When I first moved to Shenzhen in 1995, I lived at Shenzhen University, which at the time was located on the northern banks of Shenzhen Bay and boasted oyster farming on just beyond its campus border. In fact, for the first decade that I was in Shenzhen (1995-2005), land reclamation and the reconstruction of the coastline was one of the major ongoing infrastructure projects, even as the city shifted its economic emphasis from manufacturing to innovation. So for over a decade, I walked reclaimed land. As the landfill settled, grass grew, squatters came and went, and the city itself “washed its feet and stepped on land,” an expression that was used in the 1990s to describe the transformation of farmers into urban residents. Locally, the expression referred to how local villagers left their paddies and fish ponds to become landlords, while in terms of migrants, it referred to migrant workers who left their home villages to work in factories. Continue reading
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.
Walked with Emma Ma and her father, Mike along Shenzhen’s northern loop expressway (北环大道) from the Nantou Checkpoint to the northern entrance of Zhongshan Park. Our path followed the remains of the second line (二线), the boundary that once divided Shenzhen into the SEZ and New Bao’an County. Cobbled together out of debris and plastic poster banners, a makeshift tent settlement hovers atop the obsolescent wall and a border guard platform falls apart. A section of the former border zone has been converted to a logistics depot for the Nanshan Oil company. Ironic, of course. Across the street in Zhongshan Park, the Ming Dynasty remains of the Nantou City wall have been designated cultural heritage. Impressions of the second line, below.
In 2003, Shenzhen initiated a sanitation beautification project called the “clean, smooth, peaceful project (净畅宁工程)”. The aim of the project was to clean up roads and gutters and trash and beautify public areas, which included razing the shanty communities (棚户区) that once flourished deep in the area’s lychee orchards.
How common were the lychee orchard shanties? Continue reading
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.
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.
Went for a walk today in the reclaimed land behind the cocoon. Behind the construction walls and semi-tropical topiary, discarded objects, trashed seabed, and squatters constitute the anti-Shenzhen, which erupts and disappears with distressing frequency. Signs of life. Despite.