Since the 1980s, Chinese cities have experienced a major shift due to the arrival of millions of rural migrants known as the "floating population", facilitated by reduced migration control under liberalisation. This growing informal workforce has radically changed the landscape of Chinese cities and created a new phenomenon known as chengzhongcun (literally "villages-in-the-city" or "villages encircled by the city") — rural villages that have became engulfed by the rapid urbanisation processes around them. Surrounded by skyscrapers and transportation infrastructure, these urban villages seem to be forgotten places in cities' urban plans.
How urban villages form
Chengzhongcun are rural villages which have been progressively "absorbed" into urban areas, found on the fringes of cities like Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing. With the expansion of the city, farmlands formerly cultivated by villagers were progressively purchased and turned into urban land by the city government. In most cases, villagers maintain property rights over their own houses and their housing plots within the village settlement.
But reaching the western side, it becomes crystal clear that it is differentiated from the rest of the area: the village is completely sealed off, surrounded by walls and closed between 11pm and 6am.
The formation of these villages-in-the-city is characteristic of the Chinese dual land tenure system which distinguishes between rural and urban land, and separates land use rights from land ownership: urban land is generally state-owned, while rural land is owned by the rural collective, and cannot be transferred, sold or leased for non-agricultural use. During the urbanisation process, local authorities could buy agricultural land, but the ownership of the village remained collective, and villagers could still dispose of their land use rights on their housing plots. The villages maintained their status as "rural" areas, as the government did not want to deal with the potential relocation and compensation cost of the villagers.
But this administrative status does not match the reality anymore. To compensate for the loss of their agricultural land, a major source of revenue, many villagers redevelop their housing at high densities, creating an informal rental market, which matches the needs of rural migrants in search of cheap housing opportunities close to work. As the majority of migrants cannot afford to rent private accommodation in the centre of Beijing, they have to rely on alternative housing opportunities. Often, urban villages are the only affordable option available.
The physical environment of the village is characterised by narrow roads, face-to-face buildings, streets packed with shops, grocery stores and service outlets. Highly dense and unregulated, they are considered by Chinese authorities and media as a source of social disorder and neglected urban planning.
As such, they have experienced various forms of policy treatment, ranging from cleansing to redevelopment, and face the state's will to manage the rising tide of Beijing's floating population, 8.3 million as of last year. Most of these policies have failed to acknowledge the role of chengzhongcun in addressing the long-standing housing demands from migrant workers. In Beijing, the policy of "sealed management", developed during the Olympic Games, is the most recent major example of an attempt by a local government to regulate the informal development of these villages.
The sealed management policy
Walking into Laosanyu, one barely notices it is an urban village: the main street is tidy, packed with shops but nor overcrowded, not comparable to other urban villages in terms of space use and density. But reaching the western side, it becomes crystal clear that it is differentiated from the rest of the area: the village is completely sealed off, surrounded by walls and closed between 11pm and 6am. Two young guards, standing at the entrance, control vehicles entering the village, and ask for their identification papers.
This policy of "sealed management" (封闭管理 or fengbiguanli in Chinese) first appeared in Laosanyu during the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Under the policy, selected chengzhongcun inhabited by migrant workers were fenced in and security stepped up: gates, walls, police boxes, 24-hour patrols and permits necessary for outsiders to enter the village. It is a pilot policy, first directed towards 16 urban villages in Daxing District in the spring of 2010, and then extended to other districts in Beijing. It has attracted much media attention, where it has been described as creating "gated communities for the poor".
At the moment, rural-urban migrants are still considered "secondary citizens" ... the sealed management policy, with its distinction between "selected" migrants and newcomers considered a threat, is an illustrative example...
According to authorities, the sealed management policy is supposed to reduce the crime rate in these villages. In official documents, a clear causality is established between the arrival of new workers, security problems, and the need to strengthen management in order to prevent social disorder. Yet a closer examination shows that the policy goes deeper than mere security concerns, but aims to turn these villages, unregulated in their current collectivised form, into regulated assets under state control.
In addition to the process of sealing up the neighbourhood, villages must also commence the registration of newcomers upon their arrival, the registration of rental housing units, the systematic demolition of informal buildings and the strict application of the dual property rights regulation. The policy of sealed management is just the most visible part of a comprehensive policy aimed at the normalisation and regulation of these villages.
Every single migrant without local hukou (household registration status) wanting to settle in the village first needs to register at a government office at the entrance to the village. This office, dedicated to "people arriving in the city", also regulates the rental housing system. After this first step, newcomers have to go to the police station to obtain their temporary registration permit; this is the card guards will ask for when conducting identity checks at the gate. Even though the village is administratively rural, migrants with rural hukou are not local residents, do not hold the local hukou and therefore need to register.
In addition, every villager wanting to let housing to migrants has to register to obtain official approval; this allows the local government to make an inventory of rental housing units. This has given rise to numbered "rental housing" signs (chuzufangwu, 出租房屋) on every building that rents rooms to migrants.
Finally, the village has experienced the strict implementation of informal housing regulations. On one side of the road in the west part of the village was demolished in November 2010. According to one of the villagers living on the other side of the road, the demolished buildings were informal housing units built by villagers for commercial renting to migrants, but on agricultural state-owned land. The land was not part of the living housing plot of the village, and therefore the villagers had no rights to build housing on this side of the road.
These measures, supporting the sealed management policy, are characteristic of the official will to eradicate any sign of informality and "neglected urban planning" in these villages. They also have a symbolic dimension: a clear sign to outsiders that they are entering a regulated, controlled and "protected" environment.
A population of 'secondary citizens'
Local policies in Beijing fail to develop a comprehensive answer to migrants' housing needs, and to recognise the function of chengzhongcun as a pool of housing and source of revenue for villagers. Alternative policies could be implemented, requiring a substantial discussion on the definition of urban citizenship. At the moment, rural-urban migrants are still considered "secondary citizens", experiencing various forms of discrimination. The sealed management policy, with its distinction between "selected" migrants able to live in the village under control, and potential newcomers considered a threat, is an illustrative example of this discrimination. This core problem, if not resolved, will impede any form of satisfactory deal for migrants in China's cities.