a state beyond the state

Just finished reading Ting Chen’s A State beyond the State: Shenzhen and the Transformation of Urban China, which maps how land was assigned and developed over the course of 35 years of development in Shenzhen. One of my favorite sections in the book tracks the transformation of Shahe State Farm, pre-1979 Bao’an County’s only danwei into Baishizhou, the city’s most iconic urban village. Indeed, Chen’s meticulous maps suggest how the area has mediated rural-urban conditions since 1959, when the farm was established.

The strength of A State beyond the State is its attention to the actual construction of Shenzhen. All of the state-owned enterprises (SOEs) were provided access to land and finance capital in order to begin developing Shenzhen. The most famous of these are Shekou and Overseas Chinese Town, but there were many other SOEs that have shaped the city, including central, provincial, municipal, and district level enterprises. Their urban planning achievements were not only possible, but also recognized to the extent that they were authorized by the state. Chen shows how Shenzhen’s urban planning history is more precisely understood as the history of how different state-owned enterprises used the resources at their disposal first to create alternatives to the Maoist apparatus and subsequently to control important economic resources within the city. As she documents, the Asian financial crisis (2008) was a key moment in the transfer of resources to SOEs because real estate development was used to stave off many of the effects of the crisis.

The weakness of A State beyond the State seems common to architectural accounts of the city; Chen does not theorize the relationship between the state and its agent developers. Chen documents the transformation of the urban built environment without addressing the consolidation of resources by the SOEs. Indeed, the centralization of resources under the urban state has been one of the key features of “rural urbanization” in Shenzhen. First, collective lands were transferred to the state (1992, 2004) and most recently informal real estate holdings (especially urban villages) are being demolished and reconstructed by designated SOEs. These new developments transform informal property holdings, where small scale entrepreneurs have thrived into formal property holdings, where international chains and other SOEs thrive. China Resources, for example, is not only a major real estate developer in Shenzhen, but also controls access to food. Once they have demolished informal wet markets, they replace them with high-end supermarkets that cater to the city’s upper middle class.

Chen’s book about the construction of Shenzhen must be read alongside an account of its ongoing destruction of entrepreneurial / non-State attempts to accumulate capital. The model of development in Shenzhen once allowed for not-State actors to accumulate capital, including small entrepreneurs. This is famously how Tencent got its start. Nevertheless, as Shenzhen’s private enterprises grew, they were increasingly targeted by the State and brought into its realm through stock options and placement of party secretaries. Of the more disturbing and less talked about stories of the 2000s, of example, was how well placed princelings and their families took over privately held Shenzhen companies by threatening owners with jail and worse. In other words, the aggressive takeover of private resources by state agencies has been ongoing for at least a decade. Similarly, the ongoing demolition of the urban villages not only destroys affordable housing, but also prevents small entrepreneurs from accumulating capital, further polarizing resources between state agents (and their relatives) and society (minjian).

That said, get a copy of A State beyond the State and learn about the lay of the land. Chen’s precise mappings and detailed account reveal much about how Shenzhen was built in the absence of a proper government and centralized control over developable land. After all, to say that SOEs in Shenzhen were authorized to act by different levels of the state is different from saying that the city was planned by the center. And this gap between the state and its agents not only provided a space for experimentation, but gave the city its recognizable forms.

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