'Desakotas' and Beyond: Urbanization in Southern China

By Guldin, Gregory Eliyu | Ethnology, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

'Desakotas' and Beyond: Urbanization in Southern China


Guldin, Gregory Eliyu, Ethnology


China's fifteen-year-long economic boom has encouraged a rapid urban expansion as well as a significant transformation of its urbanization process. The number of urban places has increased, the number of people living in urban places has increased, and the number of people living urbanized lifestyles has increased. The dimensions of the rural transformation that have given rise to these shifts include a move out of agriculture into nonagricultural occupations (projected at 40 per cent of the rural labor force by the year 2000), a demographic shift of villagers to towns, and the remaking of rurally oriented towns into centers of production and communication (Lee 1992).

In some regions of the country, however, an even more significant change has begun: the age-old town-and-country chasm is disappearing as quickly as a gap between metropolis and small urban area appears to take its place. Such a process of change is facilitated by an urbanization process that can be conceptually divided into three distinct dimensions, all with awkward English labels inspired by Chinese language discussions of these phenomena: deagriculturization, townization, and citization. The author apologizes for the infelicitous introduction of the neologisms and offers the rationale that urbanization as a conceptual frame is too broad to describe the urbanization process in contemporary China.

To some analysts of Asian urbanization (Ginsburg, Koppel, and McGee 1991), such developments might reflect the emergence in China of a new pattern of Asian urbanization, the desakota process. Desakotas (the term is derived from the Bihasa Indonesian terms for village and town) are transformed areas that are no longer clearly urban or rural areas, but a blending of the two. Research throughout the continent, and particularly Southeast Asia, has noted the spread of this phenomenon. If desakotas are becoming the dominant mode in China's late-twentieth-century urbanization transformation as well, then the world is witnessing a significant new path of human settlement and development.

SEARCHING FOR THE ESSENCE OF URBAN

From the perspective of China, the dynamics of change unleashed in 1979 with new reform policies are historic and breathtaking, as the society with "the longest and largest continuous urban cultural tradition" in the world irrevocably industrializes and urbanizes (Southall 1993:19). The rapidity of the above-mentioned social, demographic, and economic changes has certainly taken the Chinese by surprise and forms a crucial part of how Chinese view their society and its development. To the Chinese way of thinking (and indeed to the bulk of humanity as well) urbanization is defined at the folk level as many tall buildings, and folk comparisons of urbanization rates count tall building and the relative ubiquity of cemented-over areas. (One town official told me that city planning in the classic sense is absent when new buildings go up; people feel no need to leave green areas of trees and grass, considering them to be unnecessary rural intrusions in an urban scene.) Urbanization is also viewed as improving sanitation, such as covering sanitation ditches and cutting down on dust ("like in Shenzhen, Hong Kong, and in Tiananmen Square"), and as the spread of appliance and electronic goods ownership. As the images of rural poverty fade, one young woman in Guangdong remarked, "Soon there will be no more villages, all will become industrialized districts. I hope it all gets industrialized: more people is good, there will be more jobs, and it'll be easier to make money!"

The folk view thus jumbles together conceptually distinct aspects of the changes swirling about; urbanization, prosperity, nonfarm work, and industrialization. This commingling of concepts is in fact quite understandable as it represents the reality of the pre-1978, prereform era when rural household status did indicate the likelihood of a far lower income, an agricultural work assignment, and few opportunities to pursue an urban lifestyle. …

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