Laying siege to the villages: neoliberalizing the bamboo curtain

Part 2: Both Cold War geo-politics and the rush to develop the neoliberal city informed the development of a particular form of urban inequality within Shenzhen's informal villages.  Next: Informal urbanization in the outer districts

Mary Ann O’Donnell
28 March 2013

Two factors – political and economic – motivated the 1953 decision to move the Bao’an County Seat from its historical site at Nantou on the Pearl River, to Caiwuwei a village located next to Shenzhen Old Town and the first station on the Chinese side of the Kowloon-Canton Railway (KCR). Politically, Shenzhen Market was located at the actual Sino-British border and this is where the Chinese military was stationed after England supported the American action in Korea. This border became metaphorically known as the Bamboo Curtain, a reference to the Cold War Iron Curtain that split Europe into Capitalist and Communist blocs. Luohu Bridge was the southern entry point into the People’s Republic.

Beginning in 1955, it is estimated that between 1 and 2.5 million mainlanders attempted to escape through Bao’an to Hong Kong, with mass exoduses occurring in 1957, 1962, 1972, and 1979. Economically, the Shenzhen train station connected the area to the national railway system. The socialist planned economy relied on an extensive railway system to transform the scale of the Chinese economy from a traditional economy of peasants to a modern economy based on mass transfers of goods and people. In addition, the location of the new county seat also facilitated processing of foodstuffs that were sold for hard currency in Hong Kong via the Wenjing Crossing (See map below).


Bao’an County Seat and Luohu Train Station Area, circa 1978

The establishment of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone in 1980 was also implicated to take advantage of proximity to Hong Kong to achieve national goals. The earliest plan for the Shenzhen SEZ was to develop the 50-km2 area that extended east and west from the KCR railway tracks, upgrading extant roads and developing the rice paddies and Lychee orchards that surrounded the county headquarters, commercial area of Old Town, and extant villages.

Two of the most important decisions were to restructure the traffic flow of the area. First, the railroad tracks that traversed county headquarters were removed. Industrial parks were built along the remaining extension line and the northern portion of the railroad. Second, the area’s main road, Jiefang was widened west beyond county headquarters and east near Huangbeiling. The stretch of liberation that traversed Old Town remained intact. Instead, the People’s Engineering Corps lay a segment of new road that went around the southern border of Old Town or Dongmen, connecting the newly widened sections of Jiefang Road. This new road was called Shennan Thoroughfare and its layout informed all subsequent urbanization of the area. Subsequent development either followed the railroad north toward Buji or west toward Guangzhou.

Villages immediately adjacent to Luohu bridge, Wenjing crossing, county headquarters, and the KCR railroad tracks boomed. In 1980, the villages had four primary sources of revenue – monetary compensation for land rights transfer from collectives to the state; profits from agricultural produce sold to the immigrants; rental properties, and; contraband goods that were smuggled into Shenzhen and sold in either the village market or a stall in Dongmen. However, very quickly the villages also built leisure facilities and commercial areas that targeted Hong Kong day-trippers, who enjoyed services and bought products at prices well below Hong Kong rates. Indeed, by Deng Xiaoping’s 1984 tour of the SEZ, the Luohu Villages had become the symbol of “small prosperity (xiaokang)”, the material quality of their homes, furniture, and income even surpassing that of workers in state-owned industries, let alone the rest of China.

The most famous Luohu Village was Yumin or Fishing Village, which held an important place in both national Chinese and local Shenzhen symbolic geography for three reasons. First, the name “Fisher People Village” indicates the ongoing smoothing of local hierarchy and integration of Dan households into first Bao’an County and then the city.  Yumin Villagers were ethnically 蛋家 (Literally “Egg Households”), the group of South Chinese fishermen who did not have land settlement rights. Historically, local governments did not permit Dan to wear shoes when they came ashore, to use red lanterns at wedding ceremonies, to marry land villagers, or to participate in the imperial examination. Under Mao, the Dan had been given land from Caiwuwei Village (location of Baoan County headquarters), moving onshore to build homes.

Second, Yumin Village was one of the first villages to take advantage of reforms, but not in the form of the household responsibility system, but rather as a collective. In 1979 – even before the official establishment of the SEZ, the Yumin village head, Deng Zhibiao organized the purchase of tractors to increase the size of Yumin fish farms by converting all unused land into fisheries, increasing production from several to over 100 mu. According to Deng Zhibiao’s calculations, at the time one mu of fish produced several thousand yuan.

Within a year, the village had saved enough money to collectively build 2-3 story private homes as well as factories. Yumin Village thus had the distinction of being the first “10,000 yuan village” in the country. When Deng Xiaoping visited Shenzhen in 1984, he was taken to view one of the small 2-3 story houses that the villagers had built and shown a modern parlor, complete with tv, curtains, and new furniture. In news reports about Deng’s 1984 Southern Tour, Yumin Village was mistaken for Shenzhen’s “original settlement” and the myth that Shenzhen was once upon a time a small fishing village embedded itself in future reports about the city.

Third, Yumin Village’s location meant that they were positioned to develop rental properties for the massive influx of Shenzhen migrants. Even as Deng Xiaoping was pushing through reforms to the 14 coastal cities, by the late 1980s and early 1990s, Yumin villagers were razing the original private homes and putting up 6-8 story handshake buildings to take advantage of rental opportunities. After all, Yumin village was conveniently located next to the train station. Consequently, in 2,000 when Luohu began to negotiate village renovation with Yumin village the stakes had been raised significantly. At the end of the process in 2004, Yumin village had been rebuilt as an upscale residential area, under a single village owned property management company. The new village consisted of eleven 12-story buildings and one 20-story multi-purpose building. Each village household was given 30 units within the new complex.

Importantly, Yumin was only one of the Luohu area villages. Each of the other villages – Caiwuwei, Hubei, and Xixiang, for example, underwent similar transformations with one important exception. Unlike Yumin, Caiwuwei, Hubei and Xixiang had histories that stretched into the Ming-Qing dynasties. This meant their land holdings were not only more extensive than Yumin, but also gave them a stronger bargaining position vis-à-vis the state apparatus.

Moreover, since the 2007 decision to make urban villages the focus of urban renewal, the Luohu villages have been the sites of the strongest popular resistance to upgrading for two reasons. First, as of 2013, the villages remained the cheapest and most convenient housing option for the working poor. Secondly, the older sections of the villages represented the history of Shenzhen, both ancient and contemporary. Over thirty years after the establishment of the SEZ, Luohu has become an object of nostalgia for many early migrants, second generation Shenzheners and young professionals. Not unexpectedly, perhaps, villagers themselves have been willing to sell their housing rights to the highest bidder, while low-income families have viewed the villages as gateways to better living conditions in one of Shenzhen’s formal housing estates.

This selection of images illustrates the density and diversity of settlement in and around the Luohu train station. In particular, I draw attention to four generations of construction and reconstruction – formal and informal – of Old Shenzhen through a juxtaposition of the Dongmen Pedestrian Commercial Area, the occupied and vibrant street life of Hubei old village, and Hubei new village. This comparison makes salient the forms of inequality that have driven and been exacerbated through post Cold War neo-liberalization of the Bamboo Curtain.

Next: Informal urbanization in the outer districts

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