of migrants and immigrants, shenzheners and locals: some definitions

Talking about migrant workers in China (and throughout the world’s booming mega-cities) usually means “rural to urban migration”. However, this is not the case in Shenzhen, where “urban to urban immigration” has been as fundamental to the city’s success and growth. Indeed, the diversity of Shenzhen’s migrant population complicates easy understanding of what it means to be a Shenzhener, let alone academic debates about urban belonging and ideologies of exclusion.

Point du jour is simple: speaking of migrants and immigrants usefully distinguishes ongoing class formation based on whether or not a migrant successfully transitions to being a Shenzhener.

The distinction between migrants and immigrants highlights the way the city’s proletariat is created through ruralization–an ideological practice through which neighborhoods for the working poor and low-income families have been created by denying the urbanity of these neighborhoods and their residents. In Shenzhen, migrants semiotically appear as “rural” regardless of whether they came from a rural area or from a second or third tier city. In contrast, immigrants appear as the “urban” denizens of Shenzhen.

And yet. Many immigrants do not actually have Shenzhen hukou. They just look like they belong to the city. Consequently, we need an epanorthosis to talk about Shenzhen’s complex demography of migrants and immigrants, Shenzheners and locals, and second generation children who have class-inflected Shenzhen identities.

  • Migrants:  may be rural to urban migrants, but may also be urban to urban migrants who have been ruralized through proletarianization and long-term residence in an urban village.
  • Immigrants: may be urban to urban migrants, but may also be rural to urban migrants who hold office jobs and live in residential developments.
  • Immigrants: have transitions from being either a migrant or an immigrant and now have Shenzhen hukou.
  • Locals: were born into a Bao’an village before Reform and Opening began. Semiotically, they look like rural to urban migrants. Administratively, they have Shenzhen hukou. Economically, they participate in the city via corporate holdings.
  • Shenzheners: are the children of migrants, immigrants, immigrants, and locals. They share a Shenzhen identity that is inflected through the status of their parents–they are “Shenzheners”. This category matters because Shenzhen is experiencing a baby boom.

Striking similar notes, friend Linda Vlassenrood of International New Tow Institute has published a brief introduction to Shenzhen that discusses Chinese Urbanization through the Lens of Dalang, one of the city’s more innovative street offices, Da Lang. This essay looks at bottom up policies in which Shenzheners and immigrants are helping migrants adjust to Shenzhen.

As a city, Shenzhen mainly thinks in top-down strategies and simply adds new hardware – the sum of infrastructure, buildings and industries – in order to encourage urban and therefore economic growth. It is less interested in the question of which existing social dynamics need to be accepted or improved in order to strengthen the city’s potential, let alone the socio-economic conditions that are necessary to successfully regenerate an existing neighborhood or to sustainably extend the city… Or at least this seems to be the case at first glance. When we look beyond the general characteristics of a top-down regulated city, relations between the Shenzhen government and society are much more closely intertwined.

Also at INTI, Haotian Lin discusses the failure to provide affordable housing in China, using early era danwei housing in Luohu as a case study. Here, the relevant question is one of what happened to the initial social welfare system that enabled early urban to urban migrants to successfully immigrate (rather than float) in Shenzhen? Today, young migrants from China’s rural areas AND its second and third tier cities find themselves trying to establish viable livelihoods in Shenzhen.

Like many other Chinese cities, Shenzhen is experiencing intense spatial transformation. Downgraded neighborhoods are replaced with luxury housing, shopping malls and offices. Such development might improve the competitiveness of the city, but ignores the affordability of the city for lower-income groups. The reliance on the market parties to develop affordable housing has not produced satisfying results. The ‘old’ Danwei housing, which is profusely present throughout the city, has a number of qualities that make it attractive for redevelopment. Might it solve the shortage of affordable housing for the young and creative class, and thereby contribute positively to the transformation of Shenzhen?

Together, these short posts remind us how diverse Shenzhen’s migrant population actually is. I have discussed this issue more broadly in a paper from 2006, Fox Talk which looks at how urban to urban migrants use theater and other cultural practices to establish middle class identities. Laying Siege to the Villages contextualizes ruralization in Shenzhen.

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