Background Urban Villages

Urban villages exist in China due to a set of circumstances surrounding rural land rights, the growth of cities, and migration.

In China, all land is owned by the state, and in rural areas it is owned collectively by the village. As Guangzhou and other cities grew into the surrounding countryside, villages saw the value of their land skyrocket.  Village governments sold and rented collectively owned farmland to become the apartment complexes, factory space, and commercial developments for the urban sprawl of cities such as Guangzhou.

In Xian Village since 1995, collectively owned farmland has become part of the city’s new central business district, Zhujiang New Town, containing the 100 story International Finance Center, a Ritz Carlton, a Westin hotel, and the new Guangzhou Opera House.

The village distributes to each villager the profits derived from collectively owned properties which today include hotels a movie theater and office space.  Each individual villager holds claim to the land on which his or her home sits. In Xian Village, as with other villages, enterprising villagers took advantage of rising rents, and built multiple story apartment houses on their small plots of land.  Villagers rented rooms at relatively inexpensive rates to migrant workers who have flowed into Guangzhou and other cities since the 1990s.

In a short span of time, sleepy rural villages like Xian Village became bustling urban environments in the midst of huge metropolises. Without strong urban planning regulation, many urban villages take on slum-like characteristics. Apartment buildings canopy over dark narrow alleyways. Buildings extend to property lines creating the “kissing building” phenomenon, named because two people on neighboring building can conceivably lock lips. Serious sanitation, fire safety, water management, and quality of life issues exist.

But urban villages also provide important services. They are the home of persisting rural communities. Xian village has a history of 800 years. Ancestral halls of the major lineages still stand, honoring previous generations of the three major families, the Xian, Lu and Liang. In addition, urban villages provide inexpensive and central housing for migrant workers. An inevitable result of the development of urban villages is the eviction of low income migrants from Guangzhou’s center.

Xian’s development potentially benefits the villagers who hold land titles, the village government, the Guangzhou city government and the citizens of Guangzhou. Under the plans, villagers with land titles will receive new, higher value apartments in the new development, the village government will earn higher rental revenues to distribute amongst the villagers, and Guangzhou City will eliminate an unsightly neighborhood and attract wealthy residents to rent new apartments and contribute to the city’s consumption economy.

Villagers seem to accept a need  for redevelopment and its economic benefits but many still refuse to sign away their land. As you will read in the blog, many support the idea of the plan, but do not trust local government leaders to follow through on their promises or to successfully undertake the development.  As one villager describes, it is an issue of credibility and accountability. This blog describes the heavy handed tactics the the local government has employed to push residents off their land. These tactics compound villager’s perceptions of corruption and inept management within levels of the village administration. Read the blog to learn more about rural/urban development in southern China and a fascinating aspect of the immense changes taking place here.


Useful Links:

Wonderful accounting of Shenzhen’s urban villages:


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