David Bandurski is best known as editor at the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project, where he breaks down news and issues related to both state and commercial publications on the mainland. In his latest book, Dragons in Diamond Village, Bandurski takes a break from in-depth media analysis to engage in narrative journalism as he follows the story of villagers attempting to avert the imminent consumption of their home by the surrounding city of Guangzhou.
China Economic Review recently caught up with Bandurski to discuss the decade-long story behind his book, the uniquely Chinese phenomenon of urban villages and the difficulties faced by all sides in China’s ongoing drive to urbanize.
I’ve seen plenty of books that discuss China’s urbanization, but few have gone into much detail about urban villages other than to address them at an abstract level in terms of hukou (registered residence) status and land rights categories. What prompted you to take on the topic at book length?
You’re absolutely right, if you look for info on urban villages in China you’ll be taken to… not actually practicing urban planners, but urban planners in an academic setting, looking at the issue of planning urban spaces in an abstract way; you’ll find architects writing about urban villages, this sort of thing. But I was very interested when I discovered them for myself back in early 2005. I was here in Hong Kong and saw images of them [while] watching a documentary on them and started reading about them. The term was new to me, ‘chengzhongcun’ (成中村), literally ‘villages within the city’.
The more I read, the more I thought, wow, this is really fascinating—these are pockets of rural China in the middle of China’s biggest booming cities. They’re real rural spaces, so they’re very unique, and as you said I hadn’t really seen a lot of writing about them and the social issues that sort of congregate in these spaces.
So that’s really what prompted it. I thought I had found – and I still think this – sort of the secret ingredient of China’s urbanization. And what I mean by that is: We know when we talk about urbanization we’re referring to people – human beings – moving from rural lives in rural settings to urban lives in urban environments. That’s what urbanization means. But of course in China we’re always hearing about the floating population, the migrant workers in China’s cities.
We know that by 2050 over a quarter of a billion people will enter China’s cities, but will they become urban residents? Will they have hukou? We’ve heard some of the institutional and economic aspects of this story of urbanization and we have to ask, ‘is this a real urbanization? Are these people becoming real urban residents?’ And the answer, in a way, is no.
This is why we call them floating, it’s a term in Chinese (floating population, 流动人口). They’re floating because they never arrive in the city, and by that I mean the city that’s built for them, the one that the leaders build as a prestige city. When we think of Shanghai and Pudong, and we think of Guangzhou and the central business district, these urban spaces are not built for the vast majority of people who are really the whole phenomenon of urbanization in China. Where do they live?
The first answer is factory dorms. But that’s just a small portion of where migrants live, because think about it: You’re a migrant worker in your late 20s, and you’re in a segregated dorm? How are you going to get married, how are you going to have children, how are you going to have a sustainable life in the city? You need a space, you need a room within the city that is your own, outside of the factory. And that is the urban village. And they’re everywhere.
They’re not just in Shenzhen or Guangzhou. The Pearl River Delta has a great number of them because of the migrant waves, but [the urban village] is really the answer to the question, ‘Where are they?’ And it’s one that, as you’ve said, no one’s really looked at in-depth. So that’s what really fascinated me about the space of the urban villages, and that’s why I chose them as places to report stories, rather than the topic—because I’m not really focused on the topic of urbanization per se, as much as stories about land, etc. happening in the urban villages.
How did you end up settling on Xian Village as your narrative focal point?
It was a long process because in the past I’ve done very topical books, like Investigative Journalism in China, where you think of maybe eight or ten chapters and you divide them up into stories and issues. So I had a lot of stories I was working on including about migrants, and some of them are not in the book. Most of the ones focused on migrant workers in the villages did not become the focus—although I have those stories.
It was quite late in the process, around 2011, 2012 when I went back—and Xian Village 冼村 had always been one of my favorite urban villages to go and eat in, and walk around and explore. And I discovered to my surprise and dismay that the village had been surrounded by this huge containing wall. It looked to me like this place was going to be demolished in six months, so my thought was: Let’s write a history of a disappearing village in the middle of this city. You know, what an opportunity to go back and talk to the old villagers about the history and the transformation and the disappearance of this place.
No one wanted to talk about history. Everyone wanted to talk about corruption, land politics, and to the extent that I could see history and culture it was playing into the rights defense movement, it was playing into the politics of resistance. So the title of the book, “Dragons in Diamond Village”, is a reference to the use of the dragon boat parade, an ancient ritual in this area, to gather resistance against the corrupt village leaders. So the question of whether the boats will return to the village – because they weren’t allowed to race – is the question of where the story is going in terms of land and corruption, heritage, everything.
So in that sense I have to say I defend my use of “dragons” in the title. Mine is one of a very few China books over the last decade that deserved dragons in the title. It’s a very local reference, it’s not an orientalist appropriation of Chinese symbology or something like that. The symbolism is not mine, it’s the villagers’.
You mentioned how everything sort of came back to the corruption, the land politics… to what extent does urban development and redevelopment still rely on official corruption? Your description of the concentration of power in the hands of one village overlord in particular struck me as more than a little similar to the kind you see on a national scale.
It’s Identical. As I was investigating Xian village’s corruption issues – and this involves Poly Group of course, which had a princeling running it – I had a sense that China is a village. There’s a small group of officials, princelings, call them what you will, hongerdai 红二代, second-generation reds, fuerdai 富二代, the sons and daughters of the rich, and they’re a very small number of people. In the same sense that a village has two or three thousand members, so does the extreme elite that actually controls most of the wealth, much of it invested in land across China.
So it’s no accident that many of the stories in my book… probably all of them indirectly or actually quite directly, involve interests that are national. You have Poly Group which was up to 2010 run by the son-in-law of Deng Xiaoping, so that’s about as senior as they get. They’re very involved in a lot of projects in Guangzhou, and they’re the ones who’ll redevelop the village. And it’s still in the air, what’s going to happen…
And certainly I was really interested in looking at corruption at the local level as well. Xi Jinping has talked about tigers and flies, and I think the issue of the flies, of smaller corruption, is much more key to political stability and the success of anti-corruption, etc., because the corruption of these low-level officials – village and county officials – affect Chinese on a much more direct level than say, Zhou Yongkang or Bo Xilai, these kinds of cases.
And in my experiences reporting this book and going back now, very little is being done. Villagers are facing the same situation now that they were three years ago, four years ago when I was in the thick of it. There’s still no accountability for village officials. They have basically a blank check to do these land deals, and they’re working with district officials and city officials.
From your descriptions of Guangzhou’s urban villages they sounded a little taller, if not denser, than the ones I’d seen walking around inside Beijing’s Third Ring Road. I know your book is centered on the Pearl River Delta, but I was wondering if you’d noticed regional differences in how urban villages form.
Absolutely. I was also in Zhengzhou, and Changsha was another—in Changsha I found the urban villages quite similar [to those of Guangzhou], and of course we’re in the South still. A lot of it has to do with the economies in various areas. Of course the Pearl River Delta was developing earlier: It’s relying very much on manufacturing, even having a lot of small sweat shop operations that are on village land. So these villages are not just residential. They have collective properties – so they might have shoe factories, or parts factories, that kind of thing – where they’re attracting laborers who are living in the tenement housing, but they’re also working nearby.
What you see in Beijing, you’re absolutely right, you tend to have a lot of Henan migrants who are doing, for example, recycling. So these spaces, the zhaijidi 宅基地 or residential areas are also used as warehousing areas. I spent a lot of time in a village called Trash Village, Lajicun 垃圾村, up in an area called Dongxiaokou 东小口. And these were all Henan migrants, they were living there in little hovels, but they were one-story, and they were using land next-door, renting it out to store wiring (they’d strip the copper out) or plastics, and they would basically run recycling enterprises. They can still be quite dense, so you can still have twenty, thirty thousand migrants living in a small village, but they’re not as built-up as the villages in the South.
But you see this dynamic absolutely everywhere. I think it doesn’t really matter where you are: On the outskirts of the city, sometimes closer in to the main development area, you’ll see these rural spaces that are being used to support a grey economy, and it’s a matter of what kind of economic activity you’re looking at… Sometimes you have to be creative and know where to look for them. They’re actually hiding, often behind new, prestige architecture and that sort of thing.
So what determines the resilience or vulnerability of an urban village? Why do some hold out longer than others?
In the case of Guangzhou, for example, some of the major factors are the villagers themselves and how united they are—so if they have a strong sense of community, if the leadership is more collective. In some cases they don’t really have the emergence of a tyrant, if you will; in the case of Xian village it had a sort of local tyrant, and you see this in a lot of villages where they have immense power and develop these connections with other local leaders. But if villagers stick together they have a better opportunity to resist the regeneration plans of the city or to make their own demands about how the process is done.
And you have villages like Shipai 石牌, very close to Xian village in Guangzhou, which is untouched and will probably remain untouched for the foreseeable future because it’s in a major urban area and if they try to move on the village it will get nasty. And this is the thing, Chinese leaders very risk averse and so the villagers, if they’re doing rights defense they know this—well every rights defender knows this, right? It’s a tactic: you make lots of noise, you attract a lot of attention, and [leaders] tend to be more cautious in dealing with you, and they might negotiate with you. You see this again and again in my book, this tactic of rights defense.
So that really decides it, and in some areas the governments may be more aggressive in dealing with land seizure, because again they’re not under so much scrutiny as you would be in a major city. It’s a real problem [for leaders] in a city like Guangzhou, or Beijing, you have a concentration of media as well in these areas. So it’s mostly about scrutiny and the local community and how united they are.
A little over a year ago CER looked into the State Council’s plans to abolish the hukou system’s rural-urban distinction. Has that had much effect at all for the people you’ve been talking to?
I think the problem is a really difficult issue, and I think with China having dealt with the one-child policy now, down the road I think the hukou system is going to be something they’ll have to deal with. But in many ways we’re past the point where changing hukou status will mean a areal substantive change for people’s lives because they need to have programs to actually provide the infrastructure, for example, for social programs, whether it’s healthcare, or education—and a lot of things are being provided in the cities informally, and again, in urban villages.
When I was in Beijing I was reporting on migrant schools, and migrant schools – illegal schools run by migrants, for migrants – are concentrated in the urban villages. So if you go to Dongxiaokou where I was, or Pi Village 皮村, that’s where you’ll find them.
So you have to provide the services for the people that are in the cities, and the cities don’t want to do this on their own. They’re waiting for someone else to jump first. It’s a real problem. Because you look at an area like [the one] outside Shenzhen, and you have hundreds of thousands of workers, many of them living in villages, not factory dorms. And if you consider their interests – if they were voters, for example – they would want to have their children there, and they would say: ‘We need more schools, we need more classrooms, we need more teachers.’ But [migrants] are not calculated in the local mathematics for social benefits. The schools that are built locally are for local residents with hukou.
So really you can talk about changing an ID card, but really the big question is about social benefits…. Li Keqiang, the premier – although he’s saying it less now, I think it’s too difficult an issue – but he’s talked about ‘human urbanization’. This is the new term, and this is an acknowledgement that urbanization over the last two decades has focused on urban development, building physical cities, and it’s ignored, more or less, the human beings that are really what urbanization is all about.
And this has to change. You have to have urban environments that take into account the urban population. So we know they’re thinking about this and they recognize that there’s a real schism, but solving it is going to be really difficult. I’m not the policy guy on hukou, and I wouldn’t want to be. It’s a nightmare.
Another issue is going to be local identity. In my book I’m focusing on the local-rural, I’m focusing on the villagers whose homes are in Guangzhou, whose villages have been there for a thousand years, who see themselves as the real locals; and I don’t really look at the migrants so much. But there’s always a little bit of friction between these two worlds in the cities. So the local villagers see themselves as one caste in a way; and then the migrant workers are just kind of coming through and they’re not really local and they’re not really accepted; and then you have the urban residents with hukou. So there’s going to be a lot of resistance when they start to talk about specific changes, and maybe a lot of resentment too against the migrant population.
That seems to track with what the piece concluded, though it’s not exactly the kind of confirmation you’re overjoyed to get.
Then another issue is going to be housing—and I’m kind of posing another question for you here, because I saw recently you guys had written about the residential property glut, and the figures for residential housing, which is a really interesting issue. But I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that there’s essentially two markets in China, and the urban village is a separate grey real estate market, and the one that has been fulfilling this demand represented by migrant workers in the city.
What we call the housing market in China in most cases is not even a real housing market. It is so far over the heads of the new urbanites, the migrant workers… that it’s hopeless! And so you think: How are they going to deal with this? Is the formal real estate market going to correct to take into account the grey market, in which case we’d see a dramatic drop in prices; or are they going to try to get through this period with subsidized low-income housing?
Right now there’s talk about low-income housing, but think about Shenzhen! It’s hard to get hard statistics, but if you have a city with say 12 million people, and you have 2 million who have urban hukou and probably own real estate, and then you have another 10 million who are various kinds of migrants, some may have college degrees, some may not, etc.—but you could be talking four or five million people who are living (and this is probably conservative) in an urban village environment. They’re living in gray housing economy.
If you were to build low-income housing for those five million people, can you imagine how much that would cost? And how much room it would take? I mean Hong Kong is talking about building some more of this housing over the next ten years, and it’s a total headache. It’s nothing close to [Shenzhen]… So I think about this problem and, as I say in the intro: Are you going to build a new Singapore to house this population?
So how to house urban China is a real problem, but we kind of ignore it in the economics. They get very simplistic. You’ll hear a banker say, ‘Well China’s got 250 million new people going to the cities in the next half-century, there’s unlimited demand into the future for housing.’ And the basic math sounds right, but the problem is that the real estate prices already are so high that in many cases a migrant worker is talking about 200 years of gross income to even afford an apartment of any size on the outskirts of the city.
So I think this is a big issue for the long term for the cities, and this is why they’re pushing reverse migration, they’re hoping they can get cities in inland China to develop, and the maybe some of the migrant populations will move back into these areas. So that’s been another sort of push.
Having looked into that a bit, it didn’t seem to me like the ‘if you build it they will come’ model was actually drawing a lot of people away from the coast.
No, and that was my experience going to Henan. The people would say ‘OK, but the jobs are in Beijing, the opportunities are in Beijing.’ You saw it everywhere in Henan. They’re building little county towns and things like that, and there are slogans like ‘Returning to your home and rebuilding your hometown is glorious,’ that kind of thing. You’d see it on an empty street, a brand-new, beautiful empty street with these banners slung over it.
And I’m not sure. I’d have to do a lot more studying to see what the trends are. People talk about ghost cities, and those are kind of a different phenomenon. Some of the ghost cities are waiting for people to come, yes it’s true, but it may in some ways be overblown. But the low occupancy in China’s major cities is a major issue, I think. The way housing is predominantly investment and not really for living, those are issues.
We’re getting into a lot of topical stuff, and my book isn’t so topically focused. So anyone looking for the answers to all these questions wouldn’t read my book so much. But I think urban villages, in a way they symbolize this whole set of issues: The hukou system, the housing market, rural-vs-urban, the rights of rural people, the emergence of the citizen – because you have rights defense actions where they’re calling for rule of law, and they’re calling for more transparency and more involvement.
So that’s what interested me about them—Urban villages, if you look at them you can see so many of the problems that face not just China’s urbanization but its longer-term development. And very few people have ever even heard of them.
Speaking of property mismatch and the real estate market, one of the things I’ve seen mooted as a potential short- to mid-term source of relief for China’s real estate industry is urban redevelopment. So I do wonder whether we’ll see an intensified campaign to clear out urban villages as they become more attractive candidates for that.
We already have in Guangzhou, obviously. There’s 138 in the main cit
y and a lot more outside, and for years, ever since I’ve been looking at this, ten years they’ve been talking about plans to redevelop all of these. And they designated ten or so of these ahead of the Asian Games of 2010, and it’s not happened. And one of the important reasons is the local history, heritage, culture and the sense of political entitlement. These villagers want to protect their rights. These are their homes, it’s their livelihood, it’s their future, and they want a say in that future.
So you can talk about redeveloping them, and you think it’s maybe just an architectural issue or a city planning issue. But it’s a much bigger issue than that. And they’ve already found this in Guangzhou, and it’s proven almost impossible to redevelop these villages without trouble. And again, they run into the problem that they’re not interested in redeveloping it for a kind of intelligent, holistic urban planning, a human urbanization. They’re only interested in the real estate payout, they’re only interested in the money that the city gets and that the developers get. Because as soon as it’s redeveloped it becomes high-end real estate that only usually hukou-bearing investors – many of them also probably government officials – but that the wealthy, the super-wealthy, can afford to buy.
And then in the case of Guangzhou you’ll have anywhere from thirty to fifty, sixty-thousand migrant workers that’ll move out to another village on the outskirts. So they’ve resolved none of the fundamental issues, all they’ve done is basically create a lucrative new building site to fuel this investment bubble. So they do get ‘civilized cities’ if you see ‘civilized cities’ as sort of not being about people, but as being about clean streets and shopping malls and whatnot. But they’re not really dealing with the fundamental issues; they’re basically kicking the can down the road. ♦
Interviewer: Hudson Lockett (@KangHexin)