Academic journal article China Perspectives

Managing Migrant Contestation: Land Appropriation, Intermediate Agency, and Regulated Space in Shenzhen

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Managing Migrant Contestation: Land Appropriation, Intermediate Agency, and Regulated Space in Shenzhen

Article excerpt

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China's post-socialist urban transformation is unprecedented. In 1978, China had 158 cities, an urbanisation level of 17.9%, and a total of 172 million people living in urban areas. By 2012, these figures had risen to 658, 52.6%, and 712 million respectively. Within 35 years, China's urbanisation surpassed the 50% benchmark, indicating the addition of around 540 million people to its urban population. (1) In 2012, the total number of the floating population reached 236 million, meaning that rural migrants who did not have an urban household registration (hukou) were the primary source of the urban population increase.

Millions of rural migrants who were granted geographic mobility for travel and work but denied socioeconomic entitlements provided by work units (danwei), compounds, and subsidised housing in host cities, were forced to seek accommodations on their own. (2) This severe transformation created migrant enclaves known as chengzhongcun (...), literally villages amidst the city or urban villages, within booming Chinese cities.

Ma and Xiang first identified peasant enclaves as a "new urban mosaic that did not exist in Maoist China" and correlated their formation with the resurgence of kinship and its social networks. (3) Subsequent studies have recognised the function of urban villages in enabling rural migrants to reside, work, and survive in cities during a period of rapid urban transformation. (4) However, urban studies have tended to emphasise how urban villages encounter planning regimes in negotiating property rights, effective land use, and spatial regularity. (5) Sociological analyses have aimed to examine the changes in social exclusion, income inequality, and the urban fringe along the global chain of production, (6) and anthropological accounts have attempted to reveal the communal networks and power relations in specific enclaves or among particular migrant groups. (7)

Building on this body of literature, the historical institutional perspective featured here aims to explain the dynamics by which China has managed and regulated the spatial contestation of rural migrants. This approach embodies a historical orientation to study changes and attends to the ways in which institutions contingently shape behaviours. It applies process tracing to reveal the interplay between socialist land system and grassroots agency in the making of governed migrant enclaves. The hukou system, another socialist institution, is well documented as a source of social control and spatial regularity in China's cities. (8)While this paper uses the arrangements in the factory dormitory to illustrate a similar pattern of spatial division, it mainly concerns the role of intermediate agencies in regulating urban villages. The regulated space is considered a product of embeddedness and uncertainty, in which the influences of socialist institutions are as important as market forces.

This paper begins by examining how the factory dormitory and urban village have become the major forms of migrant accommodation in Shenzhen. It discusses how a socialist legacy has reproduced factory dormitories, thereby creating a buffer zone to host and regulate new migrants who were often financially unprepared for residing in the city. It also explains how the collective land ownership system has created affordable housing in urban villages to accommodate migrant entrepreneurs and workers. It then reveals the role of joint-stock companies in migrant enclaves. Serving as local bosses, these companies provided public goods, regulated social order, and aligned with municipal authorities. These intermediate agencies not only prevented China's urban villages from developing into slums and the urban decay and social disorder associated with them, but also reduced the number of recognised stakeholders and reduced organised resistance during urban redevelopment.

Despite the absence of open contention, one should not overlook the dynamics introduced by rural migrants' continuous inhabitation and daily exchanges in cities. …

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