Thirty years ago the majority of people in China were farmers. They lived in simple village houses and owned land collectively. Today the radical transformation brought about through China’s economic reforms has completely restructured this predominantly rural population in terms of their work, their leisure time, their homes, their incomes, their family structure and their aspirations. This has produced a completely stratified society from the very rich to an emergent middle-class to people who have remained seemingly unchanged and still farm the land. This new societal structure has resulted in a new spatial logic whereby the binary relationship between rural and urban is no longer valid. Built form, density and population levels that one would typically attribute to urban areas are still legally defined as rural land. The 20th century relationship between the core and the periphery, the centre and the suburbs has been superseded by a gradated blanket of urbanization. This is not sprawl in the conventional understanding, or the result of an exodus from urban centers to suburban belts that has occurred in Western cities. Rather this process of urbanization is tied directly to its origins as rural land. In this sense the rural is an active agent in this evolving process of urban transformation.
One reason that the rural has had such a profound effect is due to the Hukou registration policy (instigated in the Mao era and still in use today) whereby every citizen is either registered as a rural or urban resident depending on where they were born. This policy distinguishes between land development rights, health care, and access to education thereby regulating and enforcing the division between the city and the countryside. The land-use rights of rural citizens, enacted through village collectives, has meant that land is developed more rapidly and more speculatively than in urban areas which are predominantly planned through the formal mechanisms of government.
As a result the inter-relation between urban processes and rural processes has produced a diverse landscape of blurred, ambiguous territories as land is being transformed. It is these zones which play out the contestation between policies, land ownership, development rights and individual land speculation; between farmers, developers, local government, factory owners, or foreign investors. These zones represent a critical juncture in China’s ongoing economic revival – they bring to light unresolved regulations or loopholes in the system, black-market grey areas and discrepancies between individual and collective action, between individual profit and compensation. They demonstrate specific forms of urbanization producing unique characteristics. They often describe in-between states: half finished, partially abandoned, or half demolished. To this extent they are dynamic: exemplifying the struggle between local and large scale forces attributable to global economic development.
Through travelling through this landscape between the urban and rural, we have observed irrational and unpredictable adjacencies: fish ponds next to factories, abandoned houses next to new tower blocks, informal settlements next to formally planned commercial blocks, farmland next to golf courses. In researching the forces behind such spatially diverse terrains we have identified five different conditions: The Urban Village, The Suburban Village, The Factory Village, The Contested Village, and The Rural Village. At the beginning they were all the same – they were all villages.