policy, policy, policy: real estate with chinese characteristics

For those of you who wonder, what’s great in Dongguan–and you know you’re out there because Dongguan has gotten really bad press–I’ld like to suggest Guanyin Mountain National Forest in Tangxia, Zhangmutou Township (东莞市樟木头镇塘厦观音山). The forest occupies 18 sq kilometers, of which most is beautiful forest and hiking trails. This may come as a surprise because Zhangmutou was one of the industrial centers that sprung up along the Kowloon-Guangzhou Railway in the late 80s and 90s. In fact, the area was once known as “Little Hong Kong” because many Hong Kongers vacationed and bought homes there.

From the mountain viewing stations one can see the village and township industrial parks of early reform, as well as the recreational facilities (including golf courses and upscale hotels) where Hong Kongers went for the weekend indulgence and the late 1990s housing that truck drivers and the SAR’s mobile poor bought. One can also see more recent upper middle class developments by Vanke and China Resources which aim to attract buyers from neighboring Shenzhen. In fact, Tangxia is closer to downtown Shenzhen than is Longgang District. In addition to beautiful trails and fresh if muggy semi-tropical air, the park also offers views of how industrial urbanization with South Chinese characteristics reshapes the land, reminding us that we are not talking of “location, location, location”, but more precisely, “policy, policy, policy”.

Each of these areas exists because of a change to or promulgation of Chinese policy. The village and township industrial parks came about as a result of the responsibility system, while the resorts and entertainment industry that catered to a Hong Kong clientele depended upon laws that made it illegal for mainland truckers to cross the border and deliver containers from local factories to Hong Kong logistics companies. The present shift to upscale housing developments for Shenzhen and neighboring elites is also a manifestation of policy: crackdowns on the sex industry and push toward higher value added production in the area.

Of course, the construction in Tangxia has also depended upon the establishment of a bourgeoisie in Guangzhou and Shenzhen, where first houses have been paid off and costs of education met. However, more importantly, Vanke and China Resources have taken up the call to build in Tangxia because the Shenzhen metro will soon connect the area to the SEZ. They hope that the relative low cost of housing will attract young Shenzhen families to move to Dongguan and commute to Shenzhen. In the meantime, however, the people I spoke with in Tangxia were not buying a primary home, but rather a home for their retired parents. After all, they like nearby developers are waiting for Dongguan Municipality to build schools and hospitals, integrating Tangxia into the urban grid because the geographic effects of policy are as visible in their absence as they are in their presence.

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