land reform, again.

An Old Shenzhener once complained to me that since the 1989 Crackdown, in Shenzhen “reform” has been too often interpreted to mean “refining the state system”, rather than actually reforming society. His point was simple. During the first decade of Reform, people had an opportunity to participate in and even direct the direction of development in Shenzhen. The fact of widespread participation made Shenzhen “special”. In contrast, after June 4th, Shenzhen became increasingly bureaucratized – like Beijing – and participating in social transformation was no longer possible for the common people. Instead, the Government had become the key social force and thus, social agency meant “works under the guidance of government bureaus” for the benefit of government officials and their cronies.

The Municipality’s latest “land reform (土改)” program illustrates the problem that aggrieved my friend. Last week, the government released three documents that legislate the scope and direction of land reform: The Comprehensive Plan to Reform Shenzhen Land Administration (深圳市土地管理制度改革总体方案), The Immediate Short Term Plan (2012-2015) of the Comprehensive Plan to Reform Shenzhen Land Administration, (〈深圳市土地管理制度改革总体方案〉近期实施方案(2012~2015年), and Notification of the Establishment of the Shenzhen Land Administration Reform Guiding Committee (关于成立深圳市土地管理制度改革领导小组的通知). Together these documents determine the target of reform, the method of reform, and the people who will interpret and implement land reform. Moreover, even a cursory reading the documents indicates that at stake in these documents is (1) finalizing the transfer of outstanding land rights from village holdings to the Municipality and (2) determining the status of informal property rights in urban villages so that (3) developers can more easily realize the goals outlined in the Municipality’s Comprehensive Master Plan, 2010-2020.

And there’s the rub: During the 1980s, villagers and various entrepreneurs collaborated to build the urban villages. My friend understood this situation be “true” or “ideal” reform because ordinary people could realize projects outside the purview of government plans. At the time, none of those projects were “informal” or “illegal” because the villages held legal land rights. He also thought that this freedom to develop land was the precondition for true social reform. He didn’t think that all villages had done a good job with the opportunity, but nevertheless believed that the idea of small-scale development and common participation was the point of reform. However, once the villages had been incorporated into the Municipal apparatus, that first round of development could be reinterpreted in terms of illegal buildings and informal property rights, alienating villagers and unofficial developers from participating in future development projects except as recipients of compensation packages.

Shenzhen property rights are a muddle that the Government needs to handle carefully to avoid aggravating extant (and growing) inequality. On the one hand, by incorporating village lands into the state apparatus and compensating villagers and independent landlords for their extant holdings, the Government creates ill will on two counts. First, people without hereditary land rights or informal property rights have no chance to benefit from this process. Second, with the exception of farmers, the process enriches government officials and corporate executives, which is the common sense definition of “corruption”. On the one hand, if the government were to reform property laws to allow for individuals to develop land, this would mean completely restructuring the state apparatus and concomitant property rights. This is what my friend would like to see – capitalist opportunities for individuals, rather than for government officials and large corporations. But this seems more a definition of “revolution” than “land reform” as it would mean redistributing rights to high-rises, shopping malls, neighborhoods, housing estates, and industrial areas.

Guanwai village lands were not only extensive, but also remain underdeveloped. Consequently, the experimental target of overall land reform in the 2012-2015 short term plan is Pingshan New District, while the experimental targets of “second round development (第二次开发)” are be Gonghe Community, Shajing Precinct, Baoan and Shanxia Community, Pinghu Precinct, Longgang.

special is as special does

The new Qianhai Bay Shenzhen Hong Kong Modern Service Cooperative Zone (前海深港现代服务业合作区), which has been billed as “the Special Zone’s Special Zone (特区的特区)” illustrates the principal that in Shenzhen, the character “special (特)” is often most usefully translated as “privileged”.

As yet, the Shen Kong Zone does not exist; it will be created through reclaiming coastal land along the Pearl River Delta. However, it has been planned, approved, and contracts signed. Not unexpectedly, as the City revs up for a prosperous Year of the Rabbit, Qianhai has become a media focus.

What’s special about the new zone? One, it will be administered under Hong Kong law by a joint committee of Shenzhen and Hong Kong representatives and is thus, the latest incarnation of the “One Country, Two Systems” policy. Two, in order to build the New Zone, the Eastern Coast of the Pearl River will be narrowed and the actual river bed deepened in order to serve even larger and more ships. Three, like Guangming and Pingshan New Districts, Qianhai is one of the few areas in the city with Government mandated competitive advantage.

Clearly, Shenzhen and Hong Kong are cooperating in order to create one of the largest and most comprehensive service ports in the world. The media is gushing about all the money that this project will bring to the two cities specifically and the Delta more generally. However, as development rights have already been allocated, the money that will be earned there has already been divvied up and so what we’re left with is a promise that trickle down economics might kick in at some point.