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