Today's date:
Fall 2000

Chinese Suburbia©, Communist Sprawl

Mihai Cracian
is a contributor to "Pearl River Delta," Harvard Design School Project on the City (2001).

Cambridge, Mass.—It is said that at the heart of the metropolis there is nothing. This nothingness—the consequence of breaking away with the past—is the basis of modernization and of new freedoms. It is this nothingness that the planners of the special economic zone seek today. Only the tabula rasa, the clean slate, may enable possibilities not hindered by former obligations of cities and architecture to be stable. Purging the "left mistakes" of previous decades proves that, ironically, Mao Tsedong’s slogan "No construction without destruction" is the most obstinate legacy of the Red past.

Located far from both Beijing and Shanghai, the political and cultural centers of China, the Pearl River Delta had been, early on, deridingly named a "cultural desert"—a prejudice made clear against the Chinese merchants dealing with the West. The nothingness, with which modernization has been charged, has proved to be here, nevertheless, a fertile ground for new ambitions. During past centuries, the compradores, the Guangzhou middle class, turned their outcast status to profit. Their famed wealth only intensified Pearl River’s "blank" condition. It became an incentive for exposure to Western influences and a catalyst for modernization.
The infrared ideology exploits all past erasures: those of Pearl River Delta’s enclaves, those of Mao Tsedong’s campaigns. The planners of the special economic zones took advantage of them. They did not have to create a desert. It was already there, waiting to be enhanced, made more efficient.

The construction of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone was inaugurated under the slogan "Three Paths and One Leveling." The words sum up the infra-Red planning strategy: urbanism bracketed between infrastructure and tabula rasa. The "leveling," the literal "rectifications" of territory bestowed on the area an ideal, clean-slate status.

The perceived absence of tradition, the nothing of the Pearl River Delta, is the fundamental premise on which the ideology of compromise can bring together disparate identities. The special economic zone is a "cultural desert" where the conflicting goals of communism and the market can meet.

As a frame of the Socialist market economy and the "open-door" policies, "zone" defines the spatial and ideological extent of urbanism under the reform. The Chinese Communist Party preferred zone to city because it was conceptually blank: a zone is open to the impurities of ideological manipulation. "Zone" seems to offer solutions to an entire array of conflicts that have become insuperable within the idea of a city.
The term "zone" offered a conceptual distance from "city" and its delicate ecology of private and public realms. A vague term, "zone"—the conceptual equivalent of a tabula rasa—doesn’t characterize a place, only a condition of a limit. A zone can be anything: its spatial characteristics are indeterminate, adequate to absorb the contradictions of the Socialist market economy. The zone’s ideology of choice is opportunism. In it several economies can be present at the same time, on the same spot: urban farmers, rural professionals, merchant politicians.

Deng Xiaoping’s reform gave a new meaning to arduous efforts to conceal the differences between city and countryside. The cadres/managers of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, guided by the infra-Red ideology, proved that urbanization could succeed without a doctrine of the city.
Streamlined as a simple conduit for capital, infrastructure and speed, the linear urbanization in the Pearl River Delta established a model for the rapid modernization of the countryside. Released from its former red obligations to control, urbanization was made entirely dependent on the demands of the Socialist market economy.
Toward the end of the 1980s, urbanization exceeded the borders of the special economic zones. As the rising cost of labor began to hinder growth, Beijing became wary about the future of the zone. It was forced to step up the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone as a regional center and steer its economy toward high-tech industry, finance and services. Manufacturing was pushed north, beginning the development of the adjoining countryside. Spurred by new opportunities, the "metropolitan" development outside the special economic zone grew faster and faster, as adjoining villages, efficient because cheaper, attracted capital. The rippling effects of the zone’s economy accelerated the industrialization of surrounding countryside and the creation of a deregulated hinterland, of new ad-hoc profit zones.

The central government, concerned about its weak control over the effects of economic deregulations, had already decided on the next step. In 1989 Beijing issued the Law of Transfer of Land-Use Rights in a move to increase and protect the scope of the Socialist market economy. The split between ownership and the right to use the land enabled infrared ideology to appropriate the consequences of economic deregulation as evidence supporting the truths of the reform. Functioning as an ideological bulldozer, the Law of Transfer of Land-Use Rights expanded the range of the Socialist market economy through real-estate speculation, while allowing the party to retain control of the future. The special economic zone became the birthplace of the chinese suburbia©. In the West, suburbia denounces the disassembling of former communities—the segregation of cities along social and economic lines.

In China, suburbia© defines the unrelenting development that inundates the countryside. In the words of the planners, the fresh "sub-city-centers are located in the interior and [still] engage in traditional agricultural activities." Development in the countryside is fed by capital overflowing from the special economic zone: sub-urbanization is the dross of modernization. Caught between duty to order and commitment to deregulation, the planners admit that the staggering demographics of the countryside are "a phenomenon" of "population deposition."
By opening up the real-estate market the infra-Red ideology could extend its influence to the entire Pearl River Delta and begin to export the special economic zone’s lessons (the know-how and know-how-not-to of modernization) to the Chinese countryside.

The Law of Transfer of Land-Use Rights—aimed at regulating a deregulated landscape outside the special economic zones—only triggered a "gold rush," an even more unrestrained development. The Law of Transfer of Land-Use Rights allocated one hectare of land to each household and became a source of wealth. With proximity to the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone as its prime asset, the value of farmland skyrocketed after 1989: it came to yield that harvest formerly only allowed in the special economic zone—real-estate equity. Farmers turned real-estate developers. Up to 50 percent of the farmland was quickly offered up. Land not originally listed for development became tempting: farmland was bulldozed to make it "desirable." Cleared, the territory advertised its condition of being in reserve.
Villages of only a few hundred became towns of tens of thousands. The Pearl River Delta’s farmers loaned their rights-to-use-the-land to Hong Kong developers. Temporary residents—migrants from northern landlords—moved out to live in new homes closer to Shenzhen.

The law has thus secured the support for reform and for the infrared ideology from the rural majority in the Pearl River Delta. Development—the new call to ideological participation—is now a joint venture between farmers and local governments, committed to attract capital.

The suburbia© is a hybrid of city and countryside. Nature and agriculture are now part of the urban program as reserve—or reservations. Their inclusion into the realm of urban enclaves of rural life transformed the special economic zone itself. The zone no longer has an outside: one cannot exit this "city" anymore. The planners try to reassert theoretical control. They draw a parallel between the suburban development in the Pearl River Delta—a "gray area"—and the "Desakota": "a new spatial arrangement" in the industrialized countryside of Southeast Asian countries identified by Western researchers as "a place being simultaneously influenced by the urban and rural impacts." The Chinese Suburbia thrives on urban "genetics": golf courses, entertainment, luxury apartments. These splinters of metropolitan lifestyles spread along vectors of development, corridors of capital. The migration of funds is matched by the movement of nomad developers and floating population, adventurers struggling for opportunity. Both celebrate the suburbia: the developers shun financial control, the floating population shun their loyalty to their former work-communes. The Chinese Suburbia, a sector of the world economy, emancipates the nomads.
At the beginning of the 1990s, a third phase of planning began in the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. In 1992 Deng Xiaoping visited the Special Economic Zones, to encourage their sagging development. To weaken the competition between the fast growing countryside and the lagging special economic zones, Beijing elevated villages and towns north of Shenzhen to the status of "cities," but put them under the administration of the Special Economic Zone.

Humbled by its staggering growth, the planners declared suburban development a new ambition: "Judging from the geographical position, population size and levels of development, the PRD region, developed along the Hong Kong-Shenzhen-Guangzhou axis, has already possessed most of the formative characteristics of a megalopolis."
The third master plan now accounts for the expanded areas of development, transforming the Shenzhen SEZ from an enclave into a "megalopolis." Dispersal is a new goal, favoring acceleration over accumulation. Baoan and Longuan, the two counties north of the special economic zone given to it to expand its administrative borders, cover over 1,000 square km, as large as Hong Kong and the New Territories together.

Planners begin to assess the consequences of suburbanization: "By the end of 1991, the number of permanent residents in the PRD was 32.8 million. Among them, 27.5 million were local residents and 5.3 million were non-local residents."

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