even maoist spaces crumble and fade…

Only eleven houses remain occupied in Baishizhou’s Tangtou row houses.

Nanshan District tacitly condemned these houses several years ago, but did not become serious about evictions until the Universidade (Summer 2011). As inhabitants were evicted, the District padlocked the doors, so that the buildings could not be reoccupied. However, as the saying goes, “Those on top have policies, those on the bottom have countermeasures (上有政策,下有对策)”. When houses weren’t immediately padlocked, another family or worker or group of friends moved in. The owners continued to collect rent. When enforcers from the Urban Management Bureau (城管) came by either the inhabitants moved, or made friends with them and stayed, waiting for the final eviction.

This wait and see attitude has been much more successful for inhabitants of houses where the landlord is either in Hong Kong or further abroad. As a 4-year resident said, “Property managers don’t care what we do because the absent landlords are legally responsible. All they have to do is collect rents and their paychecks. I’m polite to urban management and they leave me alone. We’re all human, and when it’s time to move, they’ll tell me.”

Nanshan District has decided to close down the area completely because the summer rains further weakened the structures. These buildings from rural collectivism are no longer simply considered an eyesore, but also dangerously unsound. The vanishing of Maoist economic legacies was, of course, one of Shenzhen’s raison d’etre. However, Maoism lingered in the nooks and crannies of previously built spaces, such as Tangtou. Indeed, the Tangtou row houses are one of the few remaining examples of Maoist architecture in Shenzhen’s inner districts and once they have been razed, Maoism will become more of a spectre than it already is.

Thought du jour: in Shenzhen, even crumbling, Maoist dormitories can no longer safely shelter the city’s poorest workers and their families. Wither the left, indeed.

Impressions of Tangtou wet and sunny, and still occupied interior.

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bounded histories

Yesterday, I went to the Bao’an Archives Office (深圳市宝安区档案馆) and met with one of the editors of the Bao’an Gazetteer (宝安史志).

The conversation turned to the paradoxical dependency of historical narratives on a sense of immortal China and actual historical archives. This paradox might be glossed as a contradiction between “emotional” and “documented” history. On the one hand, patriotism, tradition, and the deep history of Han settlement anchors the idea of “Shenzhen history”. The emotional sense that Shenzhen is and has always been part of “China” is created through a narrative that links the history of Xin’an Ancient City, for example, is written with respect to the area’s integration into the Eastern Jin Dynasty and the development of the imperial salt monopoly. Thus, ongoing political restructuring — beginning with contemporary Shenzhen and arriving at the Eastern Jin via Bao’an, Xin’an, and Dongguan — is rewritten as evidence of the city’s ongoing participation in something that might be glossed as “eternal China”.

This map is of the Eastern Jin when Nantou City was the prefectural seat of the Guangdong Eastern Prefecture (东晋东官郡), including present day Dongguan City, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong.

On the other hand, the actual archives to which a historian has access bureau is an artifact of political restructurings and the concomitant shifting of administrative borders. The question of land titles (地契) that were issued during early land reform (1950-52) is an interesting case in point. Originally, all Bao’an county land titles were held in Huizhou City, which administered the county from 1950-1979. These land titles, of course, became void during collectivization movements (second half of 1950s) and land holdings shifted from individuals to collectives. Consequently, during the 1980s household responsibility system (家庭联产承包责任制), land rights were redistributed via collectives. Nevertheless, in the early 1980s, the land titles were sent to Bao’an, where they are incomplete, but nevertheless have been increasingly used by villagers to make land claims.

The ongoing construction of Shenzhen has further complicated the actual practice of creating viable historical archives. Theoretically, archives have followed administrative hierarchies. In practice, this means that when an administrative unit is promoted and/or redistricted documents have to be moved from one building to another. For example, the transfer of Bao’an land titles from Huizhou to Bao’an. Moreover, the ongoing construction of Shenzhen municipal and district offices means that these archives have not only been packed and sent to another building, where they may or may not have been unpacked, but also during the redistribution boxes of material have been lost.

Our conversation concluded with the recognition that history — as we are writing it in Shenzhen and I suspect elsewhere — turns on context. Are we responding emotionally to patriotic calls? Or are we developing arguments out of extant documents? In either case, here on the ground, the tension between these two extremes serves to buttress both emotional and documentary uncertainties. When we lack a document, we can turn to the hyperbolic understanding that Shenzhen has always been part of China and when we need to assert the truth of our feelings, we can point to these maps, which although now virtual, continue to reassure us that history is not just of our own making.

the party’s assets

So the investigation of the State Assets Administration Committee (国资委) Director, Jiang Jiemin (蒋洁敏) has begun. Just a day after the Bo Xilai trial ended, netizens have described Jiang Jiemin’s corruption as “unbelievable” . How much more off the top can China’s leaders go? Or are we still struggling for a vocabulary to describe the scale and scope of China’s modernization and attendent robber barons?

In point of fact, Jiang Jiemin did have access to money and resources well beyond Bo Xilai. After all, Bo Xilai only oversaw the assests of Chongqing, one city. In contrast, as Director of the State Assets Administration Committee, Jiang Jiemin oversaw , The all of China’s state-owned industries, including the country’s energy and telecommunications companies, as well as all the natural resources development companies. In everyday language, this extensive monopoly is called “the Party’s assests (党产)”.

This is the political-economic context in which Shenzhen residents speak of the city becoming more and more like the interior; as the city apparatus increases its regulatory control (through mechanisms such as the urban plan) opportunities to take advantage of the SEZ’s economic boom are increasingly monopolized by the Party State. In turn, second and third generation reds (红二代、红三代 as the children of Party leaders are called) overwhelmingly control opportunities to head these industries.

as chongqing turns: the trial of bo xilai (abridged)

Bo Xilai. Gu Kailai. Wang Lijun. These are the main characters in China’s ongoing soap opera As Chongqing Turns or “The Bo Drama (薄剧)” as it is known in Mandarin. Bo Xilai, of course is the disgraced former Party Secretary of Chongqing. Gu Kailai is his lawyer possibly crazy wife, who confessed to killing businessman, Niel Heywood and is now in prison after her death sentence was suspended. Wang Lijun was his head of security, who was in charge of Chongqing’s anti-mafia campaign and convicted of all sorts of corruption charges.

The main event trial of Bo ended yesterday. The best part? Bo Xilai was his own lawyer and so interjected throughout the prosecution’s presentation of its case. Below, a translation of the Abridged Bo Trial (审薄精简版) and yes, although fictionalized, the account rings so true. Also, I’ve tried to find online links to the Chinese text, but they seem to have been blocked:

Day 1
Prosecution: Your wife accepted money.
Defendant grunts.
Prosecution: The person who gave the money is known to you.
Defendant: Known but not really close.
Prosecution: Did you give favors to this person?
Defendant: Business is business (公事公办 literally: business done according to business principles).
Prosecution: Did you know your wife and son took people’s money?
Defendant: No.
Prosecution: She never mentioned it?
Defendant: People with taste like ours would get together and talk about money?
Prosecution: Xu Ming, Did you give the Party Secretary’s wife and son money?
Xu Ming: Yes.
Prosecution: Did he know?
Xu Ming: No.
Defendant (interrupts and says to prosecution): What did I tell you?
Prosecution: You mother-fu… Court recess!

Day 2
Prosecution: This is the evidence… (closing testimony of 10,000 characters).
Defendant: Have you closed your arguments?
Prosecution: Yes.
Defendant: Where’s the evidence?
Prosecution: Mother fucker, this isn’t evidence?!
Defendant: This is just testimony. This is what they said. Is there actual proof that I knew about the villa in France? That my son was playing around?
Prosecution: … Legal testimony that has been confirmed and supported!!! This is not enough?
Defendant: Is it? Enough? (Defendant laughs).

Day 3, morning
Prosecution to Wang: Wang, you tell us. Did he incite you to give money to his wife.
Wang: It seems that maybe…yes!
Defendant: Did I ever call my wife while you were there?
Prosecution: Yes.
Defendant: Did I ever try to find out if anyone else knew?
Wang: No.
Defendant: Mother fucker, am I a stupid cunt? Would I really not know who knew I was on the take? Who are you? Are we so intimate that I would call my wife while you were there and tell her to take a bribe?
Prosecution: If you hadn’t told your wife to take the money, how did it end up in her account? You definitely told her to do so! You said so!
Defendant: You think this investor is so poor? That the investor’s wife isn’t talented and rich? That we actually need your 5 million?
Prosecution: You definitely took bribes!
Judge: Prosecution, please remember your role…

Judge: Please continue.
Prosecution: Your wife already testified that you knew. And now you’re denying it!
Defendant: My wife… (sighs) I’ll admit to you all that… well, I stepped out of line once, so you understand that my wife took our son and went to England. what happened after that, how could I know? What’s more, my wife committed murder, if she had economic troubles, of course she’d be up shit creek. So her saying that I incited corruption is a normal response (很正常). We still care about each other and I don’t blame her for any of this…
Prosecution: What the fuck does that mean? Earlier you testified that your wife was mentally unstable. Now this?!
Defendant: I don’t mean anything by it. I’m just speaking the truth for the judge’s consideration.
Judge: (speechless)

Day 3, afternoon
Prosecution: We call General Wang Lijun.
Prosecution: General Wang, what do you have to say?
General Wang: I have so much to say! How could I not? How many years were we sworn buddies? I protected his son when he went abroad. When his wife committed murder, I was the first to tell him. I gave my life and bled for him. Him. Him. Him. And then he actually hit me on behalf of his wife! He slugged me! I bled! I’m broken hearted!
Prosecution: See! Do you see?
Defendant: You’re talking out your ass. Mother fucker, I thought you were a bosom buddy, and if my wife wanted to kill someone, you should have either stopped her or helped her. But you did nothing and let her royally fuck up. And then, you let the investigation go forward, only telling me two weeks later, “I’m a Police Chief and I have to investigate crime, your wife murdered someone. Leader, you must face reality… Sheesh… You tell me, do you deserve a beating or not?!
General Wang: I took responsibility for you!
Defendant: Your character is questionable. You’re two-faced! You directed your subordinates to go after her and then you come to me and pretend to be a loyal official!
General Wang: You! (10,000 characters deleted).
Defendant: I have nothing more to say to you. Judge, I have only one statement, everything he said is bullshit. I hit him and he hates me, so then he muddies the water. You do what you have to.
Judge: Court recessed.

yan’an by way of frankfurt

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s 1944 essay The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception helps us think through the idea that capitalism in the West functions like socialism in China. The point, of course, is the attempt to control social processes to benefit a few, whether they be investors (as in the States) or cadres (as in China).

In the quote below, for example, I have replaced “consumer” with “the People (人民)” and “producers” with “cadres”. Note that as with the critique of censorship in China, Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of the Western cultural industry focuses on the enforced passivity of the intended audience. Note also that A&H lament the fact that the cultural industry has coopted enlightment to its own ends. Similarly, the critique of cultural production in contemporary China emphasizes how the progressive ideal of liberating workers, peasents, and soldiers has been subordinated to maintaining Party hegemony:

There is nothing left for the consumer People to classify. Producers Cadres have done it for him. Art for the masses has destroyed the dream but still conforms to the tenets of that dreaming idealism which critical idealism socialism baulked at.

The result of systematically subordinating human creativity to monolithic ends (profit in the West and political power in China) results in boring, predictable literature and art:

Not only are the hit songs, stars, and soap operas cyclically recurrent and rigidly invariable types, but the specific content of the entertainment itself is derived from them and only appears to change. The details are interchangeable. The short interval sequence which was effective in a hit song, the hero’s momentary fall from grace (which he accepts as good sport), the rough treatment which the beloved gets from the male star, the latter’s rugged defiance of the spoilt heiress, are, like all the other details, ready-made clichés to be slotted in anywhere; they never do anything more than fulfil the purpose allotted them in the overall plan.

Adorno and Horkheimer assumed that the extent to which art and literature liberate or nourish or enhance a human life pivots on the the extent to which an individual actively participates in the realization of a work. They followed Kant in understanding that this participation is rational; the work of appreciation is to classify and organize aesthetic experience, creating a critical consciousness. In the Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art (在延安文藝座談會上的講話), Mao Zedong also posited a beneficial kind of aesthetic engagement, albeit revolutionary rather than critical because he followed Marx. For Mao, socialist art and literature would facilitate the mental work of transforming one’s half-feudal, half-colonial consciousness into revolutionary consciousness.

I’m actually an advocate of both critical and revolutionary consciousnesses, especially when used to hone each other. Today, however, I’m wondering how it is that human societies end up in these painful and painfully similar cultural ruts. In other words: what’s the generalized (or mass) appeal of repeated bouts of boredom? Indeed, maybe what’s at stake isn’t boredom, but rather our anxiety about the fact that true repetition is impossible. In other words, what if we’d rather be bored than confront the irrefutable freshness of every moment? To the extent that we can’t step in the same river twice, it follows that we can’t watch the same movie model opera twice.

Thought du jour: when Mickey Mouse stepped through the looking glass, he found himself among a Red Brigade of Women, who were applying to study in the United States, where they might realize their Chinese dreams.

audience passivity in the yan’an talks

As preparations for the Bienalle start, I have found myself thinking again about the level of censorship over literature and art in China. Yesterday, I even went so far as to re-read the Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art (在延安文藝座談會上的講話), which Mao began on May 2, 1942. Audience passivity and the ignorance of artists and writers were two key ideological assumptions structuring Mao’s arguments about the social functions of literature and art. Below, I have taken several key phrases in order to show the way in which the Maoist politicization of literature and art was concomitantly a disempowerment of the audience or reader of a work, even as artists and writers became tools — and I use the word deliberately — of the Revolution Party.

Mao opens the talks by greeting his comrades and outlining the social-aesthetic questions he sees facing revolutionaries: the question of standpoint, the question of attitude, and the question of the object of work. Mao’s interpretation of correct standpoint and attitude are unsurprising and straight-forward. The question of correct standpoint for Party members was unambiguously defined as being the Party’s position (對於共產黨員來說,也就是要站在黨的立場,站在黨性和黨的政策的立場). The question of correct attitude was then defined with respect to three types of people — enemies, allies, and one’s own people (有三種人,一種是敵人,一種是統一戰線中的同盟者,一種是自己人). The emphasis on “one’s own people” is important because in everyday Chinese, these are the people that one can count on no matter what. Mao then further defines “one’s own people” as the masses and their vanguard (這第三種人就是人民群眾及其先鋒隊). In short, on Mao’s reading, a correct attitude involved opposing one’s enemy, criticizing one’s allies when they were wrong, and “patiently teaching one’s own people, helping them with their burdens, and to struggle with their mistaken views in order to help them make great progress (我們應該長期地耐心地教育他們,幫助他們擺脫背上的包袱,同自己的缺點錯誤作鬥爭,使他們能夠大踏步地前進).” In turn, “our” literary and artistic works describe these struggles to overcome one’s mistaken views (他們在鬥爭中已經改造或正在改造自己,我們的文藝應該描寫他們的這個改造過程). However, when Mao turns to the long discussion of “the object of work” the discussion becomes interestingly convoluted.

The discussion opens with the line, “the question of the object of work, that is the question of who the literary work will be read/seen by (工作物件問題,就是文藝作品給誰看的問題)”. As I read it, the Mandarin defines the intended audience of revolutionary works as objects (物件) who will be given something to read/see (給誰看). In many translations of the Talks, this line is translated as, “The problem of audience, i.e., the people for whom our works of literature and art are produced”. This translation not only transforms the object of literary and artistic creativity into an “audience”, but also gives the writer and artist productive agency. However, neither of these subjectivities is implied in Mao’s language, a fact which becomes more explicit several lines later.

On the one hand, Mao contends that in Yan’an, the objects of literary and artistic work are the workers, peasants, soldiers, and cadres who are the “receivers of literary and artistic work (文藝作品的接受者)”. He emphasizes that the objects of literary and artist work in Yan’an were “completely different (完全不同)” from those in Nationalist-held Shanghai, where the primary objects were students, officials, and merchants.

On the other hand, he also stresses that “our literary and artistic workers (我們的文藝工作者)” who don’t understand the workers, peasants, soldiers, and cadres have a responsibility to learn about them. One of the more interesting examples of Mao’s designation of the object of literary and artistic work comes in this discussion of literary and artistic workers’ ignorance of the lives of workers, peasants, soldiers, and cadres. Mao states, “Literary and artistic works are not familar with the their descriptive object and product-receivers (文藝工作者同自己的描寫物件和作品接受者不熟,或者簡直生疏得很)”. In this line, we see that for Mao, “workers, peasents, soldiers, and cadres” were simultaneously the object of and receiver of descriptions. In other words, the purpose of literary and artistic work was to help the masses become self-conscious of their class position, without actually teaching them critical reading skills.

The discussion then turns to the question of education for both literary and artistic workers as well as for the masses, with the Party providing correct standpoints and attitudes for this work, which is based on Marxist-Leninism. At this moment, we see the rhetorical transformation of creative workers into tools of the State because standpoint and attitude have already been defined as being in line with the Party position.

Thought du jour: as someone who engages in literary and artistic work, I agree with Mao’s contention that many of our ideals and passions are class-determined. Where I part ways with his analysis, however, is in his characterization of audiences as passive object – receivers of creative work and writers and artists as vehicles for one standpoint and attitude on any question. It’s not only that I enjoy a good dose of whimsy in my art, but also that I have more faith in a variety of standpoints and attitudes than I do in one proscribed, formulaic interpretation there of. Indeed, I find the idea that all creative work must be immediately accessible to all audiences more in keeping with Hollywood goals than with creative exploration.

And there in lies a core paradox in doing creative work in Shenzhen: while I agree with Maoist analysis that we need to take economic inequality and class differences into account if we are to create a more just world, nevertheless, as both a writer and reader, I am nourished by a diversity of perspectives and interpretations.

what is the party’s benevolence?

In news broadcasts and interviews, old peasents frequently evoke “the Party’s benevolence (党恩)” to explain their lives. Young and hip urbanites hear these interviews as more evidence that old peasents are the dupes of corrupt officials. However, when I take the time to listen to an old peasent’s life history, it’s clear that more often than not, these peasents did benefit from the establishment of the People’s Republic.

Yesterday afternoon at the Dalang Culture Center, for example, I helped conducted interviews with Uncle Chen and Aunt Zhang for an oral history project. Both Uncle Chen and Aunt Zhang were both born into peasant families in 1930 and 1940, respectively. Auntie’s family owned three single-story houses, while Uncle had left home early because his family did not have room for him. Auntie mentioned that at the turn of the last century, her grandparents went to Singapore to work. Her mother was “brought home” as a child bride for her father. In contrast, Uncle did not mention his family except when asked about how poor his family had been, he remarked that two of his sisters had been sold to strangers, but where they ended up was unclear.

As a poor man, Uncle could not afford to marry. Instead, he went to find work in Hong Kong. In 1951, Uncle became sick and returned to his hometown, where he could recieve care. In 1952, although he had a sporadic education, Uncle was able to secure the documents necessary to join the first test for admission to the Bao’an Normal School. He passed the test and was admitted to an elementary school teachers program, which was located in the Nantou High School building. Teacher Chen emphasized the extent to which his current wellbeing was a result of the Party’s benevolence. He was assigned to teach at Langkou Elementary School, where he met Auntie.

As a young girl, Auntie stayed at home and helped her parents. However, when she was 10 years old, Auntie began attending Langkou elementary school because her father asked the school principal to allow her to bring her brother. 10 year-old Auntie strapped her brother to her back and attended classes. At lunch time she fed her brother a bottle of condensed milk that had been thinned with water. Several years later, she carried her sister to school. Altogether, Auntie carried her siblings for six years. At the end of elementary school, Auntie tested into middle school, where she studied elementary education. Auntie emphasized that her teachers like her because she was a good student. Moreover, her younger siblings were well-behaved and didn’t cry during classtime.

After Auntie graduated from middle school, she married Uncle, who was still teaching at the village school. Auntie’s mother exhorted her to marrie Uncle because he “could do anything”. Uncle could not give Auntie any presents for the marriage. However, he did have housing at the elementary school, where Auntie was also hired to teach first and third grade. The school was located near Auntie’s parents’ house. Auntie did not attribute any of her life history to the Party’s benevolence, but rather emphasized her family background and her mother’s words.

Implicit in Uncle and Auntie’s simple story were the gendered contours of rural poverty in South China, where one of the most important events of a lifetime was to continue family lines through marriage and children. Uncle and Aunt were born into South Chinese villages, where bringing in wives or selling out daughters was a common practice before 1949. However, they married 10 years after the establishment of the People’s Republic, when some policies had already restructured traditional social structures. Auntie married because her family could afford to give her an education, but not to keep her at home. In contrast, Uncle had delayed marriage until he could afford a family, which was a direct result of attending teaching school. He described that opportunity — and all that followed, a job, a house, and eventually a wife and children — as an expression of the Party’s benevolence.


Today, I’m wondering about how the prejudices that contemporary China exports overlap with historical prejudices in the West, especially when we talk about “Chinatowns” or “traditional” and “rural” China.  In other words, what to make of the fact that Westerners continue to like Chinatowns (and urban villages), while China’s rising elite does not?

Yesterday, I ate lunch with Shenzhen friends at Hakkasan, a hip international Chinese-inspired chain (with amazing desserts) and then walked Chinatown, San Francisco. Before we separated, my northern Mainland friends (who had enjoyed the food) warned me that Chinatown was “just like Chaozhou in the 1960s”. The implication was not only that Chinatown was backward, but also that there wasn’t anything there to see or enjoy. Instead, they were interested in buying a home in Mission Bay, which was new and modern and, in many ways, just like Shenzhen albeit, “not as convenient”.

The historic link between Chinatown, San Francisco and other Guangdong settlements is explicit. The Kaiping watchtowers, for example, were not only built with monetary remittances from Overseas Chinese in San Francisco, but also with materials, techniques, and blueprints that were sent back home. In fact, there is a Kaiping Hometown Association on Washingtown St (开平侨网). I enjoyed my walk. But then again, I also like Shenzhen urban villages. I also appreciate informal forms of urbanization across Guangzhou, which nourishes dense settlements and lively commerce.

The fact that my friends drew attention to the “backwardness” of Chinatown, SF echoed similar warnings about urban villages, Shenzhen. In fact, explicit contrast either to neidi or locally to the urban villages predicates the celebration of modern Shenzhen. The difference hinges on the glorification of the wealthy and their tasteful lifestyles in contradistinction to the working poor and their traditional lifestyles. Of course, in practice, “tradition” glosses low-tech practices that enable the working poor to “make do” with less than their share of the goods their labor produced.

These past few years, Shenzhen has also become increasingly well known in the foreign media. It is no longer just a symbol of the government’s decision to reform and open the Maoist system, but also an example of the success of that decision. Today, Chinese no longer disparage Shenzhen as being backward, nor do they exhort me to go elsewhere to see the real China. Instead, new immigrants say how wonderful Shenzhen is and second generation residents are proud to say they come from Shenzhen. Indeed, they now claim it is the “best city” in China, and note that it is more livable than Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou.

On the one hand, my friends’ determination to distinguish themselves from the residents of Chinatown, San Francisco as well as the fact that they did so via Chaozhou should give pause. After all, within Guangdong, Chaozhou is considered one of the largest homelands for Overseas Chinese as well as one of the most “traditional”. On the other hand, Western racism enabled colonialism abroad and ghettoization at home. Guangdong immigrants appropriated elements of these twinned processes to create neighborhoods in their hometowns, new and old. Similarly, migrant workers to Shenzhen take advantage of reform and opening policies to create lives in adverse conditions.

Inspirations from Chinatown, San Francisco and culinary delights, below:

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轮侯制: economizing moralities

In the United States, we make an economic distinction between “needs” and “wants”. We teach children (here, here, and here, for example) to recognize and manage the difference between their needs and wants. Subsequently, we re-code these management skills in terms of individual ethics — good people recognize their needs and wants, and then make rational choices to live within their means. In contrast, bad people make irrational choices based on uncontrolled desires that lead to debt and bankruptcy.


The flip response — “one girl’s need is an aging man’s want” — to this statement merely confirms the underlying double bind of this economizing morality. In this financial literacy exercise, for example, only the social facts of suburban car culture, supermarkets, and fast food restaurants conspire to make white bread, bottled water, and a tent vacation “needs” in contrast to the “wants” of a bicycle and a pizza. What if our built environment depended on bikes for transportation? What if we were homeless and the best we could cobble together was a tent made of discarded plastic and corrugated steel? In these situations, the economizing morality is to recalibrate our personal needs and wants rather than to challenge the inequality that poses this choice as reflecting real world conditions.

All this to say: the economizing morality of individual needs and wants is the elementary school version of neoliberal ethics.

I’m thinking about individual needs and wants and neoliberal immorality for two interrelated reasons. At the level of urban planning, given the prime location of urban villages and the lack of developable plats in Shenzhen, the villages were targeted for redevelopment (or renovation — 更新 as a verb). In turn, the need for neighborhoods for the working poor has been recoded as the need for individuals with Shenzhen hukou to find affordable housing. A shift of hand, and the debate ceases to be about communities and becomes one of individual economies. Moreover, convenience, access to schools and social infrastructure, as well as economic opportunities are concomitantly transvalued as wants to be satisfied through economizing.

res01_attpic_briefOn January 31, 2013 for example, the Municipality made available 13,496 units of public housing. Of that total, all are located in the outer districts (guanwai) and the majority (11,111) are located in Longgang, roughly 35 kms from the city center. To allocate these units, Shenzhen will be testing what is known as the 轮侯制 or “revolving wait system”. Basically, this system entails meeting conditions, including hukou status, time in Shenzhen, and maximum income to apply for a residence. When any of these conditions change, the family has to move out of the unit, thus opening it for another. The family also has to find another place to live.

In Shenzhen, those opposed to urban renovation projects have been reminding the Municipality out that urban villages like Baishizhou already provide low-cost housing and small scale economic opportunities for working poor families. Moreover, the given the Municipality’s demographics 13,496 housing units are sufficient to absorb displaced populations only when those with hukou may apply. Point du jour: locating public housing far from urban centers only makes moral sense (cents!) in a world in which individual economizing ideologically justifies disrupting neighborhoods for the working poor in order to pave the way for developers. And yes, this is just more evidence that China and the United States really are the same country.

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).


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.