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Laying siege to the villages: informal urbanization in the outer districts

Part 3: Shenzhen township and village enterprises (TVEs) in the outer districts were quick to take advantage of neoliberal reforms, and by 1990 had become de facto urban planners, developers and industrialists of the city. Next: Neighbourhoods for the working poor

Shenzhen township and village enterprises (TVEs) in the outer districts (formerly New Bao’an County) were quick to take advantage of reform policies. By 1985, village-teams, township brigades, and the recently re-established Bao’an County government had already registered over 50 industrial parks (See map below).


Industrial urbanization in New Bao’an County, 1985

Nevertheless, this massive social restructuring occurred outside and despite municipal urban planning (Map 6). A comparison of these two maps reveals three important features of informal urbanization in Shenzhen. First, the total area of Shenzhen’s informal industrial urbanization was over four times greater than planned urbanization in inner districts (original SEZ). Second, urbanization in the outer districts occurred outside official urban planning. Moreover, the density of industrialization along National Highway 107 becomes on the 1986 Plan an incomplete red thread. Indeed, as targets of urban planning, the outer districts did not appear in official maps until the release of the 1996 Shenzhen Comprehensive Plan. Third, the scale of development in the outer districts indicates the high level of informal organization in the villages. Informal urbanization did not arise sui generis, but through the redeployment of TVEs, which did not only represent the economic interests of the collective but also traditional identities and social constituencies.


1986 Master Plan for the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone transposed onto the 2013 Shenzhen Municipal map.

In addition to the New Bao’an County TVEs, the outer districts also saw the development of private stock companies formed by alliances between individual villagers and investors, often from Hong Kong or an Overseas Chinese community. The diversity of ownership, notwithstanding, all of these enterprises engaged in low-tech labor-intensive assembly manufacturing.

The factories themselves were long, concrete buildings, usually 4-6 stories in height. These buildings usually had electricity and water hook-ups, and depending on the complexity of assembly, individual tables for detail work. Outside firms contracted a TVE to assemble a product according to spec. Earliest manufactured goods included textiles, toys, and cheap electronics. These early industrial parks also included 4-6 story dormitories for migrant workers. Dorm rooms were narrow, and fitted with four bunk beds. Opposite the door was a small window, while along the remaining walls two bunk beds were placed back-to-back. There was enough space between the bunk beds for residents to walk to their bed.

Consequently, most conversations occurred sitting on a bed or outside on the lawn. Importantly, these factory complexes were built either along National Road 107 or the railway, along which goods were transported to the port of Hong Kong, where in turn the goods were shipped overseas.

In the early 1980s, when the Shenzhen TVEs opened, there were no other manufacturing jobs available to rural workers, who were still tied to collectives and mandatory agricultural production quotas through hukou status. This meant that the Shenzhen TVEs had labor reserves throughout Guangdong and neighboring provinces, where rural workers who were effectively excluded from wage labor.

The number of migrants who took advantage of these opportunities constituted the Shenzhen population boom, transforming the landscape in three important ways.

First, more people came than there were jobs and by extension, dormitory space. This created an immediate need for rental properties.Second, the increasing population also needed food and social services, which in turn created more jobs for migrants across sectors, but primarily in construction and service industries. Third, urban construction in the area was largely informal. By the time that Shenzhen Municipality had annexed New Bao’an County in 1990, local collectives had emerged as the de facto urban planners in the outer districts. Moreover, when considered in terms of population and territory, urbanization in the outer districts constituted the primary form of urbanization in Shenzhen. Moreover, by the mid-1990s, many domestic and international companies chose to rent use rights from the collectives and build campuses in the other districts, especially Longgang near the railway. As of 2013, high profile electronics manufacturers in Shenzhen included Foxxconn, Tencent, and Huawei.

The fuzzy nature of ownership rights over-determined the haphazard direction of urbanization in the outer districts. Indeed, throughout Shenzhen, the foresight of a collective leader and the willingness of members to coordinate development has shaped the quality of life in specific villages.

In the post Mao era, land ownership rights belonged to the collective, while “use rights” were delegated to members of the community. This slippage provides a brief window of opportunity for individual villagers to engage in individual profit-seeking activities, however, the most successful enterprises belonged to the county, townships, and villages that expropriated use rights by exerting their ownership rights. Indeed, conflicts between Shenzhen Municipality and its “urban villages” have also arisen due to the distinction between ownership and use rights. As of 1992 in the inner districts and 2004 in the outer districts, Shenzhen Municipality owned all land within its borders. However, through housing and industrial parks, the collectives continued to exercise use rights. Indeed, since 1992 and 2004, villages and developers have been negotiating compensation for transferring these rights; Shenzhen Municipality has mediated these transfers through its Master Plans.

This selection of images begins at the Nantou Checkpoint, which no longer functions as a border crossing, but instead has become an important transport nexus. The images then walk the reader through two sections of National Highway 107 – Xixiang, the former County Seat of New Bao’an County and Fuyong, a street area still under construction, highlighting both the scale of industrialization that has occurred in Shenzhen’s outer districts as well as the forms of commercial and residential urbanization that this industrialization has funded.

Next: Baishizhou: neighbourhoods for the working poor

About the author

Mary Ann O'Donnell has conducted ethnographic research in Shenzhen since 1995, aiming to make legible the shifting cultural landscapes of China’s oldest and fastest growing Special Economic Zone.


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