China’s Globalizing Primary Cities as a Contested Space: An Introduction

College of Resource Environment and Tourism, Capital Normal University, Beijing, China



The main argument of this book establishes that the strong state-led and pro-market reforms and urbanization have served to enhance the State’s competitiveness, as a latecomer to an advanced level of modern industrialization, and its limited tolerance of permanent slum formation in image-building Chinese cities under reconstruction. Migrants and their welfare entitlements are highly conditional on their residency/hukou status. The ‘Right to the City’, as a citizen’s right, has thus been compromised, at least in the transitional period, in both the urban renewals and the relocation process. This chapter provides an overall introduction to the research background, its significance, the research aim and framework, the research questions and methodologies and the structure of this book.

1.1 Introduction

Over the past three decades, following China’s pro-market reforms, the rising pace of suburbanization in China’s primary cities1 has seen the socio-spatial reshuffling of both ‘planned’ and ‘unplanned’ land developments. In political-economic terms, this new city-making movement has combined both the pre-reform identity orders (such as the hukou 2 and danwei 3 systems) as well as newly imported neoliberal4 economic forces, which underlie the dynamics of the residential mobility of low-income groups (He and Wu 2007; Harvey 2005: 120; Shin 2009). Whilst a rich literature has elaborated on the exodus of the more affluent to the emerging ‘gated communities’, little attention has been devoted to the issue of (re)development-induced involuntary mobilities of low-income groups, who are migrant workers in particular, to the outlying areas, including the farming zones (Wu 2006b; Wu et al. 2013). It is in these reception areas that informal living quarters for low-wage migrant workers are erected, following demolitions and relocations. In the midst of this transitional era of ‘urban developmentalism’5 in China, a series of urban development and planning regulatory notions, such as market-led capital circulation, welfare entitlement linked to local residency versus welfare exclusion associated with place of birth, have become conceptually interwoven with Henri Lefebvre’s catchphrase—the ‘Right to the City’ as a citizen’s right. An explanatory framework is therefore a prerequisite in seeking a good understanding of why limited opening is available for the marginalized migrant workers in urban China today.

The strong state-led and pro-market reforms and urbanization in China today have served to enhance the State’s competitiveness, as a latecomer to an advanced level of modern industrialization (see He and Wu 2007; Ma and Wu 2005; Ma 2002). The local states thus have a low tolerance to permanent slum formation in image-sensitive Chinese cities under reconstruction (Wu et al. 2013; Zhang 2011). The ‘Right to the City’ as a citizen’s right has been compromised as a result, at least in the transitional period, in the urban renewals and relocation process. Migrants’ welfare entitlements are highly conditional on their residency/hukou status. From a broad perspective, this book examines how the inherited restrictive hukou and redistributive system and new forces of neoliberal economy have functioned against the low-income migrant workers’ access to decent housing, following urban renewals.

Building on Max Weber, Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey’s theories of socio-spatial mobility and right claims, this book aims to shed light on the social origins, conditions and outcomes of migrant workers’ intra-city mobility in today’s transitional and globalizing urban societies in China. In particular, this book highlights the gradual and trial-and-error style of reform as well as the power devolution policies adopted by Beijing, China’s political and administrative centre, which has its own peculiar practices of land-use regulations and low-income housing allocation. This book also reconsiders the way in which a local Beijing government intervenes in the urbanization and mobility process to maximize developmental benefits. The argument on the changing relations between right and mobility is supported by policy review, census analysis, and a fieldwork survey on the housing relocation and residential shifts of Beijing’s low-income migrant workers, as the city expands and reconstructs itself.

To sum up, this book fills the gaps existing in studies of low-income migrant workers’ mobility in the transitional and globalizing cities in China. It poses the question of the social justice underlying the involuntary mobility at the primitive accumulation phase, during which economic performance is given priority, whereby Beijing is representative of this pursuit. The theoretical discourses on residency rights, census analysis and first-hand surveys have enriched the Lefebvrian notion of a ‘Right to the City’ in transitional economies. This study uses Beijing as an example, characterized typically by its ‘Chinese character’. The book ends with a comparison of the ‘Chinese-style’ with other ‘informal housing’ styles in Brazil (using São Paulo as a case study), wherein spontaneous self-help responses are used to tackle the massive structural crisis of social inequality.

1.2 Background: The City-Making Movement and Housing Inequality in China

1.2.1 China’s Pro-market Reforms and Socio-spatial Reshuffling

The transition from the era of Mao to that of Deng is marked by a change in ideological slogan from egalitarianism to the legitimization of pursuit of profit. This shift has involved pro-market reforms, resource mobilization (including capital flow, labour mobility and land transfer), and the devolution of power to regions, as well as the entrepreneurialism of city governance (Harvey 1989). The changing mode of urbanism,6 to that which supports two-digit GDP growth, has invited a resurgence of the undesirable plague of wealth inequality and socio-economic stratification. The widening wage gap in the labour market has contributed to social inequality leading to different pathways to affordable housing. In his analysis of middle-class housing in Beijing, Tomba (2004: 19) has pointed out more precisely that:

As seen, at least in this transitional phase, the importance of income levels is overshadowed by the distorted access to housing…In a situation where the gap between housing prices and income remains wide, people with a privileged access to the state’s distribution policies have managed to carve out lifestyles well beyond their means and that this phenomenon has contributed more to the emergence of prestigious residential communities than has the acquisition of wealth.

The changing role of welfare distribution in reformist China which has produced diverse residential communities has attracted much attention among social scientists. The existing studies have stressed the role of specific institutional legacies (the danwei and hukou systems of Mao’s era) in controlling access to housing in the transitional cities (Huang and Clark 2002; Huang and Jiang 2009; Logan et al. 2009; Wang 2004). But few have examined how the inequitable access to affordable housing has impacted the ‘settling down’ of affected low-income groups, in particular, the migrant workers who have long been negatively affected by the redevelopment of dilapidated low-rental housing (in city areas and the suburbs) and the ever-inflationary rent. In contemplating the residential mobility of migrant workers in China’s primary cities, the book must firstly review the urban housing allocation system, city image building pursuits, and the hukou-based residency and migration controls which have impacted the socio-spatial mobility of low-income migrant workers, the target of the investigation of this book. The low-income groups mentioned in the book refer to families within the lowest 20 % income band in the city. In China’s social welfare system, the poorest urban population refers to those living below the poverty line, as defined by the Ministry of Civil Affairs of the People’s Republic of China. The low-income migrant workers, however, are not on welfare benefits as they lack a local ‘hukou’ status.

Over the last two decades, China’s market reforms have seen profit-led neoliberal forces introduced into its urban spatial movements. In both the inner city and peri-urban villages, demolitions and rebuilding are the common events contributing to the enhanced sectoral and spatial mobility of capital and people. In reformist China, the commercialization of land and housing has activated a drastic spatial mobility and marginalization of low-income residents including migrant workers (see Hsing 2010; Shin 2009; He and Wu 2009). Since 2003, real estate development has been both a growth engine and revenue source (State Council 2003; Wang et al. 2012; Lin 2010). Property developers, especially in the higher-end commercial housing market, are preoccupied with using prime locations to realize the exchange values created by property sales. Thus, the demolition of low value and low-income housing of prime sites, to be replaced by high-value modern estates, has become inevitable. The residential mobility of the affected low-income residents, including the migrant tenants, and the resettlement measures applied to them, have become a hot topic among a wide range of studies of China’s transitional cities (Zhang and Fang 2003; Li and Song 2009; Shin 2009; Wu et al. 2013, 2014).

Wu (2003: 1337) expounded upon the relationship between Chinese transitional cities and the global environment of ‘neoliberalism’ as follows: ‘transitional cities are not themselves a prototype of something qualitatively different from the emerging neoliberal city. Indeed, transitional cities are variants of the latter, based on historical and geographical contingencies’. China’s pro-market reforms and city-making movements are mirrored in other countries, and are not particularly exceptional. In characterizing transitional cities as having been integrated into the market-led economy, Harvey (1978: 12–13) mentioned two kinds of ‘switching crises’ that could take place in restructuring capital flows and innovating institutions—the ‘sectoral switching crisis’ and the ‘geographical switching crisis’. China’s socio-economic transformation attests to Harvey’s interpretation of urban change in transitional economies as such—on one hand, through the switching of capital allocation from the heavy industrial sector to the tertiary sector, especially the high-tech and real estate industries; and on the other hand, through the switching of capital flow to more strategic central locations. ‘Accumulation by Dispossession’ is virtually the developmental strategy enshrined in the latter ‘geographical switching crisis’, which has been frequently employed in the advanced economies, the developing world as well as post-socialist countries (Harvey 2005, 2008, 2012). It is therefore through economic structural change that the low-income groups have long experienced involuntary mobilities following urban renewals and social exclusion (Harvey 2008, 2012; Marcuse et al. 2009; Gilbert and Gugler 1993; Segbers 2007). In the face of an investment plan aimed at enhancing urban land values, residents including migrant tenants have no choice but to move to a cheaper plot that they can afford. It is this market-led movement, which sets off the motion of residential mobility in different ways, which forms the focal point of this book.

The issues of mobility and re-housing, which give way to capital invasion, are essentially a means of socio-spatial reshuffling. The fact is that ‘given unfettered occupational and geographical mobility, the best people help society get the most out of the best locations’, as Logan and Molotch (2007: 48) have observed. As a result of adopting entrepreneurialism in city governance since the pro-market reforms began, there is an increasing commonality in the development-induced involuntary mobility between China’s transitional cities and the neoliberal cities of other countries. However, the resettlement measures are quite dependent on the specific institutional features employed at the local level. More specifically, in China, interest needs to be focused on why affected migrant workers cannot instantly get access to decent housing for resettlement, given the city’s pursuit of image and the hukou-based selective entry into governmental assistance schemes, as well as the inequitable participation in an immaturely-structured housing market. The socio-spatial dynamics of migrant workers’ mobility would be better understood by examining the mechanism that has denied the resettlement of the migrant population and exploring why affected migrant tenants have received little assistance.

1.2.2 The New Housing Challenge in the Post-Mao Era Housing Privatization Reforms and Real Estate Development in Beijing, China

As part of China’s pro-market reforms and ‘opening-up’, land and housing liberalization was introduced in the 1980s, with the aim of: (a) improving land-use efficiency; (b) attracting foreign and private investments by offering land use rights and; (c) tackling the housing funding deficit through housing privatization which would generate surplus revenues for long-term reinvestment (see Lin 2009; Zhu 1999; Chen 2004; Li and Yi 2007). This pro-market reform fits into China’s state control without undermining its socialist principle of public ownership. Since the mid-1990s, Beijing’s real estate industries have undergone rapid advancement. In the early 1990s, Beijing had only a few dozen real estate companies, which were initially mostly sponsored by municipal- and district-level regulatory entities. Beijing has begun to attract foreign investments since 1992 and allowed freer entry for domestic private investment since 1994. This explains why that year was a major turning point for housing development in Beijing, as shown by the growth in housing investments in Fig. 1.1. After the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, Beijing’s real estate industry became ‘over-heated’. The percentage of urban housing investment in total fixed assets investment has remained at a rather high level of over 50 % since 2001, showing the heavy reliance of local economic growth on the real estate industry (see Fig. 1.1). Since 2004, the central government has begun to drive up the interest rates of bank loans, curb foreign speculation in the housing market, and discourage the purchase of multiple properties. These ‘market-cooling’ measures explain why there has been a slight decline in the proportion of housing investments since 2005 (Fig. 1.1).


Fig. 1.1
Growth of Beijing’s housing investment and improvement in housing, 1978–2010 (Based on Beijing Municipal Bureau of Statistics 2011)

Until the present, Beijing’s real estate sector has remained the economic backbone of the city, accounting for 7 % of GDP from 2004 to 2010 (Beijing Municipal Bureau of Statistics 2011). It was reported that the real estate sector contributed 18–20 % to the municipal revenue in 2011 (News.Dichan.Sina 2011b). The emerging housing market has brought about significant housing improvement over the past two decades. The local hukou holders in Beijing have witnessed a rapid growth in terms of floor area per capita from 6.7 m2 in 1978 to over 20 m2 (see Fig. 1.1). The rate of homeownership saw a rise from only 20.2 % in 1998 to 83.1 % in 2010, with privatized public housing (49.8 %) and commercial housing (31.4 %) making up the two largest categories of private housing in Beijing.

Similarly to Reagan and Thatcher’s neoliberal turn since the 1980s, China’s pro-market reforms have induced the subordination of social policies (including life-long employment and a wide range of welfare coverage) to the demands of a flexible labour reserve and structural competitiveness (Jessop 1993: 9). The entrepreneurialism of city governance produces a vast pool of laid-off workers from the State sector—previously the leading and privileged group in the state-led industrialization era, who are now seeing their comedown in the more pro-market context. The majority of these laid-off local workers still have a claim for housing rights, on the basis of holding a local residency permit under the hukou system. After being afflicted by years of inflation and deprivation of the previous full package of social welfare measures, local urban residents in China, markedly different from migrant workers, treat their claims to owning subsidized housing (that is tradable after several years of residency) as a means away from distress (Zhang 2002; Tomba 2004; Wu 2002). This explains why the contest for the certificate of subsidized housing involves not only the low-income and affected local residents following urban renewals, but also the cadres and the middle- and higher-income groups. In some big danwei, subsidized housing still plays an important part in employees’ non-wage benefits, as part of the long-standing culture favouring State employees inherited from Mao’s era (Walder 1986; Tomba 2004).

An ample amount of literature has been written to prove that the earlier housing privatization reform of the 1990s enabled employees ‘within the State system’ to become property owners (Bian et al. 1997; Man 2010; Wang 2001; Wang et al. 2005). However, the migrant workers have little access to welfare benefits through these bureaucratic links, and thus exert little influence on the low-income housing allocation in their host cities. Shifting Affordable Housing Policies Since the Real Estate Marketization in China

China’s affordable housing policies have witnessed three main shifts since 1998:

  • In 1998, the state provision system was suspended, and urban housing reform entered its full marketization stage. As stated in State Council’s Document No. 23 of 1998, the central government started to adopt a diversified housing supply system, mainly through government-funded Economic Housing, to absorb 70–80 % of urban residents (State Council 1998; Wang 2001)

  • In 2003, the State Council issued another decree in order to encourage the real estate industry to promote economic growth (State Council 2003). Since then, the housing market has become an important growth engine and forms the main revenue of many cities (Zhao et al. 2009). According to government-conducted land conveyance surveys, dozens of Chinese cities rely heavily on land-leasing revenues in order to finance their urban developments (China Index Academy 2009). Land, as a financial resource, gives local governments an incentive to expropriate property, expand built-up areas, redevelop dilapidated areas, and relocate low-income residents from areas identified as prime sites for city-branding projects (Cao et al. 2008; Lin 2010; Deng 2005; Deng and Huang 2004)

  • The real estate bubble expansion and the rapid dissolution of the public housing sector into a residual form occur almost simultaneously. In Beijing, inner-city housing prices in 2010 were reported to be 10 times higher than that of 2003, despite ‘market cooling’ measures. Since 2007, the central government has begun to pay special attention to the housing difficulties of the low-income groups, urging local governments to expand the supply of ‘public rented housing’, but failing to provide any strong incentives for the local governments to do so (State Council 2007; Huang 2012). As a result, most cities did not finish their assignations and neither did they assign 10 % of the land-sourced revenue to fund ‘public rented housing’ schemes as required (ibid). Since 2011, the central government has initiated a ‘Great Leap Forward’, consisting of low-income housing construction to make up for the shortfall in supply. A fund of 18 billion yuan7 was allocated to regions in order to fund ‘public rented housing’ schemes and other forms of low-income housing. However, this did not provide a complete solution to the problem of misallocation that has long afflicted the low-income and disadvantaged groups including the migrant workers (BJD 2011; Xinhua 2011, 2012).

After a decade of housing reform, government subsidized housing, which is predominantly affordable, still favours only local hukou holders and the employees of big danweis. Document No. 23 of the State Council (1998) gave the employees of state units a big advantage over non-public employees. The more resourceful the danwei is, the more likely it is that their employees continue to enjoy the housing subsidies in various forms. In the ‘walled enclaves’ built by the state department, state employees reportedly purchased property at only half to one fifth of the market price (News.Dichan.Sina 2011a). Within the unitary Affordable Housing Schemes constructed by local governments, employees of state units have also enjoyed the danwei group buying discounts (Tomba 2004; Qian 2003; Wei 2007; Zhang 2006 b). The privileges enjoyed by these ‘insiders’ form a sharp contrast to the exclusions faced by the low-income migrant workers, who are considered ‘outsiders’ to the city. The housing stratification has thus become an inevitable result of the socio-spatial restructuring in transitional China since the 1980s. Factors Leading to the Emerging Housing Stratification Since the 1980s

Commencing in 1979, China introduced market forces interdigitated with centralized controls by imitating the economic growth model of the ‘Four Asian Dragons’ to some extent (Harvey 2005: 120). Owing to the preference for capital in the most profitable sectors, naturally situated in strategic locations, people of low educational level and occupational position can be denied access to more desirable residences, amenities or services that could otherwise enhance their life prospects and guarantee a rewarding future. Since the gradual pro-market reforms, China’s new city-centred and export-oriented ‘urbanism mode’ has witnessed the emergence of several intersecting stratification systems in urban housing allocation:

  • The occupational hierarchy in the emerging labour market, which brings a widening wage gap between the skilled and unskilled workers (Solinger 2006)

  • The socio-spatial stratification of housing consumption in the emerging real estate market, which is shaped by the departure of high-income groups from dilapidated public tenements, as well as the relocation of inner-city and suburban low-income groups to outlying areas (Huang and Jiang 2009; Fang and Zhang 2003; Wu et al. 2013 and 2014)

  • The devolution of power and decentralization of risks and responsibilities to the regional level in order to stimulate local development, whilst at the same time opening up free-riding opportunities in order to allow cadres easier access to plan-allocated low-priced public products. This is the danwei-based inequitable treatment in favour of the privileged few inside the ‘plan track’, which has excluded a mass of ordinary people from the state plan during the transitional era8 (Hsing 2006; Nee and Cao 1999). The allocation of governmental housing assistance (e.g. Economic Housing, Cheap Rented Housing, Public Rented Housing, Limited Priced Housing, Housing Purchase Subsidies and other types), made accessible only to the local hukou holders, is often cited as an example of the distorted welfare system (Tomba 2004; Huang and Jiang 2009; Logan et al. 2009; Wang 2003)

  • The stratified hukou pyramid, which confers different local welfare provisions to different social groups in order to control unnecessary increases in environmental burden and economic expenditure on unskilled and ‘unwanted’ migrants. The imbalance between revenue and expenditure, as well as the GDP-centred growth, is viewed as an institutional barrier to further hukou reforms, which favour low-wage migrants who are settling down (Fan 2008; Li et al. 2010; Huang 2012; Lin 2010; Tao 2011). Housing Inequality as the Key Challenge to Achieving ‘Social Harmony’

The issue of demolition and rebuilding is always controversial (Fainstein 1994; Logan and Molotch 2007; Kimelberg 2011). The goal of ‘public betterment’ masks the social costs of land use intensification and redevelopment which affect mostly the vulnerable groups. Conflicts erupt when entrepreneurial pursuits (for example, the exchange-value of land) affect the fortunes of residents using the ‘city’ to live (through the use-value of land). What is more serious is that housing inequality is hard to eradicate, being deeply embedded in the power matrix and fiscal relations on a local scale (e.g. the danwei– and hukou-based welfare systems)—defining who gets what, in what way and at what price, which is representative of the socio-economic structure of transitional cities. In the past two decades, the underfunding and misallocation of low-income housing have been the hotbeds for discontent among the low-income groups, especially as a result of:

  • The housing bubble and unaffordable prices and rent costs

  • The low-speed supply of resettlement housing, which always lags behind the demolition (Huang and Jiang 2009; Hsing 2010)

  • The inequitable access to public low-income housing between the privileged and unprivileged and between the local and non-local residents.

In response to the challenge of social inequality, mitigating the shortfall of affordable housing has become an imperative duty of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao’s administration, especially between 2007 and 2012, when the low-income housing policy symbolized the government’s commitment to aid the low-income residents (Huang 2012). However, the ‘Great Leap Forward’ of low-income housing construction was largely aimed at making up a shortfall in supply, and did not focus much on how to remedy the distorted welfare system. The majority of migrants are still excluded from public welfare housing, and the resettlement of affected migrant tenants is still a big challenge to local government. Yet higher-income groups (such as the senior personnel of big companies and employees of resourceful danwei) are nonetheless able to gain access to public assistance according to the latest reports (BJD 2011; Xinhua 2011, 2012; China Development Research Foundation 2012; News.Dichan.Sina 2011a).

The malpractices of low-income housing allotment are a common feature in developing countries. Taking India for example, the dramatic increase in slum-dwellers is almost inevitable, owing to the failure of the government to provide affordable housing for the urban poor (Reuters 2007). In India, housing earmarked for low-income groups was priced so highly that 80 % of it was in fact occupied by the middle class (International Covenant on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights 2008). China’s housing problems (e.g. unaffordability and inaccessibility) are embedded in housing commodification reforms, which caused a drastic shift in the supply structure and property relations. In this sense, China’s housing problems are far more complicated than the mere shortage of housing typical in other developing countries (such as Brazil, Mexico and India). Housing supply in China has been long afflicted by an unprecedented rise in urbanization rates and rural-urban migration (see Gilbert 1996; Gilbert and Gugler 1993; Singh and Steinberg 1998).

At the moment, in the aftermath of a drastic social reshuffle and years of inflation and existence of the housing bubble, it is a contentious issue as to who is best suited to have access to public housing assistance. The problems of housing inaccessibility, misallocation and malpractice remain a key challenge to providing equitable access for all eligible citizens. Thus, more attention should be paid to the reasons why low-income migrant workers cannot easily access affordable housing, especially after development-induced involuntary mobility. In this book, both the mobility of the low-income migrant workers and the extent to which they can access the residency rights (i.e. affordable housing and other local welfare provisions) function as yardsticks for measuring their ‘Right to the City’ (Lefebvre 1991, 1996; Harvey 2008, 2009, 2012). Indeed, housing inequality afflicts low-wage migrants in different ways, compared to local low-income people. Low-Wage Migrant Workers and Their Housing Difficulties

Unskilled and low-wage migrants have few opportunities to secure a reliable future in the cities. Before the reforms, rural peoples were barred from the city entirely; now the host cities merely tolerate their presence as labourers but deny them fundamental rights to public housing and basic services (Zhang 2002). In the post-Mao era from the 1980s, labour mobility was allowed but the hukou system was retained in order to discourage unskilled migrant workers from ‘settling down’ in the big cities. Only a small fraction of the highly-skilled and well-educated migrants and investors, occupying the upper echelons of the hukou pyramid, are conferred different benefits; however, migrants who remain at the bottom layer receive little or no welfare benefits (Li et al. 2010; Wang 2005a ; Tao 2009). A vast pool of ‘drifting tenants’, consisting predominantly of low-income migrants, have surfaced as a result of their inability to access public housing assistance, as well as the expensive commercial housing market. The significance of local versus non-local inequality, in terms of their entitlement to public housing assistance, is a key feature of the distorted welfare system, through which unskilled and low-wage migrants are excluded from a fair share of the ‘economic pie’. The impact of housing inequality has captured much attention, since the migrants have flooded en masse into the big cities. They account for one fourth of the total population in Beijing and Guangzhou, and a higher rate in Shanghai, according to the 6th National Population Census of 2010 (see Fig. 1.2).


Fig. 1.2
Growth of local hukou holders and migrants in Beijing, 1978–2010 (Based on Beijing Municipal Bureau of Statistics 2011)

The disadvantaged status of low-wage migrants is virtually a direct representation of the rural-urban divide or regional inequality in the host city. Rural migrants are forced to fill the ranks of the unskilled or underemployed owing to their lower educational levels compared to the urban averages. At the same time, they are also affected by the unaffordable rents in urban locations. There remains the criticism that the hukou system, which is inherited from the Mao era, is still performing as a selective mechanism for admission of migrants into the public services of the host city (Fan 2002; Solinger 1999; Wu 2004b, 2006b; Wu and Rosenbaum 2008; Zhang 2011). The hukou system is, in reality, an intricate institutional device functioning to accommodate the housing needs of the competing social groups, when the growth of public services fails to keep up with the population explosion occurring in big cities. The disproportionate access to affordable housing is identified in the book as a major housing challenge arising in the post-Mao era, especially in the big cities, with high incidences of city-branding movements, which lead to the relocation of low-income residents. Existing studies have paid special attention to the growth of informal rented housing sectors as the main reception areas of low-income migrants, while mentioning little about the demolition of informal housing and its impact on the migrant tenants (Wang et al. 2009; Wu 2009; Chung 2010).

What the local and non-local low-income groups have in common is that they are easily dislocated by more ‘economically rational’ land development. Yet, owing to the hukou system, the migrant groups receive little compensation. After years of ‘nail-house’ protests,9 the local dwellers and suburban villagers are now enjoying an increasing amount of compensation from the land (re)development projects (see Zhang 2006a; Hess 2010). But in the cities, low-wage migrants still face discrimination as they are placed at the bottom layer of the hukou pyramid. This study examines the ways they have adapted to a new wave of city-branding movements and tightening-up of residency controls in big cities in recent years.

1.3 What This Book Is About

1.3.1 Overarching Research Question

The overarching research question in this book is: what has been the relationship between the distorted welfare/right/entitlement system and the low-income migrant workers’ intra-city mobility in transitional Beijing, since the 1980s? The dynamics of ‘housing right’ and ‘residential mobility’ of low-income migrant workers in the present urbanization process in primary cities of China are supported by empirical studies in Chaps. 4, 5 and 6.

1.3.2 Overarching Research Objective

The overarching research objective of this book seeks to explain the institutional barriers to the ‘Right to the City’ and the ‘settled down’ city life experience in transitional Beijing since the 1980s. Lefebvre (1996: 34) defined the ‘Right to the City’ as ‘the rights of the citizen as an urban dweller (citadin) and user of multiple services…[which] cover the right to the use of the centre, a privileged place, instead of being dispersed and stuck into ghettos’. The bottom-up claim for the ‘Right to the City’ is actually a cry for openness, transparency and fairness. The book focuses on the ‘right’ and ‘mobility’ of low-income migrant workers against a backdrop of housing inequalities and city-branding movements during the transitional era in Beijing:

  • The ‘Right to the City’ for migrant workers who move from their place of origin to work in Beijing; and

  • Their ‘mobility’ to the fringes of Beijing, following tenement demolition or rising property rentals.

The keynote of this book focuses on the low-income migrant workers’ claims to the ‘Right to the City’,—which is an important issue in the critical geographies that criticize the inequitable power relations and vindicate the needs and interests of the poor and the underprivileged (Mayhew 2009). Lefebvre’s notion of ‘Right to the City’ in the Chinese context is a very broad concept, covering the rights to one’s housing/community, employment, livelihood, public resources, public space, etc. and most importantly the equal rights to live and thrive in the city. This book focuses on the specific aspect of the ‘Right to the City’—issues related to the low-income migrant workers’ rights to housing.

North’s theory of institutional change provides two important insights into the rationale behind China’s pro-market reforms, which still retain the institutional legacies of restrictions of the Mao era (Nee 2005). Two insights shed light on the exact nature of the institutional backdrop of China’s housing inequalities, as well as the claims for the ‘Right to the City’ of migrant workers.

Firstly, the individuals and organizational actors (within the system) are limited in their capacity to implement a thorough institutional innovation, due to the problem of free riding. It explains why the system usually institutes and maintains arrangements that are inefficient (North 1981; Nee 2005). The housing reform is no exception. The distorted and inefficient allocation of welfare housing is thus an observable event of a transitional era, arising from the collusion of vested interests and leading to institutional stagnation and social inequality. This is the institutional root of misallocation of low-income housing, and the barrier to the ‘right’ to the timely attainment of resettlement housing for migrant tenants, which occurs following urban renewal.

Secondly, any large-scale institutional change comes from the State, which has strong incentives to devise a more efficient system of property rights in order to maximize revenue and improve economic performance (North 1990). It is easy to understand why formal norms—such as the hukou system—are used to serve local developmental interests. But the existing literature has little discussion on the informal norms, such as illegal buildings leased by local rural folk to the ‘undesired’ low-skilled migrants, as well as the migrants’ low value-added activities in the form of unregistered workshops, garbage collection and processing, which are located in the ‘city fringe’. The latter have surfaced and evolved as a supplement to formal institutional innovation, especially with regard to the low-income migrant workers’ adaptation to a shrinking informal rented housing market, which is under increasing pressure to concede to formal land development for the purpose of rent intensification and ‘city branding’. Land-use conflict presents a key barrier to the migrants’ ‘Right to the City’.

1.3.3 Detailed Questions and Specific Research Objectives

In examining the ‘Right to the City’ of migrant workers and their ‘mobility’, the book is composed of several parts, exploring the relationship between the distorted allocation of subsidized housing and low-income migrant workers’ city life, which lies in a ‘state of flux’, following urban renewal.

The book begins with an argument on right-mobility relations in China’s transitional cities. Secondly, it encompasses a review of land and housing politics, which have influenced the spatial mobility of migrant workers in contemporary China. Beijing is chosen as the city for the empirical study.

Based on the census data from 2000 to 2010, the book describes the characteristics of Beijing’s migrant workers, including their employment and residence status. It then examines the spatial distribution changes of migrants in Beijing in the past decade, and identifies the ‘flow-in’ areas (using towns or sub-districts as spatial units) that have witnessed a higher spatial congregation and a greater increase of migrants than other areas. The areas with a great loss of migrants from 2000 to 2010 are also mapped and highlighted.

A housing survey on the ‘flow-in’ areas is then conducted in the informal rented housing market in peri-urban villages, which have not surfaced, until the pro-market reforms, as a main reception niche for low-income migrant tenants who have no local residency status. The survey examines the causes (including the residency system and city imaging movements) and consequences (such as rehousing patterns, adaptations to mobilities, gains and losses after being dislocated) experienced by low-skilled and low-wage migrants.

A review of housing and mobility issues for Beijing’s main types of low-income groups follows, in order to elaborate on the most marginalized status of dislocated migrants among these dislocated groups (such as low-income state workers living in the old industrial sites, local low-income residents resettled from the inner city, and local farmers whose lands have been expropriated for urban use) in Beijing.

The book also examines the Beijing Municipality’s style of governance towards its urban ‘informalities’, including the stringent population control policies, hukou system, residency permits, rules and regulations on land/space use (in city areas and suburbs), planning standards, and other enforcement measures. In examining the ‘Right to the City’ of migrant workers and their ‘mobility’ following the tenement demolition, the book questions the evolving urbanism practices that give low tolerance to the slum-like housing accommodating low-skilled migrants, who serve the urbanizing economies but receive little or no housing assistance from public authorities. This book compares the operational mechanisms of urban ‘informalities’ in Beijing with other management styles towards slum areas in Latin America and India.

In an in-depth exploration of the ‘right’ and ‘mobility’ of migrant workers, five research questions are raised in order to investigate the true nature and dynamics of ‘right’ and ‘mobility’ in the present urbanization process in China (see Fig. 1.3). Figure 1.3 shows the logical flow of the book, from literature review and theoretical analysis (Marxist dialectics and critical geography) to empirical studies conducted in Beijing, and from China studies to comparative research. These questions will be dealt with in different chapters of the book (Table 1.1). Each question is provided with its specific research objective as given below (Table 1.1).


Fig. 1.3
Research framework

Table 1.1
Detailed research questions and specific research objectives

Only gold members can continue reading. Log In or Register to continue


Detailed research question

Chapter title