I know, you’re asking yourself: how is it already 2019? The date pounds like a migraine because once again we’re in the middle of a China-history countdown: 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, 60th anniversary of the start of the great leap forward famine, 50th anniversary of the Sino-Soviet border conflict, 40th anniversary of the “First Blast” of Reform and Opening chez Shekou, 30th anniversary of the Tian’anmen democracy movement, 20th anniversary of the crackdown against Falungong, and the 10th anniversary of Shenzhen’s decision to upgrade its “dirty, chaotic, and substandard (脏乱差)” urban villages.
I know, you’re thinking: important things also happened in years ending with 0. For example, we count generations in terms of “post” 1950, 1960, 1970… and, yes, there are those who have reminded me that the difference between “post 1980” and “post 1985” is vast. But. The nines of modern China persist, framing discussions of “that was then, this is now” in the urban village (that used to be a “new village.”) And so today I’ve been thinking about speed and scale and how the urban villages might not ever have been what we think they were.
So, this image was montaged from photographs taken in Shazui, the village that came to our attention during the 2006 anti-sex crackdown. Shazui was one of the red light villages that flourished around the Huanggang checkpoint. Others included Shuiwei, Shangsha, and Xiasha (for more on the history of sex workers in Shenzhen, read Willa Dong and Yu Cheng’s chapter “Sex Work, Mental Health and Migration in Shenzhen” in Learning from Shenzhen.) Cleaning up the area took time meant restructuring the immediate economy, which also occurred in tandem with top-down deindustrialization. Images from Shazui circa 2009, were taken just before the reoccupation of the villages through real estate development began, showing how the ruins of the sex industry were being reoccupied, even as assembly manufacturing was being phased out. But that’s the point, even in 2009, there was still (an albeit crippled by ongoing efforts to bootstrap to creative industries) manufacturing presence in Shazui that made the village as corporation and as neighborhood relatively independent:
This “that was then this is now” comparison has me thinking about the extent to which the real estate development replaced manufacturing as the value produced in and through the villages during the decade from 2009 through 2019. This shift not only allowed for the greater concentration of wealth both by mega-state owned enterprises more generally, but also propelled the concentration of wealth in Futian District–the city’s CBD–more specifically.
I’m also just realizing that the extent to which the economic restructuring that characterized this decade reframed our debates about how township and village enterprises had promoted industrial urbanization to debates about the value of urban villages as sites of affordable housing. Suddenly, the villages are being thought of as “bedroom communities,” and the debate becomes over who should have housing and what obligations does the city have to its residents. In practical terms, this takes the form over debates about access to family housing, schools, and elder care.
None of which were issues ten years ago in part because the average age of residents was much lower and single, but also because the hukou population was about 2.5 million and concentrated in the inner districts. Indeed, 2009 was the year that children of parents with temporary residence permits were allowed to attend public schools (k-9). Today, however, the city has taken partial responsibility for the temporary residents living in the outer districts. This new intervention has taken the form of the increased presence of social workers (社工), who arrange after school programs, organize volunteers, and make house calls on the residents in their administrative cache.
Consequently and update on what we think of as urban villages is needed because we are no longer thinking (primarily) about informal production regimes, but rather the ways in which formalization of the economy has created new spaces and the concomitant need for new forms of governance.