Migrant workers forced out as one of Shenzhen’s last ‘urban villages’ faces wrecking ball

Phoebe Zhang

As their eviction deadline nears, all Chen Jian can think about is the wrecking ball – and where his family is going to go. He often dreams about the negotiations – with officials, real estate developers, landlords. On other nights, he cannot sleep at all.

“I’m mostly worried about my daughter – she starts secondary school in September,” said Chen, 41, who works as a quality supervisor for a foreign trading company.

His family of four lives in a cheap one-bedroom flat in Baishizhou, one of the last standing chengzhongcun, or “urban villages”, in the flourishing commercial zones of southern Chinese city Shenzhen.

The villages provide affordable housing – costing from a few hundred to a few thousand yuan per month – to a mostly migrant worker population that provides services and labour.

But Baishizhou, in the Nanshan district, will not be standing for much longer. Many tenants in the area have received eviction notices since June, telling them to move out before the end of September to make way for a real estate project led by Shenzhen-based developer LVGEM Group.

The developer bought the land and buildings from their landlords, and it plans to knock them down and replace them with malls, hotels, high-end residential projects and skyscrapers.

Some 150,000 people are affected, mostly migrant workers, and they will have to find new homes, change jobs or even move back home at short notice.

Chen Jian lives in a one-bedroom flat in Baishizhou with his wife, daughter and son. Photo: Phoebe Zhang

For Chen and more than 2,000 other families, their children’s education is the most urgent issue. He said they could move somewhere else nearby, but the rent would be more than four times higher. A cheaper area would mean a long walk to school for his daughter from the nearest subway station.

As the breadwinner, Chen’s monthly income of 12,000 yuan (US$1,750) has to cover the whole family. His wife takes care of their three-year-old son and their daughter, 12.

“If I were here by myself, I would just pack up my bags and go,” said Chen, who moved to Shenzhen from Henan province. “But I can’t – I have children, I would do anything for my children.”

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Urban villages are a phenomenon that grew from China’s rapid development. In the 1980s, soon after Shenzhen became the country’s first special economic zone, the local government expropriated mostly vacant land from villagers and allowed developers to build commercial properties there.

The locals invested the large sums of money they received into new living spaces in their villages, which they rented out to the migrant workers that flowed into the city amid a manufacturing boom.

These chengzhongcun emerged as a tangle of damp alleyways, where electricity and telephone wires hang like spiderwebs. They bustle with fruit carts, soy milk shops, cobblers, karaoke parlours, short-stay love hotels and hair salons offering massage services. In the “handshake buildings”, as they are known, people live packed together so tightly that residents can reach out of the window and shake their neighbour’s hand in the opposite flat.

“I call this ‘voluntary urbanisation’,” said Duan Peng, an architect based in the city. Since he moved to Shenzhen in 2001, Duan has spent many days and nights in Baishizhou. He said its development was in line with the government’s urban planning policy, since it allowed migrant workers to live in a relatively prosperous area in the city centre rather than on its periphery.

“Handshake buildings”, where residents can shake their neighbours’ hands through the windows, are a feature of China’s urban villages. Photo: Phoebe Zhang

Chen moved to Shenzhen with his wife in 2000, and both their children were born there. They moved to Baishizhou in 2008 after he was introduced to his landlord, who is from Chen’s hometown and rented him the flat for 650 yuan a month.

The rent has gone up by just 300 yuan in the 11 years they have lived there. They have watched as new developments sprang up around them – amusement parks, a golf course, malls and an area that is home to some of the country’s top tech companies including Huawei, Tencent and DJI.

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But away from the shiny new developments, 150,000 migrant workers from all over the country are packed into 2,500 buildings in Baishizhou, where rents and services are affordable.

The urban village is full of people like Chen. Small business owner Wang Fang came to Shenzhen from northeast China in 2003 and has lived in Baishizhou ever since. Six months ago, she signed a three-year lease on a commercial space and opened a dumpling restaurant, but she is worried about the future.

“I can’t go back home, I already have a Shenzhen hukou,” she said, referring to the household registration document that gives access to public services. “I don’t have land there any more and can’t make a living there [as a farmer].”

She has not been told she has to leave the restaurant, but Wang and her two sons have until the end of September – when the building’s water and electricity will be cut off – to vacate their flat.

“It’s only a matter of time before the business is shut down as well,” she said.

Small shops and street vendors line Baishizhou’s bustling alleyways. Photo: Phoebe Zhang

According to an online poll of 1,031 Baishizhou residents this week, about half said they may have to find another job, and more than 600 were concerned about their children’s education. The survey, conducted by Shenzhen University urban planning professor Chen Zhu, also found that 70 per cent of those polled planned to find another flat in the city, while 28 per cent would leave.

Duan said the evictions and redevelopment would inevitably affect the surrounding areas, as well as the residents.

“The prices of services in the neighbourhood will increase, because many of the workers [now providing those services] will move far away, and rents will increase as well,” he said.

But for many such redevelopments, while the government, landlords and village officials might be consulted, the tenants are left out.

“Most of these residents, their voices and their interests aren’t on the negotiating table – their losses aren’t calculated in the real estate developer’s demolition costs,” Duan said.

A receptionist at LVGEM said he was not aware of any complaints about the redevelopment, while emails to the company went unanswered.

Meanwhile the developer’s partner, Baishizhou Corporation, told Southern Metropolis Daily it would provide legal services, rental support and school buses for tenants who will be displaced.

But it is not enough for migrant workers like Chen. Like many of those facing eviction, he fears he will have to pay more rent, and there may not be a school bus service in his area.

He mentions a slogan plastered on walls in the city, “Once you come, you’re a Shenzhener” – part of a government campaign to lure talent and investors.

Chen said he worried that Shenzhen wanted only hi-tech workers and luxury residential compounds in the city, leaving little room for low-income workers.

“Despite what the slogan says, you ask yourself, are you really a Shenzhener?” he said.

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