why up?

Post pieced together out of memories of an article I once read, a conversation I once had, and a before and after moment walking past the Shanghai Hotel this afternoon. In reverse order, before (2005)  and after (2011) moment, below.

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The conversation was with several real estate brokers that everyone in Shenzhen wanted to live on the highest floor possible, that’s why developers kept building skyscrapers.The article was about Mumbai as an exemplar of a postmodern city; in conditions of high population density (as in Shenzhen), social stratification is realized by going up, rather than through segregation (as in less populated cities with neighborhoods). Thus, in cities like Shenzhen, street level tends to be a mix of everyone, chaotic (乱) as many often complain, while lives get increasingly rarified the higher one goes.

So if a desire to realize social prestige by moving into the penthouse is not only driving real estate prices, but also driving constant reconstruction of the city, is there any limit other than Babel? Or do we just keep ascending until it all falls down?

(The observant will also notice in just six years how the smog has increased. The Saige Building is actually over a block away from the Shanghai Hotel. The new Rainbow building is going up in that block.)

shenzhen administrative structure

I’ve been making charts to organize my thinking. Below is an organizational chart of Shenzhen, circa 2010.

Also, a simplified version of the organizational relationship between the Central government and local governments. Guangdong is the provincial local; Shenzhen is a sub-provincial city, however, as an SEZ, Shenzhen has all sorts of legal privileges that provinces and direct cities do not.

another call for a housing boycott in shenzhen

Folks in Shenzhen continue to protest the price of housing. This time, an armless beggar wrote the boycott call on the chest of a Generation 90s young woman. The interesting twist in this story? The young woman is from Hong Kong. I’m not sure how the protagonists’ collaboration ties into the ongoing re-structuring of a grassroots Shen Kong identity and deepening cross border integration (as opposed to official planning). Nevertheless, it is interesting to think about the implications of this protest performance: it took place in Lizhi Park, Futian, neither of the protagonists is identified as a Shenzhener, and yet this protest was represented in the press (晶报) as a Shenzhen story. Details, here.

Update (Mar 1): surfing in Youtube, I discovered a report that she had first tried to get a place to live by offering her chest as a pillow. However, the “price was too high” according to a man in the street.

layered densities

Came across Christopher Dewolf’s photos of the area around Diwang (or Shun Hing Square as it is officially known, mostly outside Shenzhen). Worth a look.


Gregory Bateson helped me learn to think about how human beings engage in (ultimately) self-destructive forms of competitive growth; Wendall Berry continues to inspire how I think about rural urbanization under capitalism.

Bateson provided a theory of schismogenesis or “vicious circle,” in which our behavior provokes a reaction in another, whose reaction, in turn, stimulates us to intensify our response. According to Bateson, schismogenesis comes in two flavors: symmetrical and complementary. Symmetrical relationships are those in which the two parties are equals, competitors, such as in sports. Complementary relationships feature an unequal balance, such as dominance-submission (parent-child), or exhibitionism-spectatorship (performer-audience). The point, of course, is that unless there is an agreed upon limit to the development of provocation and response, the relationship just keeps going until it hits a natural limit – collapse of the relationship because neither side can continue to meet and exceed the other’s call.

Berry teaches that one of the more deadly tendencies in capitalist urbanization in the United States is to turn all of us, eventually, into Native Americans. On Berry’s reading, the basic structure of American life was to eradicate the people and lifeways of Native Americans and then to replace those people and lifeways with settler capitalism. Importantly, this model of a settled community being replaced by the next, more intensive form of capitalist production both established the rhythm of American development and has become a powerful symbol of how generations of Americans have justified our destruction of people and lifeways in favor of more efficient and valuable forms of life. Importantly, efficient and valuable are defined in terms of profit. Thus, industrial, mass agriculture replace the settlers that had replaced the Native Americans; smart technologies and production are offered as the solution to problems of rustbelt withering.

How have Bateson and Berry shaped my understanding of Shenzhen?

Shenzhen all too clearly grows through an amazing range and diverse levels of complementary schismogenesis. Within Shenzhen, villages, neighborhoods, districts, and municipal ministries all engage in compete for competitive advantage; at the same time, Shenzhen as a city competes with all other cities in the PRD as well as internationally.  In this system, the function of urban planning is contradictory. On the one hand, the Municipal government needs to stimulate competition so that the city can respond to development in Guangdong, China, and the world. On the other hand, the Municipal government also needs to set limits – usually in the form of social goods, such as parks, schools, and hospitals – on how far development can encroach on the people’s quality of life.

Moreover, as Berry noted, the pattern of the first razing and replacement sets the rhythm and symbolic lexicon for understanding capitalist schismogenesis. The problem in Shenzhen is that eventually, we all become locals, our homes and lifeways replaced by more capitalist intensive forms of consumption (increasingly high maintenance housing) and production (higher value added production).

The result has been the ongoing production of rubble. Villages go. 80s housing goes. 90s residences are going. And as in the United States, postmodern nostalgia has become one of the forms that middle class resignation to this fate takes. The poor occupy the rubble until they are moved elsewhere. Images below.

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the view from my window

stunning play of light. every morning, i wake to beauty, despite. and yes, hard to believe that this is the eastern edge of the houhai land reclamation area, viewed yesterday at sunrise, mid-day, and early evening.

i’m also experimenting with photobucket as a way of getting images onto blog. i can but hope…

what exactly is an urban village anyway?

Shenzhen’s urban villages confound easy categorization precisely because they are sites where Mainland Chinese distinctions between “farmers (农民)” and “city people (市民)” have been constantly negotiated and renegotiated for over thirty years.

In the 80s and early 90s, the question facing the Shenzhen government was: how to transfer collective land to urban work units (to establish urban patterns of property ownership) while providing villagers with a livelihood. The resolution to that problem took the form of “handshake buildings (握手楼)” and village level manufacturing and commerce. These villages were called “new villages (新村)” – as in “Guimiao New Village and Xiangnan New Village, for example. However, the economic success of both the new villages and the pace of Shenzhen’s growth has meant that new villages have constantly bumped up against more intensive forms of urban expansion. Consequently, since the mid-90s, the question facing Shenzhen’s government has been: how to integrate the new villages into the city. Suddenly, the government was pursuing a policy of “[urban] village renovation (旧村改新)”. Of course, the so-called “old villages” were in fact the “new villages” of the past decade. More tellingly, the “new villages” were now called “urban villages (城中村)”, an expression which might conjure images of a massive city surrounding and absorbing a small yet resistant village.

The project to renovate Gangxia [New] Village began in 1998 with a plan to construct the Shenzhen central axis along and through Gangxia. However, it was not until 2008 that the government began negotiating with residents of Gangxia Heyuan (岗厦河园片) to transfer land from villagers to city developers. By that time, Gangxia Heyuan had 580 buildings (mostly handshake buildings) and an estimated population of 70,000 people. Obviously, most of the 70,000 inhabitants were migrant workers and not Gangxia Villagers with landrights and property holdings. Nevertheless, the government had to begin a complicated process of negotiated the terms under which Gangxia Heyuan would be transferred from Gangxia [New Village / Juweihui – and there’s a whole ‘nother story told in another post] to Shenzhen City by way of Futian District.

The crux of the matter was, of course, how to define an equitable transfer because once Gangxia Heyuan became a part of the Central Axis it would cease being an “urban village” and become an “urban center”, with all the symbolic and economic capital implied. Consequently, city reps, the development company, and the Gangxia Heyuan villagers needed to work out the amount of ratio of replacement housing to actual housing and the compensation per meter of housing to which each villager was entitled. In the end, the ratio was established at 1:082 for first floor holdings and 1:088 for second story and above. Compensation was fixed at 12,800 per meter of housing space and 23,800 per meter of commercial space.

Inquiring minds want to know: just how much richer did some villagers become anyway? Well, it depended on how much housing one owned and where it was. A villager who owned one of the 580 buildings, which might have 6-800 square meters would be entitled to anywhere from 475-600 square meters of new housing and 7.5 million to 10.2 million rmb if they only owned residential space and much, much more if commercial. In total, there are figures as high as 9 billion rmb in compensation flying through the rumor mill.

Here’s the rub. All this money seems like a lot until we go back and start factoring in the 70,000 migrant workers and several thousand Gangxia villagers who had unequal access to handshake buildings less than 20 years ago. Thus, because Gangxia New Village included unequal redistributions of handshake buildings and landuse rights, some villagers are now much much richer than others. Rumor has it that one such villager had 6,000 square meters of space, while several others had 3,000 square meters. All told (in hushed voices, of course) Gangxia is rumored to have over 20 billionaires and at least 10 residents with over 10 million in property holdings.

And it doesn’t stop there. None of this takes into account how much the real estate developers are going to earn off the wheeling and dealing that re-building Gangxia into Central Axis luxury condos, high-end commercial areas, and business centers. There are a few non-villagers who will become even richer than the few Gangxia billionaires.

So yes, urban village renovation is not only creating new landscapes, but also accelerating the pace of economic polarization in Shenzhen.

If we include Maoist attempts to ameliorate differences between rural and urban settlements, we’re looking at over sixty years of concerted negotiation of Chinese identity as a debate about rural (tradition) versus urban (modernity). Such that its possible to think of the past 100-odd years of Chinese modernization as a process of rural urbanization and concomitant forms of inequality, legislated, negotiated, and otherwise.

For the curious, the Chinese web has facts, figures, and rumors: here, here, and here.