book of changes ep. 4

In this episode of Shenzhen Book of Changes, we’re visiting Ms. Cai, who rents a stall in the Dongmen Textile Market. Several years ago, she migrated to Shenzhen from a small city in northern Hubei to be closer to her daughter. She possessed the tenacity and business savvy to start up a small business in this bustling city of migrants.

another park, this time in dongmen

Went for a ride with Sarah.

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laying siege to the villages: luohu and dongmen

A five-part essay, “Laying Siege to the Villages” has been published online at Open Democracy. Here’s part three, which discusses the opening of the Sino-British border at Luohu. Hong Kong lay south of the border and Shenzhen to its north.

3. Neo-Liberalizing the Bamboo Curtain: Luohu and Dongmen

Two factors – political and economic – motivated the 1953 decision to move the Bao’an County Seat from its historical site at Nantou, on the Pearl River to Caiwuwei, a village located next to Shenzhen Old Town and the first station on the Chinese side of the Kowloon-Canton Railway (KCR). Politically, Shenzhen Market was located at the actual Sino-British border and this is where the Chinese military was stationed after England supported the American action in Korea. This border became metaphorically known as the Bamboo Curtain, a reference to the Cold War Iron Curtain that split Europe into Capitalist and Communist blocks. Luohu Bridge was the southern entry point into the People’s Republic. Beginning in 1955, it is estimated that between 1 and 2.5 million Mainlanders attempted to escape through Bao’an to Hong Kong, with mass exoduses occurring in 1957, 1962, 1972, and 1979. Economically, the Shenzhen train station connected the area to the national railway system. The socialist planned economy relied on an extensive railway system to transform the scale of the Chinese economy from a traditional economy of peasants to a modern economy based on mass transfers of goods and people. In addition, the location of the new County seat also facilitated processing of foodstuffs that were sold for hard currency in Hong Kong via the Wenjing Crossing (map 5).

 luohu train station area, circa 1978

Map 5: Bao’an County Seat and Luohu Train Station Area, circa 1978

The establishment of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone in 1980 was also motivated to take advantage of proximity to Hong Kong to achieve national goals. The earliest plan for the Shenzhen SEZ was to develop the 50-km2 area that extended east and west from the KCR railway tracks, upgrading extant roads and developing the rice paddies and Lychee orchards that surrounded the County headquarters, commercial area of Old Town, and extant villages. Two of the most important decisions were to restructure the traffic flow of the area. First, the railroad tracks that traversed County Headquarters were removed. Industrial Parks were built along the remaining extension line and the northern portion of the railroad. Second, the area’s main road, Jiefang was widened west beyond County Headquarters and east near Huangbeiling. The stretch of Liberation that traversed Old Town remained intact. Instead, the People’s Engineering Corps lay a segment of new road that went around the southern border of Old Town or Dongmen, connecting the newly widened sections of Jiefang Road. This new road was called Shennan Thoroughfare and its layout informed all subsequent urbanization of the area. Subsequent development either followed the railroad north toward Buji or west toward Guangzhou.

Villages immediately adjacent to Luohu Bridge, Wenjing Crossing, County Headquarters, and the KCR railroad tracks boomed. In 1980, the villages had four primary sources of revenue – monetary compensation for land rights transfer from collectives to the state; profits from agricultural produce sold to the immigrants; rental properties, and; contraband goods that were smuggled into Shenzhen and sold in either the village market or a stall in Dongmen. However, very quickly the villages also built leisure facilities and commercial areas that targeted Hong Kong day-trippers, who enjoyed services and bought products at prices well below Hong Kong rates. Indeed, by Deng Xiaoping’s 1984 tour of the SEZ, the Luohu Villages had become the symbol of “Small Prosperity (xiaokang)”, the material quality of their homes, furniture, and income even surpassing that of workers in state-owned industries, let alone the rest of China.

The most famous Luohu Village was Yumin or Fishing Village, which held an important place in both national Chinese and local Shenzhen symbolic geography for three reasons. First, the name “Fisher People Village” indicates the ongoing smoothing of local hierarchy and integration of Dan households into first Bao’an County and then the city.  Yumin Villagers were ethnically 蛋家 (Literally “Egg Households”), the group of South Chinese fishermen who did not have land settlement rights. Historically, local governments did not permit Dan to wear shoes when they came ashore, to use red lanterns at wedding ceremonies, to marry land villagers, or to participate in the imperial examination. Under Mao, the Dan had been given land from Caiwuwei Village (location of Baoan County headquarters), moving onshore to build homes.

Second, Yumin Village was one of the first villages to take advantage of reforms, but not in the form of the Household Responsibility system, but rather as a collective. In 1979 – even before the official establishment of the SEZ, Yumin Village Head, Deng Zhibiao organized the purchase of tractors to build increase the size of Yumin fish farms by converting all unused land into fisheries, increasing production from several to over 100 mu. According to Deng Zhibiao’s calculations, at the time one mu of fish produced several thousand yuan. Within a year, the village had saved enough money to collectively build 2-3 story private homes as well as factories. Yumin Village thus had the distinction of being the first “10,000 yuan village” in the country. When Deng Xiaoping visited Shenzhen in 1984, he was taken to view one of the small 2-3 story houses that the villagers had built and shown a modern parlor, complete with tv, curtains, and new furniture. In news reports about Deng’s 1984 Southern Tour, Yumin Village was mistaken for Shenzhen’s “original settlement” and the myth that Shenzhen was once upon a time a small fishing village embedded itself in future reports about the city.

Third, Yumin Village’s location meant that they were positioned to develop rental properties for the massive influx of Shenzhen migrants. Even as Deng Xiaoping was pushing through reforms to the 14 coastal cities, by the late 1980s and early 1990s, Yumin villagers were razing the original private homes and putting up 6-8 story handshake buildings to take advantage of rental opportunities. After all, Yumin Village was conveniently located next to the train station. Consequently, in 2,000 when Luohu began to negotiate village renovation with Yumin Village the stakes had been raised significantly. At the end of the process in 2004, Yumin Village had been rebuilt as an upscale residential area, under a single village owned property management company. The New Village consisted of eleven 12-story buildings and one 20-story multi-purpose building. Each village household was given 30 units within the new complex.

Importantly, Yumin was only one of the Luohu area villages. Each of the other villages – Caiwuwei, Hubei, and Xixiang, for example, underwent similar transformations with one important exception. Unlike Yumin, Caiwuwei, Hubei and Xixiang had histories that stretched into the Ming-Qing dynasties. This meant their land holdings were not only more extensive than Yumin, but also gave them a stronger bargaining position vis-à-vis the state apparatus. Moreover, since the 2007 decision to make urban villages the focus of urban renewal, the Luohu villages have been the sites of the strongest popular resistance to upgrading for two reasons. First, as of 2013, the villages remained the cheapest and most convenient housing option for the working poor. Secondly, the older sections of the villages represented the history of Shenzhen, both ancient and contemporary. Over thirty years after the establishment of the SEZ, Luohu has become an object of nostalgia for many early migrants, second generation Shenzheners and young professionals. Not unexpectedly, perhaps, villagers themselves have been willing to sell their housing rights to the highest bidder, while low-income families have viewed the villages as gateways to better living conditions in one of Shenzhen’s formal housing estates.

laying siege to the villages: lessons from shenzhen

An essay written for Open Democracy is now online. Here’s the introduction. Over the next few days, I will put up the sections on Nantou, Luohu-Dongmen, Xixiang, and Baishizhou.

Laying Siege to the Villages: Informal Urbanization in Shenzhen

Although Shenzhen is famous for its “urban villages” or “villages in the city” (城中村 chengzhongcun), nevertheless, in 2004 Shenzhen became the first Chinese city without villages. Full stop. This fact bears repeating: legally, there are no villages in Shenzhen. As of 2007, Shenzhen Municipality had a five-tiered bureaucracy consisting of the municipality (市shi), districts (市区shiqu), new districts (新区 xinqu), sub-districts or streets (街道jiedao), and communities (社区shequ). Since 2010, the Districts have been known as the inner districts and outer districts, reflecting when they were incorporated into the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone (SEZ) (Map 1).

 Administrative_Divisions_of_Shenzhen_City

Under Mao, rural areas were China’s revolutionary heart and “villages surrounded the city (农村围绕城市)” was an explicit political, economic, and social strategy for revolutionary change. The Mandarin expression “surrounds (围绕)” can also be translated as “lays siege to”, highlighting the rural basis of the Chinese Revolution. Early Chinese Communists had followed the Russian example and entered cities to organize workers. However, when Nationalist forces led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek violently suppressed Communist organizations in Chinese cities the Communists retreated to the countryside. Moreover, communists and local people identified colonial ports such as Hong Kong with the proliferation of traitors, parasitic merchants, and corrupt officials. Consequently, while Marx claimed that modern history was the urbanization of the countryside, the Chinese revolution aimed to re-occupy and purify the cities. Beginning in 1927 until the occupation of Beijing in 1949, the Communists organized rural resistance to both Japanese invaders and Nationalist hegemony, literally surrounding the cities with an estimated 5 million rural soldiers.

The establishment of Shenzhen signaled the beginning of a new era in Chinese history – “cities surround the villages (城市围绕农村)”, an expression which Shenzhen urban planners and architects have self-consciously used to describe urbanization in the city. Historically, there were legally constituted villages in Shenzhen. The present ambiguity over the status of villages and villagers is a result of contradictions between Maoist economic planning and post-Mao liberalization policies. Under Mao, the country was segregated into rural and urban areas. In rural areas, villages were designated production teams and organized into work brigades that were administered by communes. Communes had to meet agricultural production quotas that financed industrial urbanization and socialist welfare policies in cities, which were tellingly defined as “not-agrarian (非农feinong)”. Importantly, the hukou or household registration policy literally kept people in place – the allocation of food, housing, jobs, and social welfare took place through hukou status. Food and grain coupons were city-specific, for example, and a Shanghai meat coupon could not be legally exchanged in a neighboring city, let alone Beijing. In rural areas, however, communes and production brigades provided neither food coupons nor housing to members. Instead, brigade members produced their own food (usually what was leftover after production quotas had been met) and built their own homes or rural dormitories as they were known in the Maoist system.

In 1979, when the Guangdong Provincial Government elevated Bao’an County to Shenzhen Municipality, the area was rural, and the majority of its 300,000 residents had household registration in one of 21 communes, which were further organized into 207 production brigades. However, hukou status notwithstanding, the integration of brigades and teams had not been complete and members continued to identify with traditional village identities. Although the names of Shenzhen’s current districts were the names of ten of the larger communes, for example, with the exception of Guangming, they were also historically the names of large villages that had been the headquarters for communes. In 1980, the Central government further liberalized economic policy in Shenzhen by establishing the area that bordered Hong Kong as a Special Economic Zone (SEZ). This internal border was known as “the second line”, in contrast to the Sino-British border at Hong Kong or “the first line”. The re-designation legalized industrial manufacturing and foreign investment (primarily from Hong Kong) in the new SEZ. Outside the second line, Shenzhen Municipality established New Bao’an County, which was still legally rural and administered through collective institutions.

The elevation of Bao’an County to Shenzhen Municipality created an anomalous situation within Socialist China because the administrative division of Shenzhen into the SEZ and New Bao’an County only legalized new economic measures; it did not transfer traditional land rights from brigades and teams to the new municipal government. Instead, the first task of urban work units that came to the SEZ was to negotiate the equitable transfer of land rights from the collectives to the urban state apparatus. The goal was to insure that rural workers would continue to have space for housing and enough land to ensure agricultural livelihoods. And this is where historical village identities reasserted themselves. In theory, the urban work units negotiated with brigade and team leaders to transfer the administration of land from the rural to the urban sector of the state apparatus. In turn, the brigades and teams would continue to produce food for the new urban settlements. In practice, however, brigade and team leaders acted on behalf of their natal villages and co-villagers, asserting a pre-revolutionary social identity.

The legal slippage between collective identity within China’s rural state apparatus and collective identity through membership in a traditional village arose because although the Constitution and subsequent Land Law of 1986 stated that rural farmland belonged to the collective, neither document went so far as to define what a collective actually was in law. Indeed, the difference between rural and urban property rights has been the foundation for post-Mao reforms, first in Shenzhen and then throughout the country. In 1982, the amended Constitution formally outlined the different property rights under rural and urban government. According to Article 8 of the Chinese Constitution:

Rural people’s communes, agricultural producers’ co-operatives, and other forms of co- operative economy such as producers’ supply and marketing, credit and consumers co-operatives, belong to the sector of socialist economy under collective ownership by the working people. Working people who are members of rural economic collectives have the right, within the limits prescribed by law, to farm private plots of cropland and hilly land, engage in household sideline production and raise privately owned livestock. The various forms of co-operative economy in the cities and towns, such as those in the handicraft, industrial, building, transport, commercial and service trades, all belong to the sector of socialist economy under collective ownership by the working people. The state protects the lawful rights and interests of the urban and rural economic collectives and encourages, guides and helps the growth of the collective economy.[1]

In contrast, according to Article 10, land in cities is owned by the State:

Land in the rural and suburban areas is owned by collectives except for those portions which belong to the state in accordance with the law; house sites and private plots of cropland and hilly land are also owned by collectives. The state may in the public interest take over land for its use in accordance with the law. No organization or individual may appropriate, buy, sell or lease land, or unlawfully transfer land in other ways. All organizations and individuals who use land must make rational use of the land.[2]

The contradiction between the fact that villages no longer have legal status in Shenzhen and their traditional claims to land rights and social status – both of which are recognized by Shenzhen officials and residents – has constituted a serious political challenge for Shenzhen officials, who have viewed the villages as impediments to “normal (正常)” urbanization. Officials have defined “normal” urbanization with respect to the Shenzhen’s Comprehensive Urban Plan, which has already gone through four editions (1982, 1986, 1996, and 2010). In other words, “normal” urbanization has referred either to formal urbanization or informal urbanization that has secured legal recognition. In contrast, Shenzhen’s urban villages emerged informally as local residents not only built rental properties to house the city’s booming migrant population, but also developed corporate industrial parks, commercial recreational and entertainment centers, and shopping streets. As of January 2013, for example, it was estimated that half of Shenzhen’s 15 million registered inhabitants lived in the villages. Moreover, these densely inhabited settlements also provided the physical infrastructure that has sustained the city’s extensive grey economy, including piecework manufacturing, spas and massage parlors, and cheap consumer goods.

In Shenzhen, urban villages have been the architectural form through which migrants and low-status citizens have claimed rights to the city. Importantly, informal urbanization in the villages has occurred both in dialogue with and in opposition to formally planned urbanization. On the one hand, informal urbanization in Shenzhen urban villages has ameliorated many of the more serious manifestations of urban blight that plague other boomtowns. Unlike Brazilian favelas, for example, Shenzhen urban villages are not located at the edge of the city, but rather distributed throughout the entire city and many urban villages occupy prime real estate. Consequently, Shenzhen’s urban villages have been integrated into the city’s infrastructure grid and receive water, electricity, and also have access to cheap and convenient public transportation. Moreover, as Shenzhen has liberalized its hukou laws, urban villages have also been where migrants have access to social services, including schools and medical clinics. Thus, Shenzhen’s urban villages have provided informal solutions to boomtown conditions. On the other hand, the lack of formal legal status of urban villages and by extension the residents of urban villages has allowed the Municipality to ignore residents’ rights to the city via the convenience of centrally located low-income neighborhoods. In fact, the ambiguous status of urban villages became even more vexed in 2007, when the Shenzhen government initiated a plan to renovate urban villages. It has been widely assumed that the government promulgated the new plan in order to benefit from the real estate value of urban village settlements. Critically, the Municipality’s plans for urban renovation compensated original villagers while ignoring the resettlement needs of migrant residents. Thus, the status of at least half of Shenzhen’s population suddenly entered into public discourse as it has become apparent that although the urban villages resulted from informal practices, nevertheless, they have been the basis for the city’s boom.

Ruralization: The Ideology of Global Inequality

Each of the sections in this essay explores the social antagonisms that have emerged through the transformation of Bao’an County into Shenzhen Municipality via informal urbanization in the villages. The point is that Shenzhen’s so-called urban villages are in fact urban neighborhoods that grew out of previous rural settlements through rapid industrial urbanization. Nevertheless, the designation of “rural” or “village” still clings to these neighborhoods, making them the target of renovation projects and ongoing calls for upgrades. In turn, these calls justify razing neighborhoods and displacing the working poor with upper and upper middle class residential and commercial areas. Recently, Caiwuwei was razed and rebuilt as the KK 100 Mall, while Dachong was razed and as of 2013 a new development under construction. Hubei, the old commercial center in Luohu has been designated as the next major area to be razed, while in late 2012, the Shenzhen Government and Lujing Developers announced their intention to raze and rebuild Baishizhou as a centrally located luxury development.

In Shenzhen, ruralization is primarily 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 this practice, the city’s rural history is invoked to demonstrate that neighborhoods which grew out of villages are continuations of the village, rather than the results of informal urbanization. Indeed, there are few actual remains of Shenzhen’s rural past. Instead, the target of official rural renovation projects are in fact the informal housing and industrial parks that were built roughly between the mid 1980s through 2004/5, when the municipal government began actively preventing informal construction.

In addition, I have included annotated maps and photographs that illustrate the spatial and social forms of these different contradictions have taken. With respect to recent Chinese history, this level of specificity aims to make salient how Shenzhen enabled national leaders to reform Mao’s rural revolution. With respect to contemporary research on mega-cities, this essay draws attention to the ways in which architectural forms have facilitated neoliberal urbanisms that exclude the poor from desired futures.


[1] Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (adopted on December 4, 1982), accessed at http://english.people.com.cn/constitution/constitution.html on February 26, 2013.

[2] Ibid.

as yet shenzhen has no capital h history…

The experience of walking Shenzhen is significantly different from visiting, Beijing or Shanghai, Xi’an or Guangzhou, where the meaning of the past has already been codified, renovated, and can be consumed on a nostalgic tour. In school we learn that Beijing’s history is Ming-Qing imperial, Shanghai’s history is East-West colonial hybrid, Xi’an’s history is ancient, while Guangzhou’s history is South China sea commerce and migration. We then go to the respective tourist destination to have our knowledge confirmed and perhaps enriched by and through an appropriate activity. We walk Beijing’s hutong and the Forbidden City, drink coffee or cocktails in a stylish restaurant in Shanghai’s shikumen and the Bund, admire Xi’an’s beilin and terracotta soldiers, and wander the small shops of Guangzhou’s West Gate. Indeed, each of these tourist destinations succeeds as such precisely because the site metonymically represents the respective city’s place in China’s “5,000 years” of civilization. We leave thinking we have a deeper understanding of where we have been. Maybe we do. Most likely we don’t. But there is something reassuring in having our stereotypes confirmed, and those stereotypes are what I mean by capital h history.

Now, there are historically significant sites in Shenzhen — Old NantouDapeng Fortress, the Chiwan Tianhou TempleDongmen, and Yumin Village. However, municipal efforts to promote Old Nantou and Dongmen, notwithstanding, none of these historical sites has captured the imagination of either residents or visitors. I suspect this is in part because each of these places represents a portion of Chinese history that is already preserved elsewhere. Old Nantou and the Chiwan Tianhou Temple, for example, represent ancient efforts to develop the Chinese salt trade and settle the Pearl River Delta, but there are finer examples of that era to be imagined and seen in Guangzhou, while ancient Chinese history is more elegantly preserved in Xi’an and Jiangnan. Even the Tianhou sea cult is more closely identified with Tianjin and Xiamen than it is with South China temples and shrines. Likewise, Dapeng Fortress is an outpost of Ming-Qing military imperialism, but of a failed variety, rather than successful garrisons to be explored throughout the north.

Dongmen and Yumin Village are perhaps more representative of Shenzhen’s importance as the epicenter of early reform. However, both are historically compromised. Although Dongmin is identified with so-called Shen Kong commerce, for example, there really are more upscale malls throughout both Shenzhen and Hong Kong where one might purchase global products. And what about Yumin Village? Deng Xiaoping visited Yumin Village in 1984, inspecting one of the three-story private homes that local villagers had just built. He declared that Shenzhen speed was a good thing and that the rest of the country should follow. The 1995 exhibition to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the establishment of the Shenzhen SEZ included an installation that reproduced the interior of one of those homes, which at the time, was more luxurious than the homes of urban cadres in Beijing and Shanghai. Here’s the rub: although Yumin Village has been integrated into the Shenzhen municipal apparatus as a Luohu neighborhood, nevertheless the actual buildings that Deng saw and even the home he inspected were razed over ten years ago. There is a history board there, but nothing from 1984 remains and Yumin Village continues to function as a border urban village, with low rents for migrants who work nearby, spas and massage parlors for visiting Hong Kong people, and places where villagers play mah jong and gather to drink tea and gossip.

The absence of an agreed upon master narrative means that walking Shenzhen allows individuals to judge what does and does not represent capital h history in the SEZ. Now Shenzhen does boast upscale skyscrapers that represent achievements within this process — Guomao, Diwang, and the Civic Center all come to mind and are worth a visit. Those wanting to see the “real” capital h historic Shenzhen, I suggest visiting either an industrial park or an urban village. Early 80s work unit housing in Luohu and Shekou are also great examples of how industrial urbanization transformed the area. Personally, however, I believe that if Shenzhen has a place in China’s 5,000 years narrative it is as an epicenter of rural urbanization, including transformation of the local environment, proletarianization of rural migrants to SEZ factories, and the forms of urbanization that returned workers have promoted or their remittances enabled. However, even after over 30 years of reforming and opening Baoan villages, the city is only just starting to come to terms with this legacy and most villages, even the most famous such as Baishizhou are scheduled to be razed. All this to say that as yet, the meaning of Shenzhen’s cultural and historical inheritance is still up for grabs because we are only just starting to come to terms with the urban legacy of Reform and Opening. This means that as yet the city has no capital h history and no corresponding historical sites that one can visit and say, “Yes, I’ve been to Shenzhen and I know where I’ve been.”

Walk anyway. The Shenzhen you experience will be only loosely tethered to stereotypes about China and you might make something else of it. Below, impressions of a recent walk in Fuyong.

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hubei old village, dusk

Thursday last, I walked Old Hubei Village with Chen Ting, an architectural graduate student with an interest in the landscape of Shenzhen’s state-owned industries. A walk around the train station and then through the Dongmen pedestrian street brought us across the Dongmen pedestrian overpass to the complex neighborhood where Hubei Villages Old and New abut the Luohu Culture Park, crumbling 80s factories, and 90s high-rises and one of the oldest Shenzhen food-streets eased into dusk. Impressions below:

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storm clouds


tianmian clouds

these past two weeks, it has rained in shenzhen and the rest of the delta. on friday the 13th (!), the rains flooded baoan district, killed six, and delayed airflights. songgang was the worst hit. that night, storm water also pooled throughout the city and public transportation stopped, causing hundreds to wade home.

in between the downpours, however, the cloud formations have been stunning. pictures from tianmian, dongmen (hubei new village), huaqiangbei, and houhai.