Academic journal article China Perspectives

Panhandling and the Contestation of Public Space in Guangzhou

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Panhandling and the Contestation of Public Space in Guangzhou

Article excerpt

Introduction

Since the reform and open-door policy began in 1978, China's cities have witnessed increasing wealth and inequality as two sides of the same coin. Scholars agree on the interrelation of new market-economic elements amplified by China's integration into the world and the transformation of once socialist institutions yielding a "new urban poverty." (1) However, except for studies on pre-communist times, (2) research on beggars (3) in contemporary China is still in the preliminary stages. Dorothy Solinger and Eric Henry stress the exclusion of rural migrants from the country's economic ascendancy and how they resort to informal activities such as panhandling. (4) Chinese discussions concentrate on management aspects, with questions on the efficiency of the governmental relief system, legal regulations, illegal panhandling organisations, and the involvement of child abuse. (5) Rare empirical data is often gained through or in cooperation with the governmental Rescue Stations responsible for beggars or considering their point of view. (6)

This study benefits from the insights and quantitative data of preceding research to complement its own results. However, the following analysis will depart from the perspective on beggars as mere victims or disruptive factors of China's reforms. In contrast to looking at poverty as a fix living situation, I focus on both dynamic mechanisms of exclusion and related contestation, not only explaining higher-level rationales but also the active strategies of beggars in everyday life. In this context, I emphasise the significance of space. Asking for alms in a deserted place does not make much sense; beggars depend on "publicness" not only for their own access but also to meet numerous possible almsgivers. As public space is the most important economic resource for surviving by panhandling, my focus lies on the respective conflict between beggars and local government actors. The main questions are: How and why do government actors refuse or allow beggars access to public space? How and why do beggars appropriate public space to receive alms and adapt their strategies? Furthermore, I will put this example of contestation into the wider context of urban public space in contemporary China. The metropolis of Guangzhou - a vanguard of reform and urban development in the South - is presented as a case study.

Urban public space is a space where people come together; a space of social communication, visibility, and encounter. Although often defined by its openness and accessibility, (7) "public space is always and inescapably a product of social negotiation and contest." (8) In transforming China, local governments strongly influence its construction and governance. With policies, propaganda, and personnel, they try to determine access, usage, and behaviour to gain political and economic profits. At the same time, panhandlers depend on popular and visible places for daily survival, challenging the government's version of an ideal public space. According to Henri Lefebvre, this conflict reflects the two modes of socially producing space: domination and control to create "spaces of representation" reflecting and strengthening the power of elites versus "appropriation" and practices of everyday life serving the needs of various social groups. (9) Appropriation refers to the continued interaction between human and space. Individuals or social groups gain material/financial, social/psychological, cultural, or political resources (10) while (re)creating, changing, and adding to the multiple socio-spatial meanings and the plurality of space. (11) Beggars appropriate space through acts of begging, which according to David Schak "is to ask someone for food or money as charity or with no serious intention of repaying it." (12) Moreover, they resort to a "panhandling repertoire" (13) consisting of contact initiation and strategies to avoid punishment. (14) Bertolt Brecht most famously pointed out the necessity that "the poorest among the poor may acquire the sort of appearance that [can] still touch the more and more hardening hearts. …

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