The 4th Randstad research seminar took place in OTB on the 20th February 2013 with about 30 people in attendance. Prof Frank Pieke, a specialist in the Chinese state and government, was due to speak to us in the context of the INTI-led Shenzhen project but had to cancel at the last moment. In the event I introduced the topic and raised some of the questions we had hoped Prof Pieke would go some way to answering. Fanying Zhang then gave us a presentation on urban villages in Shenzhen, Sylke Koemans spoke about urban organisation and public space in the Luohu centre of Shenzhen and Maaike Zwart spoke about the xiaoqu walled compound with its problems of social homogeneity and emphasis in its middle-class manifestations on security. She remarked on its similarity in form to the older danwei, but being without the danwei’s economic aspect, and then spoke about building local partnerships to network community and economic interests at the local scale as well as outwards into the city. The possibility of linking here with the ideas Sylke had presented, and building on present-day self-organisation in the urban village were discussed as part of an interesting discussion.

After this Jun Ying presented the paper “Small Towns and their Roles in Regional Development in China after 1949” she presented at the International Conference on Spatial and Social Transformation in Urban China in December.

Shenzhen scenarios

I will summarise the presentation I gave as part of the record of the Shenzhen project. I started by introducing the Shenzhen project and some of our aims in it. The problems of working in Shenzhen include the obvious ones of dealing with development in some of the most challenging conditions in the world: extremely rapid urbanisation, massive migrant populations and problems of huge discrepancies in wealth and amenity. The conditions of ‘foreign’ investment are themselves interesting, most of it coming from an ‘extended’ China, especially nearby Hong Kong which is part of the same urban regional structure. On our side a group of 8 MSc students and several staff led by Qu Lei are looking at how we could implement different models of development starting with guiding principles that include more than the economic and are more attentive to issues of social complexity and diversity, sustainability and of course justice. In the course of the project though a particular issue has come to the fore as being relevant to the sorts of ‘solutions’ the class are working on. This is the issue of local governance, or more generally social organisation at the local scale. I pointed out that we bring sets of presumptions with us regarding ‘community’, ‘neighbourhood’ and what these mean for the way people live and for the ways we understand roles and obligations of citizens and state, and that we should beware of assuming these to be ‘natural’ and recognise them as constructions of particular historical conjunctures.

I used texts by others, first David Bray, to point out first the seeming contradiction of on the one hand a huge ‘community-building’ (shequ-building) effort of the state today and on the other their promotion of this community as being ‘self-organising’. The effort being put into providing the ‘social infrastructure’
that is supposed to engender this ‘self-organisation’ reminded me of the ‘society-building’ efforts – to build a healthy, educated and crucially governable population – in industrial Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (see Rabinow on this). Feng Xu points out some of the problems for the state and for local governance in this effort. According to her the tendency to social homogenisation in local communities is undermining some of the intention of the government in this shequ-building effort. While the government sees the shequ as being a place where problems of social heterogeneity may be tackled, in fact heterogeneity is appearing ‘higher’ in the organisational structure in urban and metropolitan scaled social segmentation and dualisation, where it remains a problem for government and part of the motivation of shequ-building as governance is undermined.

Various authors, including Goikhman & Herrmann, point out the different histories of Chinese discourses of governance and public realm and the fact these are likely to lead to important differences in the way we understand associated issues of services, welfare, and even rights and obligations. Even ideals of universal rights need to have a practical grounding and are formed in historical conjunctures where such practically supported ‘ideals’ become possible.

David Bray points out in Social Space and Governance in China that the community based in the work unit (danwei) of the socialist command economy is the object of reform while it still shapes thinking about alternatives. He points out as well that the state would like to distance itself from local government and is proposing a ‘community governance’ which ‘mobilises the resources of community’ to govern itself. The danwei was responsible for the provision of services and welfare, but, says Bray, the danwei was always variable in this provision and we cannot see how the shequ will be any different in this respect.
Here, the absence of the ideal of universal service or welfare provision is linked to the practical unwillingness or inability of the state to guarantee such universality – and to the practical multiplicity of shequ organisations and their particular and situated circumstances. We are reminded again that the existence of all things ‘universal’ depends on high level ‘concrete abstractions’ – like the state – to guarantee and supervise them.

Bray points out that the state is certainly doing something here, for example professionalising community and social work and supporting the shequ-building initiative. But he believes it is unlikely this will ever lead to universal service or welfare provision (or universal rights). We are reminded, reading Mary Backus Rankin that the state has historically been somewhat ‘distant’ from local affairs in China and she describes a ‘managerial public sphere’ in late Qing China at town and county levels. This ‘public sphere’ had “strong community/corporate orientations in a context of economic expansion that strengthened and diversified elite interests …” (Rankin 21). There was not one but numerous public spheres, simultaneously social and administrative and defined in local settings. “Boundaries were flexible and changeable, participants had other societal or state interests, and the demarcation between governmental roles and those of local leaders was often ambiguous and shifting” (Rankin 21).

The parallels (and significant differences) with the situation today hardly need remarking and we need to understand how today as well, we on thrown back on the resources of local space and situation in order to find ways to both define and support local community.

Bray, D. (2005) Social Space and Governance in Urban China: The Danwei System from Origins to Reform. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

Bray, D. (2006) “Building ‘Community’: new strategies of governance in urban China” in, Economy and Society 35(4) pp. 530-549.

Feng Xu (2006) “Building heterogeneous communities/shequ for sustainable urban governance” in, Proceedings of the China Planning Network (CPN) 3rd Annual Conference. Beijing: China Planning Network. pp. 173-184.

Goikhman, I. & B. Herrmann (2012) “The Governance Discourse in China” in, SFB-Governance Working Paper Series, No. 41, 700. Berlin: Collaborative Research Center (SFB).

Rabinow, P. (1989) French Modern: Norms and Forms of the Social Environment. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rankin, M.B. (1990) “The Origins of a Chinese Public Sphere: Local Elites and Community Affairs in the Late Imperial Period” in, Études chinoises, IX(2) pp. 13-60


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