moving on up…shenzhen identity and urban villages

Urban villages inform and shape popular understandings of Shenzhen, both domestically and abroad. Intellectuals, also here and elsewhere, have decried the decision to raze villages and put up new and improved postmodern housing estates, offices and shopping malls as it short-sighted and violently anti-working class. However, in Shenzhen, there has been no street level organizing as such to stop the razing; a decision is made, plans approved, people moved.

In this context, it is interesting to note the temporary nature of Shenzhen patterns of inhabitation. Even before settling in to their first dorm room or urban village share, migrants intend to move. This intention might be vague — I’ll move when I get a better job, or buy my house — but “moving on up” is one of the reasons people migrate to the city. Moreover, in practice, people move when they change jobs, they move when they get a raise, they move when they have a partner, they move when their parents come to live with them. They also move as investment strategies, from one home to the next. Indeed, as far as I can tell, people only seem to stop moving (for the time being), when their child is at a desirable school. If the school is undesirable, changing school district zones or moving to parts of the country where gaokao competition is less fierce.

In other words, inhabitation patterns seem to preclude the time necessary to grow attached to neighborhoods. The current fondness for urban villages seems overwhelming is often nostalgic (missing the challenge of first coming to Shenzhen) or political (we need housing for the working poor), but it is rarely the result of long-term living in a village. Many of the people I have interviewed who do live in a village want to leave. They want their own home (not a rental), or if they are a landlord who lives in a handshake, they want to live in a modern high-rise.

All this to say that the lack of grassroots resistance to razing urban villages in Shenzhen isn’t as counter-intuitive as it may seem from the outside. Those who want to keep the villages don’t actually live there, and those who live there are anticipating moving out. Indeed, I have come to believe that the social questions posed by urban villages have less to do with preserving these neighborhoods, as they do with making long-term inhabitation possible. If the villages were places that people actually wanted to live, raise their child, and retire, then there would be a very different political and economic response to the ongoing demolitions.

NOTE: Handshake buildings as a form of local real estate development were an artifact of the 1992 decision to transfer inner district village lands to the city. In the 1980s, villagers built free-standing homes for themselves, and some collective rental properties and dormitories. However, once the 1992 policy limited village land resources, villagers stopped building individual free-standing homes and built multi-story rental buildings. In the outer districts, where land remained under village control until 2004, villagers built neighborhoods of free-standing homes for themselves, and multi-story rental properties next door.

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