can renters become stakeholders in shenzhen?

I like meeting and talking with visiting urbanists because the conversation is refreshingly straight forward about constructing society (via environmental interventions). Who are the stake holders, they ask. Where can we find them? What should we ask them? These clear and solid questions help me think more precisely about Shenzhen because identifying stake holders entails (1) acknowledging competing rights to the city and also (2) mapping the fraught and unformed territory of Shenzhen identity; who does have rights to this city of immigrants? And how did might they claim them?

Today, I’m thinking about approaching these questions through the construction and allocation of rental property.  Why do urban village handshakes — despite constituting the demographically significant residence in the city — why don’t they transform migrants into stakeholders?

For many, the purchase of a house predicates marriage and raising a family. After all, purchasing a house has not only been constitutive of the Shenzhen Dream, but also powerfully informs understanding about dominant social roles — father providers, loving mothers, grandparent caretakers, and filial grand/children who live together in multi-generational households. Indeed, these identities become meaningful through gendered and generational responsibilities to the house itself, which in turn mediates family feeling. Who pays the mortgage, who cleans the house, who pays electrical and water bills, who inherits — these different responsibilities for a house comprise the household as a social institution — the family.

In Shenzhen, these questions beat at the heart of renewal projects that differently target both urbanized villages and 80s danwei compounds. These two neighborhood typologies generally abut each other because the engineering corps (and other work units assigned to Shenzhen circa 1980) set up initial settlements next to the extant rural infrastructure. Today, both provide rental stock for recent migrants, low income families, and actual owners.

In terms of residential demographics, however, these neighborhoods differ. And again the reasons hinge on the ongoing reformulation of property rights in the post Mao era. The housing in urbanized villages is ambiguously owned individually or collectively by villagers and their corporations (because properties rights remain entangled in residual collective institutions). These buildings are the city’s iconic handshake buildings. The housing in danwei compounds, in contrast, is clearly owned by individuals (because privatization in the 1990s definitively transferred property rights from the work unit to the individual). The housing stock in urbanized villages has targeted low-income and temporary residents; it is accordingly small and rarely upgraded. The housing stock in former work unit compounds was built for permanent families, who in turn invested in building improvements. These rentals are larger, more expensive and (in intention, if not result) less temporary than the handshake rentals.

These impressions are confirmed by state investment in the larger environment. Handshakes were built by individuals, who then opportunistically attached themselves to the urban grid, and did not build schools or pubic spaces. In Baishizhou for example even city schools have been housed in repurposed factories. In contrast, danwei compounds offer large public areas, integration into the urban grid, and some of the best schools in the city. In Yuanling, for example, access to the local elementary and middle schools, which were built for the children of various ministries determine rentals in decrepit apartments. Similarly, rentals in Shekou sometimes offer a seat to the Yucai schools, which were built for the children of China Merchant workers. Thus, Handshake rentals imply transience because they neither offered integration into the urban grid, nor provided for children. In contrast, danwei rentals assume permanence through infrastructure and schools, that both integrate the house and it’s future members into society.

Point du jour — It is easier to imagine oneself becoming a stakeholder in Shenzhen when renting a danwei apartment in contrast to renting a handshake apartment no matter how long one has lived in the city. Stakeholder status (or the possibility of becoming a stakeholder) is arguably conferred through the construction and integration of neighborhoods, ex amplified by early danwei housing compounds. In turn, razing urbanized villages and evicting residents by definition doesn’t displace stakeholders, an observation that would explain why there is little outrage when handshake renters get kicked out of their buildings without compensation and without any attempt to find replacement housing for them. Not unexpectedly, among those I have met who self identify as Shenzheners, the grown children of work unit families are the most secure in their attachment to and place of belonging in the city.

The China Merchants slogan, 家在•情在 is loosely translated as “home is where the heart is”. And maybe that’s true. But it is also true that a building does not a stakeholder make. That is a larger, societal project.


2 thoughts on “can renters become stakeholders in shenzhen?

  1. I interviewed around 20 displaced rural migrants, after the demolition of one urban village in Shenzhen. They do have complaints, and their life get much harder after displacement. There is just no way for them to express these complaints, and they kind of get used to it. It’s sad.

    • Hi Ying Liu, thanks for update. Do you know if the complaints came after or before displacement? In other words, how much active desire to maintain urban village social ecologists have you found among your interlocutors?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s