Legacy of the Rural-Urban Divide: Urban Villages (城中村)

Urban villages are disordered, unregulated patches in the midst of cities. This one by Beijing's 4th ring road.

One of the more unique features of Chinese cities is the phenomenon of “urban villages”. These are former rural areas that, with rapid urbanization and rural-urban migration, have been enveloped by ever expanding cities. What once was farmland is sold to developers and annexed as city territory, while the village itself remains in the hands of the villagers. Unincorporated and administratively independent, the villages often become migrant housing communities known for poor sanitation, substandard roads and infrastructure, cramped living conditions, and high crime rates.

The particular state of these urban villages is in large part the legacy of one of the major elements of China’s development path, the separation of urban and rural life. From just about day one of communist rule the country was divided into urban and rural districts which not only created different systems of administration, the unequal distribution of public investment and a history of divergent government policy, but led to social stratification enshrined in the hukou registration system which to this day labels individuals as either rural or urban.

Urban villages represent this division from two angles: through quirks in land and administrative policy that has allowed the development of these non-city areas within cities, and through the process of rural-urban migration that focuses in these villages and their attendant social issues.

Urban and rural areas have somewhat different property systems in China. In rural areas land is collectively owned, and individuals with rural hukou are entitled to a portion of land on which to work and live. As cities expand developers work with city officials to buy land from nearby villages and incorporate it into the city administrative area. This is particularly profitable because land markets are somewhat controlled, often meaning is a big price gap between what developers pay to villages and what they can sell for after it has been incorporated into cities and developed.  And, because village land is collectively owned, decision-making power over land sales falls into the hands of a few local leaders, setting the stage for influence peddling and leading to forced evictions of resistant residents.

As developers are looking for the best deal and the least headaches, they often choose to buy only the farmland surrounding villages, but not the village residential area itself. In addition to the unwanted trouble of potential resistance from disgruntled local villagers, and in part because of general public disapproval of forced evictions, there are increasingly complicated rules governing compensation for relocated residents, making the whole affair expensive and unpleasant. Add that villagers realize they will soon be property owners in the middle of the city and you have reasons why developers don’t want to buy and villages don’t want to sell the residential core of urbanizing rural areas.

So while the city extends its network of services—roads, sewers, schools, hospitals—and massive housing complexes go up, the village is left to fend for itself. But there is an economic opportunity for villagers; without a lot of investment capital and unburdened by city codes they can construct cramped, piecemeal apartment buildings and become landlords. And while no doubt there are all different levels of development in these urban villages, by all accounts living conditions outside the reach of urban services from safety to sanitation are pretty poor.

The other element of these urban villages is that they are disproportionately homes for rural migrants, and as such representative of how inequality and discriminatory practices push rural hukou holders to the fringes of society. For example, while urban villages certainly offer the benefit of lower rents, rural migrants generally have less access to low-income housing options. Much of government subsidized housing is limited to those holding local urban hukou. The lack of public services within the urban village reflects rural hukou holders’ ineligibility for many other public services, with schools, hospitals, and employment opportunities restricted by hukou status.

I don’t know of any overall count of urban villages in China, but in the biggest cities they number in the hundreds. The phenomenon is perhaps most famous in the southern factory cities. Guangzhou is reported to have 277 urban villages housing 1 million people, and Shenzhen 241 housing more than 2 million. The issue makes it into the newspapers sometimes, and there have been cases of redevelopment that usually involve demolition and relocation and have been criticized for simply moving, not fixing, the problem. Still, urban villages remain a reminder of the ongoing dichotomy between rural and urban that continues to shape the social as well as physical landscape of China.

Links: much of my information on the background of urban villages, as well as the numbers for Guangzhou and Shenzhen, came from this paper, but it’s subscriber only.

Website dedicated to tracking the redevelopment of urban villages: urbanvillage.org

Flickr group documenting urban villages

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Beijing’s Urban Form Conundrum

Satellite images taken from Baidu Maps give a good impression of the segregation in Beijing's development

For all the capital’s draws as a center of history, culture and politics, and despite the palpable sense of energy that comes from being at the heart of a country on the rise, Beijing is not a particularly livable city. Pollution aside, the city has horrendous traffic, is almost entirely un-walkable, and has few neighborhoods that offer their own cohesive culture. In my view the problem is one of poor urban planning. Perhaps the most fundamental, and harmful, trend is how the city’s form of residential and business development creates heartless, non-cohesive communities in a symbiotic relationship with an overburdened transportation system.

The first thing to note about Beijing is the presence of single-use super blocks. In the wake of economic reforms and the marketization of the housing market Beijing underwent massive redevelopment and growth. The result was sprawl and the building of seemingly endless miles of high-rise apartments in some places, particularly to the north of the city, and endless miles of office parks in others.

Uniform housing blocks in the Hui Long Guan neighborhood to Beijing's north

In and of itself building lots of apartments should be a good thing, and most people’s actual living conditions improved. Perusing some academic papers shows that average home size, and the normal number of bedrooms and bathrooms all increased. In addition, new office blocks have meant more job opportunities and better facilities. And while all that is good, the particular form of these developments creates some serious problems.

A new office park and "innovation center" in the Northwest. Notice the lack of road connectivity.

First, is the big picture problem that residents invariably live far away from their place of work, meaning long commutes. Adding to people’s transportation burden is the fact that most of these residential compounds are almost always single-use, containing very few shops and restaurants, and almost always walled-off from the surrounding area with a limited number of, usually guarded, gates. In addition to hindering community social cohesion this means people have to walk long distances along barren streets just to get to local businesses. This makes for drab communities and stressful lives going back and forth between dull, disconnected places.

The impact on general quality of life from less accessibility and the segregating of people from uses is compounded by the negative impact on the city’s transportation system. Not only do people have to travel further to work, they have to travel further to accomplish just about any activity. This means more people using the transportation system more often going longer distances. Adding a further negative factor is that these developments are often intentionally cut-off from the city road-system which forces traffic through choke-points and onto a few major through roads, all further aggravating traffic.

This is an extreme example of how housing developments are isolated from the road network. It is completely cut-off on three sides and has only one entrance.

Taken together, this means a huge demand on the transportation system. It’s a style of development that relies on massive roads to accommodate ever growing volume, which Beijing has dully provided. Ironically, building more, bigger roads in many ways contributes to pressure on the transit system; big roads act as barriers, further cutting people off from potential destinations and forcing them onto the transit system.

Beijing's development pattern relies on big highways that often further cut-off neighborhoods. Notice how few roads cross the highway.

The result of course is Beijing’s notorious traffic, which has led the government to take well-publicized restrictive measures, including limiting the number of new license plates issued each month and enforcing a system of rotating no-travel days for Beijing drivers.

Probably the only thing keeping this system running is Beijing’s veritable army of buses. While Beijing has a pretty good subway system and the city is commendably working hard to expand it in a big way, buses are the work horse of the system, with somewhere close to 1,000 lines.

That’s Beijing’s fundamental problem, and, by extension, most Chinese cities’. It’s nothing new—it’s the American model of Atlanta, Houston, and LA to a tee—and my attitude toward it is basically a page out of the New Urbanism handbook that is the source of terms like livability and the vaunting of cities like Portland. Still, while the message seems to have been received in the US, Beijing is continuing down the path of dis-integrated, single-use, transit-heavy growth. Even as Chinese cities embrace more progressive planning ideas, like public bike-share in Hangzhou and official support for green building certification programs, the fundamental model hasn’t changed. I hope it will.

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Of Gifts and Returns

A store offering to buy back gifts

China is a gift giving culture, no more so than at Spring Festival. In addition to red envelopes of cash (红包), given usually to children but also passed among older family members, when visiting relatives and friends in the days following the lunar new year visitors are expected to come bearing gifts. These gifts are often edible, and judging by the over-emphasis on packaging as much about show as about the gift themselves. Among the assortment of snacks, candies, and alcohol is fruit, and it’s not uncommon to see people carting around 10 or 20 pound gift boxes of pears or apples.

It also seems that these gifts often get re-gifted; the dried apricots that uncle Bo brought get taken along on the trip to visit Grandma. Selling these gift boxes is big business and no matter how efficiently they get re-gifted at the end of the day someone is left with huge quantities of fruit and packaged food.

So I was interested the other day to notice a few shops specifically offering to buy back Spring Festival gifts. Instead of eating 3 pounds of individually wrapped almonds, just return them to the store for 60-80% of the cost. Thus the symbolic gift makes a complete circle and shop owners get a nice little profit.

A Spring Festival gift display, mostly food...

The whole thing’s got me thinking about gift giving in general. From a pure economic stand-point non-monetary gifts are horribly inefficient. The idea being that it’s really hard to choose something for someone that will give them the full possible enjoyment/benefit from spending the same amount of money themselves. NPR’s Planet money did a podcast on the topic recently. Between cash laden envelopes and large quantities of fruit it seems like Chinese gift giving embodies both the most and least efficient forms of gift giving.

Then there’s the environmental argument against gifts as unnecessary waste. The salient China connection is that token symbolic gifts of food-stuffs are very common; the country seems more bent than most on receptions, dinners, conferences, and other official events and their compulsory gifts. One environmental non-profit here has even started an initiative to, among other things, encourage giving gift cards instead of moon cakes for Mid-Autumn Festival.

Still, on my recent vacation to Guizhou and Hunan, I made sure to pick up a good variety of local snacks to pass around the office when I got back.

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Words, Art and Meaning: Han Meilin 韩美林

Han Meilin's Calligraphy on display at the China National Museum

Han Meilin (韩美林), in addition to being the artist behind the mascots for the Beijing Olympics, is noteworthy for his freestyle approach to Chinese calligraphy. He often morphs between somewhat identifiable characters and brush strokes resembling people or animals.

To me it’s a reflection on how symbols communicate meaning. Chinese characters have changed over time from something like hieroglyphs to the abstract symbols of today. I like how Han plays with that history by at once divorcing his characters from meaning by making them unreadable while giving them added significance as something resembling living things.

A while back I wrote about Gu Wenda and his experiments with language in art, including creating his own gibberish Chinese characters and producing translations based on the sound, not meaning, of poetry. I’m tempted to group Han in my mind with Gu because of their re-imagining of language, but Han seems a little more interpretive and less politically heavy-handed, and his almost collage-like style reminds me more of Takashi Murakami.

Whatever to make of Han, his art is worth a look. A special exhibit at the China National Museum right now includes not only his calligraphy, but some imaginative clay tea pots, not a few sketches of naked women, and some large brass sculptures, mostly of roosters horses and dragons.

This drawing reminds me of Takashi Murakami and includes the FuWa, mascots for the Beijing Olympics.

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Utopian Futurism

A float in the 2009 National Day parade to celebrate 60 years of the People's Republic

On the northwest edge of Beijing is an exhibition center sitting on the site of what will be the Changping District Technology Innovation City. Inside is a scale model of a new development where buses run on special paths, gleaming office towers incorporate nature parks, and trash cans are connected by pipes to a central waste center. As each feature lights up in a different shade of neon, visitors are told how the design of the city itself will spur innovation, protect the environment, promote cultural exchange, and foster happy, peaceful lives.

It’s an impressive display, a commendable vision and, along with many similar projects in just about every major city in China, the recipient of huge government investment and support.

An image for the Green Technology Eco City planned in Tianjin

Chances of success are anyone’s guess; an eco-city project outside Shanghai has struggled, but the high-technology park in Shenzhen has attracted positive accolades. Still, that the government has extra leverage to will success in China—they are mandating 10 major state-run businesses to locate offices in the new Beijing Innovation City—might be enough to overwhelm the usual tendency for things not to go according to plan.

Whatever the ultimate outcome, the plans themselves reflect a hopeful synergy of idealism, technology and planning. It reminds me of other futurist imagery like the 1939 World’s Fair, the Jetsons, and Soviet Utopian Architecture. It’s an image that keeps showing up, perhaps no more apparent than in the CCP’s big push to put a man on the moon and to move from made in China to designed in China.

In 2009 China celebrated 60 years of China with a bigger display than usual for National Day on October 1st. As part of the parade each province made a float. In addition to images of multicultural harmony and the majesty of the working class, many provinces chose to display airplanes, wind turbines, satellites, high-speed trains, and Oz-like cities.

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90s Punk Rock: He Yong (何勇)

There’s a minor punk and hardcore metal scene in China, mostly centered in Beijing and Shanghai. It seems only fitting that just about the only alternative to sing-songy ballads and western-imitation pop is music that often rejoices in being inaccessible and hard to listen to. There are quite a few bands involved, but my favorite singer is He Yong.

He Yong is an aging 90s punk rock star that still drags himself out to big events in Beijing from time to time. I like his raw emotion and particularly the song, “garbage dump” which weaves the wonderful metaphor of life as a pile of trash and people as the flies that owe both their lives and their depravity to the trash.

Despite the anger of the song’s sound and the bleak image, the song is actually more of a rally against complacency with lines like, “We can’t stop fantasizing” and “Don’t you have any hope?” But punk music shouldn’t be over analyzed.

Of course He Yong is just a small part of hardcore metal and punk music in China. Barring visiting some Beijing clubs, one of the longest running of which, D-22, just closed due to financial concerns, there’s a pretty sweet documentary on the Beijing Punk scene. On the plain old rock-n-roll front, there’s a new book about the history of rock music in China called Red Rock (Coverage on PRI).

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Of Buildings and Real-Estate

Construction, real-estate, and housing are on my mind this week.

First, Beijing’s real-estate prices have been dropping steadily in recent months. This week many papers are carrying stories about bored and out of work real-estate agents as well as sob stories about couples who saved for years to buy a house only to see its value fall precipitously right after the fulfillment of their dreams.

This is big news because housing prices have become a common gripe in recent years. There have also been fears of a bubble. I’m not enough of an economist to know what this represents, exactly, but I will provide a little background. First, there are several unique circumstances beyond typical supply and demand that help explain China’s high housing prices.

On a fundamental level, China’s exchange rate policy acts to keep Chinese investment in China. Because the yuan is undervalued, anyone who has a lot of yuan to invest will have less buying power if invest overseas, providing a big incentive to invest in China. Add to that loose lending standards forced on state-run banks to keep the economy flowing in the wake of the financial crisis and you have a lot of cheap, available money for real-estate investment.

Then there’s the distorting effect of government control of land markets. Local governments have an incentive to limit the availability of land for development because they control the supply and get the profits. Local governments receive little funding from the central government; they are responsible for raising their own funds. They can levy taxes or, in what has become one of the biggest sources of local government income, coordinate land deals.

This week’s news is the first sign of lower prices despite some high profile efforts by the central government earlier this year, including limiting the number of houses each person can buy. The government also committed to building a millions of affordable housing units in the next few years. The moral of this story: high housing prices are a big social concern here and something might be rocking the boat.

There are plenty of intriguing social phenomena that flow out of this strange housing situation. One is the prevalence of personal glorification projects. For example, the tallest building in China was just completed, not it Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, or any other major cities, but in the township of Huaxi. The town turned itself into an amazingly successful manufacturing center in the last ten years and provides houses and cars for all its residents. The new high-rise is the pet project of the town’s leader.

Huaxi is the iconic example, but extravagant public building projects are commonplace, and they’ve become symbols of government mismanagement. One social activist has made his name travelling around the country taking pictures of local government headquarters, and the pictures are well worth a look (Shanghaiist).

Another interesting photo project I ran across recently is a collection of tiny living quarters in Beijing. Many of these small apartments are big enough for a bed and little else. They’re also commonly crowded into basements and the bomb-shelter/tunnel system built back in the 50s.

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