If I were here by myself, I would just pack up my bags and go. But I can’t – I have children, I would do anything for my children.

Chen Jian, resident of Baishizhou

The fate of Chen Jian, a migrant worker from Henan province, who moved with his family to Shenzhen eleven years ago made it into the headlines of a recent article in the Southern China Morning Post. The four share a one-room flat in the central Baishizhou neighbourhood. As the family’s breadwinner, Chen´s role as a quality supervisor in a large trading company provides him monthly with 12,000 yuan (GBP 1,350), enough to just cover the rent, basic family expenses and his 12-year old daughter’s education.

Figure 1. Baishizhou pre- and post-demolition (Source: O’Donnell, 2016)

But Baishizhou – and Chen’s home – won’t stand for much longer. As the neighbourhood is slated for ‘renewal’, most buildings are being demolished and families evicted in order to make space for Shenzhen-based LVGEM group’s large-scale development project. For Chen this means, either finding another place nearby and paying 4-times more rent or moving to a cheaper area outside of the centre, which would mean a much longer way to school for his daughter.  

Chen’s case is not the story of an individual, but a fate shared by the 150,000 inhabitants of Baishizhou. As the largest of about 300 urban villages in the Southern-Chinese metropolis, Baishizhou has long been home to thousands of Chinese migrant workers, many of whom gave up their land and housing rights at home, to find work and set up shop in booming Shenzhen. As a relic of Shenzhen’s agricultural past, these urban villages have long been enclaves of informality and affordable housing in a city which grew from 340,000 inhabitants in 1980 to 12.13 million in just 40 years (Huang, 2017). But, Shenzhen’s major economic scheme entailing the ‘renewal’ and ‘upgrading’ of more than 100 urban villages within the next years forces more and more people into situations like Chen Jian’s, as vividly documented in Mary Ann O’Donnel’s blog ‘Shenzhen Noted’.

Now stop. Let’s move to a seemingly completely different story: four kilometres, or a 50 minute walk away from Baishizhou is the OCT Loft Creative Culture Park, an area known by most art- and design-interested visitors of Shenzhen. Many perceive it as an ‘alternative area, with graffiti, small cafés and restaurants’, as an ‘oasis outside the commercialised and buzzling landscape of Shenzhen’ and ‘a safe place, with a quiet sense of comfort.’ 

Figure 2. OCT Loft Photo © MengYan, Wu Qiwei (Source: Meng, 2010)

In 2004, this former industrial complex was transformed into a culture and design-industry park by the state-owned OCT Group. By now, it is home to seven exhibition halls and 129 design-related firms. Additionally, 27 non-design businesses such as corner shops, restaurants and cafés provide the infrastructure for artists and design-workers, as well as tourists and other visitors (Soon et al., 2017). Here, most artists and design studios are being offered subsidised rents to be able to work in the city centre.

Spatially separated by 4 kilometres and layers of walls, barbed wire and green space the developments of these two places might seem to be independent – even contradictory. In one case, an alternative place with a spatially distinct ambiance is produced and subsidised, while in the other case the informal, low rise area sticking out of its surroundings is demolished and its tenants are evicted. When looking closer at the workings of gentrification in Asia and the governmental agenda for Shenzhen however, one finds out that the fates of both places are actually very much linked – and they have always been.

40 years ago, when Shenzhen still consisted of patches of mostly agricultural land, the area now occupied by the OCT Loft, as the area of Baishizhou were part of the Shahe Overseas Farm. This changed in 1985, when the farm was separated into two: the eastern Overseas Chinese Town (OCT) and the western Baishizhou. As part of Deng Xiaoping’s opening-up policies, some areas of Shenzhen became experimentation grounds for liberal economic policies, declared as ‘Special Economic Zones’. Within these zones incorporated entities could set up factories and receive foreign investment capital. The farmers in the OCT decided to organise in what later became the OCT group and to open multiple factories. Their western neighbours however, did not do so and were pushed by Shenzhen’s government to sell their land, while retaining the right to their housing units in the village core.

New factories fueled by international capital opened all over Shenzhen and attracted millions of migrant workers from other Chinese provinces, just like Chen Jian. The Baishizhou farmers, now without any agricultural income soon discovered the economic opportunity and rented out rooms to the new arrivals. Because of the favourable location and comparably low prices, Baishizhou became a backbone for the housing of OCT’s migrant workers.

However, soon the wind in Shenzhen’s industrial landscape changed. Especially in the city centre, the government started to emphasize a transition from industrial manufacturing to more service-oriented activities. Tourism became the new dedication of the OCT (Liang and Bao, 2015). Theme parks, such as the Splendid China Folk Village and the Window of the World were established in the area, followed in 2004 by Shenzhen’s new ‘chic place’ (Soon et al., 2017): the OCT Loft. 

The economic transition also affected Baishizhou. A growing amount of tourists in the OCT area needed places to stay. Visitors, many of whom crossed the border from Hong Kong, were willing to pay. Following the theory of Neil Smith (1984), a renowned urban geographer, this created a ‘land rent-gap’: a difference between the rent gained currently – for example by housing migrant workers – and the potential rent achievable when renting out to tourists. 

The results of the rent-gap were gentrification effects in the OCT, which swapped over to Baishizhou. As hotels opened, real estate prices around the OCT Loft grew by more than 100% within 10 years. Many of the Loft’s creative workers were displaced from their OCT homes and found cheap accommodation in Baishizhou instead. Additionally, with the arrival of short-term rental platforms such as Airbnb or Tujia.com, some farmers directly engaged in tourism and started renting out their village homes to tourists. 

Figure 3. ‘Low-level gentrification’ – Cafés and hotels are opening around Baishizhou (Source: O’Donnell, 2015)

However, while some entrepreneurial farmers have exploited the rent-gap and replaced their tenants with more profitable ones, many others – such as Chen Jian’s landlord – were still offering relatively affordable housing to thousands of families.

This is until recently, when in 2014 Baishizhou was officially slated for renewal. The redevelopment of Baishizhou however, is driven by more than the market forces of the land rent-gap. Similarly, the OCT Loft was not created out of pure profit interest. Rather, one needs to consider both places as pieces of a wider state agenda towards a political and economic transformation of Shenzhen – the transformation from an experimentation ground of liberal politics towards a Chinese model city (O’Donnell, Wong and Bach, 2017).

Part of this ambition is climbing up the economic ladder and changing Shenzhen’s image from being the production ground for ‘Shanzhai’ copycat products, towards becoming a cluster for innovation and creative industries. The OCT Loft was created to serve this purpose by attracting talent and providing workspace for new profitable sectors. Simultaneously, the government retained authority by being able to select and subsidise tenants. 

The Baishizhou neighbourhood to the contrary, has long been an informal, relatively unregulated place, where ownership structures were complex and village chiefs and committees held a lot of power – places that do not fit into the narrative of a socialist, planned economic miracle. The redevelopment changes this landscape and reinforces the government’s authority in the area (Kan, 2020). It changes Baishizhou’s physical shape to aesthetically blend into its surroundings and thereby allows the government to write the villages out of Shenzhen’s success story (Huang, 2017).

Figure 4. The developer’s vision for Baishizhou’s ‘new community’ (Source: kpf.com)

That said, within the intertwined developments of the OCT Loft and Baishizhou, one group is often forgotten. With all the different interests and profiteers involved – from entrepreneurial farmers and subsidised artists, to curious tourists (like myself) and politicians – one easily loses track of the losers in Shenzhen’s complex gentrification processes: those who are displaced, amongst them many migrant workers like Chen and his family.

According to an online poll conducted by the university of Shenzhen in 2019, about 500 of the 1,031 respondents from Baishizhou said they will have to find another job after the demolition. More than 60% were worried about their children’s education, and 28% were planning to leave Shenzhen entirely. And it is not ‘just’ Baishizhou. Shenzhen’s over 300 urban villages provide shelter to about seven million people (Zacharias and Tang, 2010). If ‘Baishizhou + OCT Loft’ becomes a reference point for Shenzhen – as already visible in Dafen Village – state-led gentrification and displacement under the cover of culture and creativity could become the new standard. And what this means if Shenzhen indeed becomes the ‘model city’ for Chinese Urbanism remains yet to be seen…

References

Huang, W. (2017) ‘The Tripartite Origins of Shenzhen’. In Learning from Shenzhen: China’s Post-Mao Experiment from Special Zone to Model City, edited by M.A. O’Donnell, W. Wong, W. and J. Bach, 65-85. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kan, K. (2020) ‘Building SoHo in Shenzhen: The territorial politics of gentrification and state making in China’, Geoforum 111: 1–10.

Liang, Z.-X. and Bao, J.-G. (2015) ‘Tourism gentrification in Shenzhen, China: causes and socio-spatial consequences’, Tourism Geographies 17(3): 461–481.

O’Donnell, M. A., Wong, W. and Bach, J. (2017) ‘Conclusion’. In Learning from Shenzhen: China’s Post-Mao Experiment from Special Zone to Model City, edited by M.A. O’Donnell, W. Wong, W. and J. Bach, 250-259. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Smith, N. (1984) Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space. University of Georgia Press.

Sonn, J.W., Chen, K.W., Wang, H. and Liu, X. (2017) ‘A top-down creation of a cultural cluster for urban regeneration: The case of OCT Loft, Shenzhen’, Land Use Policy 69: 307–316.

Zacharias, J. and Tang, Y. (2010) ‘Restructuring and repositioning Shenzhen, China’s new mega city’, Progress in Planning 73(4): 209–249.

About the author

Lukas Sturm is an enthusiast of cities and fascinated by what keeps them going. He has recently completed his MSc in City Design and Social Science at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Prior to that he graduated in International Business Administration from universities in Germany and China, and worked in the fields of Supply Chain Management, Logistics and Energy in Hong Kong and Berlin. His research interests include East Asian Urbanism, International Development, Food and Urban Infrastructure.