The gongren xincun was a kind of community in socialist-era China, consisting of quite similar dwellings provided for state-owned factory workers by the government. In the 1990s, the egalitarian residential system under the planned economy came to an end, and residential differentiation appeared. With the marketization of China, some of the former gongren xincun have been gentrified while others remained as homes to those with lower socio-economic status, writes Juantong Ye.
When a former resident of ‘Workers’ New Village’ reminisces about his childhood in his blog, the tone is warm and sweet. At that time, his family lived in the ‘Workers’ New Village’ (in Chinese, gongren xincun), which consisted of state-owned dwellings for factory workers from adjacent areas. His family’s bungalow was almost the same as those of his parents’ colleagues and their living styles were also similar: poor but equal, rather like those of many modern Chinese citizens. This kind of neighbourhood was always harmonious, and it was easy for children to find peers and play together. Under the Chinese Communist Party’s (hereafter CCP) declaration, young people believed that they would grow up for the state’s masters as members of the glorious working class, like their parents.
The gongren xincun can be recognised as a sort of community peculiar to socialist countries, as an ancillary facility of state-owned factories. In the 1950s, several years after the CCP came to power, it constructed a number of these neighbourhoods in the peripheries of main industrial cities near large factories. This action was based on the state’s requirement to recover from years of successive wars and to industrialise at high speed. To realise this aim, it was first of all essential for the government to solve workers’ residence problems: at that time, many workers did not have permanent dwellings. This can also be recognised as the CCP fulfilling the promise it made before rising to power in China: it would construct a new China, where everyone could own housing as shelter against the cold. Taking Tianjin as an example, seven gongren xincun were built in a couple of years and allocated for workers, who could live in them and pay negligible rent. Nearly all the houses in these seven ‘villages’ were the same inside and outside and the surrounding environment was also very similar, representing the socialist image of ‘everyone is equal’.
This socialist utopia experiment ended in 1990s, as the CCP and the state abandoned it after the country was opened up. From the 1990s, these communities started to be demolished and new commercial residential buildings sprang up in their previous locations. The first reason for this was the bad housing conditions of the gongren xincun. The 40-year-old untidy bungalows without heaters, independent water supply or drainage systems could no longer be tolerated given China’s economic development; they had to be improved. In addition, with the market opening gradually, some state-owned factories whose products were unable to compete went bankrupt and the management of workers’ housing was naturally abandoned. The land was sold to estate businesses, who redeveloped them. In this process of improvement, gentrification appeared in some of the xincuns.
The differences between residential communities and gentrification originated from the differences that existed among Chinese citizens. From the late 1970s, China began to open and to turn to marketization, lifestyles that had been average (at least nominally) were changed and some people started to become rich businessmen. These people leaded China’s society with government officials, while most grown-up children were the country’s masters along constitutional lines only. Thanks to the rich group’s need of better housing conditions, some estate developers invested in building high-quality apartments and houses in some previous xincuns. Gentrification inevitably occurred in this kind of place because only with compensation from the demolition of the xincuns could low-income workers afford new houses in their previous living areas. Without enough savings to put into residence improvement, the previous residents were squeezed out to cheaper communities.
Gentrification mainly took place in three xincun in better locations. Although all seven xincuns were constructed in urban peripheries in the 1950s, with the urban expansion of more than 40 years, urban geographical features changed a lot. Those near new businesses, administrative and cultural centres developed better, and the price of land was higher. The newly rich replaced former residents, enjoying a higher standard of living here. Meanwhile, the other xincuns in regions that were slow to develop still belonged to the former residents and squeezed residents from the gentrified xincuns. They were still in urban ‘peripheries’, with worse infrastructures, environment, public security, educational and medical facilities.
The striking rise in house prices since the beginning of the 2000s solidified the results of gentrification of the former period. In the few years before and after 2008, ordinary house prices in Tianjin soared from the thousands to the tens of thousands (yuan). For persons with average or slightly higher income, this meant that it was nearly impossible to purchase new real estate in better areas. Even if they sold their former houses, it was hard for them to pay the difference between old and new housing. In addition, because of the higher costs of purchasing land and the attraction of prosperous real estate, businessmen tended to invest in high-priced large housing for higher benefits. As a result, gentrification continued in good locations and those on a low income found it more difficult to move into communities where the standard of living was higher.
Finding vestiges of gongren xincun is a little difficult in present-day Tianjin, as nearly all have been replaced by new high-rise buildings. The equalitarianism experiment has not succeeded in socialist China; by opening up, this forced equality has broken down rapidly and citizens have been divided into different economic and social statuses. Together with this, the gentrification of some old residential areas in China is no different from that in other countries. The citizens who lived in gongren xincun in the past and have not jumped out of low-standard communities have had few opportunities to live in better communities, and they can only write about missing their childhood in the occasional blog, a time when most people were extremely poor, but few people lived in much better communities than they did.
Ye Juantong, who was born in China in 1992, studied in Peking University from 2011 to 2017 and acquired bachelor’s degree of management and master’s degree in economics. Ye has studied in Geography and Environment Department of The London School of Economics and Political Science since 2017. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org