about urban villages…

On May 26, I participated in a municipal CPPCC event with the intimate title 《城中村——那些事儿》. The event name might be translated as “What’s happening in our urban villages?” PCC, of course, stands for Political Consultative Conference (政协), which has an advisory role to the government.

The 1.5 hour event format suggests the contours of Shenzhen governance. First, it was held at the southern open auditorium of the central Book City, one of the most popular public spaces in the city. Second, participants included the host, seven PCC representatives, and the audience. I was included as an outside expert to give some thoughts on urban villages. Third, the event was a mix of public comments, debate between PCC representatives on whether to demolish, not to demolish, or to selectively demolish remain urban villages, two short informative films (statistics about urban villages and impressions of urban films), audience responses to the debate, me making a few remarks, and then one closing statement from each of the representatives.

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The language of the event interested me because it suggests how much the debate over Shenzhen’s urban villages has shifted in the past few years. First, the case for upgrading but not demolishing urban villages is being made in terms of heterogeneity (多元化) and choices (选择), which are both considered necessary for the city’s continued prosperity. Second, urban villages have been designated sites where people can change their fate (改变命运的地方). Third, we are no longer speaking of “demolition and eviction (拆迁),” but rather “demolition and reconstruction (拆除重建).” Fourth, villages such as Shangwei, Shuiwei, and Dafen are being held up as exemplars of the history of Reform and Opening. This rhetoric expands the debate about historic preservation from Ming-Qing spaces to include spaces that have been created through post Mao immigration. Fifth, there is now a term for non-village urban spaces: 村外城 (city outside the village), which parallels the expression 城中村 (village inside the city).

These points suggest the extent to which urban villages have been recognized as part of the city. They are considered a source of prosperity, a symbol of the city’s openness, and a necessary supplement to the formal city. From the perspective of renters all this might be good news because the debate is also de facto recognition that although many have come and left Shenzhen, many have also stayed despite not having Shenzhen hukou and these “temporary” residents, their families, and relatives are now indirectly included in debates over the distribution of infrastructure and social welfare.

From the perspective of city management, this new understanding of the place of urban villages in the city has raised new questions about the quasi-legality of handshake buildings. In 1992 and 2004, urban village land was brought into the state apparatus. However, villagers were allowed to build housing on their inherited plots. There was then an interlude while the government figured out what to do with the thriving if unruly villages. Then, beginning in roughly 2009 with Gangxia, demolition and eviction was a question of figuring out how much each square meter of housing was worth, compensating the village landlord, and then building new estates and towers that had clear ownership and were integrating into the urban grid, management system, and tax collection office. Now, inquiring representatives want to know: who’s responsible for the upkeep, environmental quality and safety, and provisioning of services in the villages?

As can be expected in such debates, a key question was how to make rights and responsibilities of village housing transparent to the government. Indeed, some of the representatives were worried that village landlords would be taking advantage of the government’s investment in order to raise rents without making improvements or paying taxes. I know, you’re probably thinking, “…but isn’t that what large corporations do all the time? Why should a few villagers have the same opportunity to game the system?” Or maybe you’re thinking “Didn’t the villagers provide water and electricity until 2004? Surely they should be compensated?!” But most likely you’ve zoomed on the question, “If the point is to clarify ownership of the buildings for tax and management purposes, will the village landlords retain their property rights or are we looking at the emergence of a new form of appropriation of villager resources for less compensation?”

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