which could be redirected for capitalist purposes. Today, Guangming Farm is a tourist destination/ agrarian themepark/ playground (光明农场).
In addition, Guangming was a designated settlement first for Indonesian returned Chinese in the 60s and then for Vietnamese returned Chinese in the 80s (Wang Caibai provides a history of 归侨 as an official designation in the Chinese polity). This meant that the Returnees were integrated into the local work plan as farm labor, but were not given land rights, which have remained in either village or state hands. Indeed, even as late as 1990, then Guangming Market was posting laws pertaining only to Returnees. Nevertheless, the Returnees were often familiar with capitalism in ways that the local villagers were not and also, through family outside China had access to some investment capital. This is important because Guangming is not considered an Overseas Chinese Hometown. Moreover, as a remote part of Shenzhen, the area did not have immediate access to the early Hong Kong investment that went to border villages, even when there were no direct kin relations.
Today Guangming remains relatively clean and naturally beautiful. The local government is pushing renewable energy and resource development as well as suburban life styles in modern high rise developments. With the laying of new roads and the creation of an express bus route from the Shenzhen Bay border to Guangming, Shenzhen has made it easy for Hong Kong people to visit or move to these new developments. In addition, highways now make Guangming a short ride from the airport.
Due to its remote location and special designation, Guangming’s recent history is complicated and has produced a landscape that juxtaposes late Qing and Republican flat homes, Mao-era tile homes, handshakes, mid80s official housing, lizhi fields, mountains, several industrial parks, and construction sites, not only providing scenes for imagining what pre-reform Shenzhen was like, but also offering a space where another, more sustainable form of development might be pursued. Or so I hope. A walk through the center of Guangming New District, below.