Research in Cangdong village in Guangdong Province, China
On how a very remote region is affected by larger issues of national politics.
Old Houses, New Money: Big Money Politics of Village Reconstruction in Kaiping, China
On June 24th, I arrived at Tangkou Town, a small township in Guangdong, the second southmost province in China. My first impression of this small town had no direct link with "heritage" at all. After all, the so called "heritage buildings" were built between late-19th century and mid-20th century; they all seemed too new, and too western.
The city of Kaiping has been known for the home of overseas Chinese. Since the California Gold Rush in early 19th century, Kaiping people (mostly men) began their emigration, especially to North America. Although the dream of finding fortune for most people at the time were struck ruthlessly by horrible working conditions, racism, and political exclusions, many Kaiping people strived to make a living in their new homes. After a while, many sent money back to Kaiping to help their families back in China, and in many cases, they also sent back pictures of western houses.
Inspired by western architecture, and supported financially, people staying at home started to build new houses with traditional Chinese structure and modern western design. Among new houses, two types incorporated aesthetic beauty and practical value: Lu (familial mansion) and Diaolou (Defensive houses). In recent years, these houses have drawn attraction from home and abroad. Therefore, Kaiping Diaolou and Villages became one of UNESCO Heritage Sites in 2007. After that, local governments began to invest heavily on tourism development; of course, as more players began to join the game of rural reconstruction in the name of heritage conservation, local politics was further stirred up.
During my research in summer 2017, I found an outstanding example of commercial reconstruction in Kaiping: Chikan historical town. In the following paragraphs, I will describe the redevelopments and further analyze its political economy.
In 2015, the city government of Jiangmen, Kaiping's superior, launched a 1-billion-dollar reconstruction program funded by Citic Group, one of China's largest state-owned investment institutions. This program was aiming at converting a historically commercial town, named Chikan, to a full-scale tourist area. In detail, the program sought to remain and refurbish the commercial part of the town and tear down other residential housing for building new resort-like apartment buildings. With ambition, both the city government and Citic Group announced that the program will be completed in three years.
However, two years have passed and the program has not yet fully claimed all residential areas. According to the officer at the local Housing Affairs Administration, by mid-July, 2051 households signed the contract and agreed to be relocated, while more than 1500 households refused to sign. Without full control of the residential area, the whole project could only start with the reconstructions of houses already in hold, while leaving many other houses untouched, thereby creating a "mosaic" scenario where local stores functioned next to demolished houses. Although a reconstructed Chikan means better housing, more tourists, and increasing economic opportunities, not all residents were willing to give up their old houses.
In the case of Chikan, big money found its dilemma in a local setting. Citic group seemed like another real-estate developer which simply shifted its agenda from cities to a small town. The local government, on the other hand, served as a subsidiary institution to the corporation, providing statistics and cleaning up logistics. However, under the control of Citic, the local government had little agency and could not effectively wield its mobility power to the local villagers, thereby creating a slow relocation process. Also, for many senior villages, they held their houses as the representation of their families, and they would not give up the emblem that carried their family names, no matter how much compensation they received. Before entering Chikan, Citic Group underestimated the locals' strong will to hold their land properties.
Chikan is not alone in village reconstructions across China. Many other villages which receive big money face similar situations. I think two major problems stand out as main obstacles to success. First, political administration is too hierarchical and sidelines the advantages local governments have in relocating villagers. Secondly, economics is not the only factor in reconstruction; land's special meaning to villagers need to be addressed before any mass reconstruction project begins.
I would like to thank the Quandt International Research Fund of University of Virginia's Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics for helping me in this summer project. Without the help of Quandt Fund, I would not be able to conduct such meaningful researches and produce exciting discoveries in rural China.