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Urban villages as a way-station

June 13, 2012

konjaku: the villages on the periphery of Beijing, including the “inverted population villages,” “the listed up villages,” and the villages undergoing community transformation management, can all be classified in a broader sense as urban villages, 城中村 “villages within the city.” This village exists somewhere between the rural and agricultural past on the verge of disappearing, and the spread of urban development which has already encroached into its perimeters.The inhabitants must live with uncertainty as to whether the village will demolished in the near future to make way for a new development. The urban village has all the attributes disliked by those whose task is to develop the city of the future, but as this editorial points out, urban villages serve a purpose.

Photo: Caixin media, China Reform Magazine, 2010-06-01

The process of urbanization requires urban villages


Source: Nanfang net

Author: Shi Weigang 傅蔚冈

Urban villages are a special entity unique to China. Depending on the person, they are viewed in different lights. To the original inhabitants, it is the homeland where their ancestors lived out their lives –and of course also for them a valuable economic resource. To migrant laborers the urban village is their safe harbor in the big city, but only to the extent that it offers them convenient transportation and inexpensive housing. In the eyes of real estate developers, the urban village is a place rich in valuable resources ripe for development, In the eyes of the government, it is a scar on the city fabric, a place that shelters for evil people, and one in which illegal practices flourish. Certainly, compared to the rows and rows of  high buildings in their vicinity,  the urban villages lack a comprehensive plan and management. The immediate environment is dirty, streams of people mix confusedly, public security is chaotic, infrastructure is lacking.

For the government, to remake the urban village is not a matter of expending its financial resources to invest money in a project. Rather, it is a way to make money — by conscripting the land which originally belongs to the peasant collective and turning it into land belonging to the state. This land is transferred into the marketplace through the device of a “public auction” yielding huge sums of money. The government gets its money from the land sale, the developers get the land on which to build, the original residents get a one time opportunity to “get rich overnight” [through the compensation they receive]. However, problems often arise in this rush to profit –that is why we often hear in the media of residents who have money but no work, and incidents of the removal of people by violence in order to demolish their homes.

It is fairly unique for the government to be in the business of remaking urban villages into high-rise housing developments. In other countries with a system of private property, the government has no right to take over private property, nor can it make huge sums of money by conscripting land. However, urban villages also fulfill a vital function, in offering lodging and a resting place for the low-income urban population. This fact is not properly appreciated by most people. For all sorts of reasons, the city which Chinese people wish to see is one of neatly arranged tall buildings, spotless and clean residential neighborhoods, and a never ending flow of heavy traffic. Very few people can see the connection between the dirty and messy urban village and the city system as a whole. Therefore, when there is a dispute with the process of remaking the urban village, what we tend to focus on is whether the amount of compensation to the residents is fair or not. It never occurs to us to call into question whether the wholesale remaking of the urban village is justified.

Photo: Zhouyi Bo

In the city it is impossible for everyone to be part of the high income group. Unfortunately, those with different incomes live in different districts of the city, in which the living environment may suffer compared to others. If we admit this, then we can face squarely the reality of the urban village. To those people who believe the urban village is harmful to the overall appearance of the city, I have this question: once we have remade the urban village, where do those original inhabitants go to settle down again? To those residents who own buildings in the village, the answer is simple — they receive a market value compensation for their property, which they can use to buy a new residence. But for those migrant workers who were renting, they have to search once again for low cost housing. Because public services in cities are limited to those who have their household registration in that city, migrant workers, even though they live and work in the city, do not make enough for the available housing, nor is it easy for them to rent publicly subsidized housing, which goes first to city residents. Since costs of residences is so high, they are forced to the outskirts of the city. I’m afraid there is really no other option for them but to live in another urban village.

At the same time, the city residents receive no end of benefits from the urban village. Even if they detest the messiness of the urban villages, the net cost of services provided by the laborers who live in them is low. When these urban villages are remade and the laborers are gone, will not the residents’ net cost for all kind of services rise substantially? For city residents, for migrants workers, benefits fall on both sides. As many scholars have said, including Qin Hui in a loud voice, China might have to build slums in the cities, in order that migrant workers can have permanent homes. Be that as it may, for the time being China does not have the financial means to provide good public services for migrant workers. Until then, the urban village functions as a kind of way-station for the several hundred million migrant workers, and uncountable numbers of peasants, who from this starting point will gradually transition into urban life. The urban village as it exists now is not perfect, but it is the starting point of a new life emerging in the city.

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