Abstract

In spite of their informal and substandard nature, Chinese urban villages are actually part of the infrastructure that institutionalizes and normalizes China's uneven development by providing cheap dormitory-style accommodations to the country's vast army of unskilled rural migrants who flock to cities as precarious laborers. This extended photo essay uses an urban village renewal project in the southern city Guangzhou to analyze the politics of eviction, demolition, resistance, and gentrification in light of the region's shift from low-value to high-tech industries. When urban villagers appropriated ideas of tradition, lineage, and socialist collectivism to fight against the government and the developer, their purpose was to acquire greater compensation and even symbolic capital in order to secure an urban middle-class future for themselves. In the process, however, they have further foreclosed the futures of many rural migrants whose survival in the city rely on cheap accommodation in these slum-like enclaves, even though survival in this context often implies dull and dead-end jobs with little prospect of social mobility. Drawing on the author's visual project called Where There Is No Room for Fiction, the selected photographs here provide a visual ethnographic account of the contested landscape of an urban village under siege. As well, these images explore the possibility of a critical aesthetics in order to engage the official vision of urban modernity that is saturated with spectacle and speculation.

Introduction

When the migrant worker poet Xu Lizhi 许立志 plunged to his death in Shenzhen Special Economic Zone in 2014 near the urban village where he had been renting a shared room, about 50 percent of the city's twelve million people were living in nearly three hundred such urban enclaves throughout the city (Vlassenrood 2016: 6). In the nearby city of Guangzhou, around six million people were likewise living in the city's approximately three hundred urban villages, with almost half of them located in the city center (Crawford and Wu 2014: 19). Indeed, to the extent that the Pearl River Delta (PRD) metropolitan region, including its special economic zones (SEZs), has played a vital role in postsocialist China's “economic miracle,” urban villages have constituted the single most significant housing infrastructure for rural migrant workers who flocked to the region for factory, construction, and low-end service jobs. It is therefore no coincidence that Xu himself had been a worker in Foxconn's flagship plant located in the Longhua Science and Technology Park just a few kilometers away from where he ended his life.1

Little known beyond his immediate circle of migrant worker poets, Xu seems to have long scripted his own tragic demise. In poem after poem during the years preceding his own suicide, he depicted fellow workers throwing themselves from Foxconn buildings as screws falling to the ground and the uniformed workforce as terracotta warriors ready to be sacrificed. It is also no coincidence that not only his factory work but also his urban village experience were his most frequently explored topics. Indeed, if assembly line workers standing ready in uniform resemble rows of ancient Chinese terracotta warriors waiting for orders as depicted in one of his poems, urban villages are like warehouses for China's massive reserve army of labor (Xu 2014). Since the 1980s, these urban slums have coexisted with encroaching and burgeoning cities in a kind of symbiotic yet hierarchical relationship. Specifically, these urbanized villages have provided cheap—albeit miserable—housing for rural migrants within what would be otherwise unaffordable cities as this precarious population waits for work in between shifts and between jobs. Yet, for a decade now, as the government increasingly aspires to supplant the low-value economy with “high-tech,” “innovative,” and “creative” industries—especially along the coast—urban villages in those areas have been facing unprecedented pressure for renewal and gentrification.

Using Xian Village renewal in central Guangzhou as a case study, this extended photo essay analyzes how landowning villagers or peasant landlords with land rights deployed reinvented ideas of tradition, lineage, and collectivization to fight the government and the developer in order to maximize their own compensations while the futures of rural migrants renting rooms from them in these slum-liked enclaves were being foreclosed. I also draw on photographs and site-specific installations of my research-based visual project in the village, Where There Is No Room for Fiction, to expose the complicated political and social terrains of urban village renewal in postsocialist China. By engaging the everyday and normalized violence, disparity, and unevenness visually, I also hope to contemplate the possibilities of developing a critical aesthetics against the dominant modes of visual and knowledge regimes, so that realities and futures other than those sanctioned by the state and capital can be imagined.

Informality as Exception, Difference as Norm

Public discourse on Chinese urban villages generally emphasizes the informal status of these spaces. As a legacy of China's socialist rural collectivization, villages in the city are often seen as residuals of a bygone era, waiting to be modernized and fully incorporated into the city. However, behind their “village” designation are highly urbanized spaces packed with mid-rise, dormitory-style apartment buildings designed by owners to maximize rental income. Since these buildings are not usually built to code, urban villages are routinely condemned as dark, disorderly, dangerous, and filthy. “Every time I open the window or the wicker gate, I seem like a dead man slowly pushing open the lid of a coffin,” Xu wrote in a poem. Before his suicide, he paid 350 yuan (USD 52) per month for a bed in one such building: a “cramped and damp” shared room of about ten square meters without any sunlight (Xu 2013b). Given their reputation for negative characteristics from shoddy construction to prostitution, urban villages have until recently thought to be so unruly that they appear as utterly unredeemable in official and mainstream media accounts.2 Such popular imaginings are no doubt used by the government to legitimize its violent cleansing of these unwanted spaces in the name of urban renewal and progress.

Outside official discourse, there are nonetheless acknowledgments of the contributions made by these urban enclaves.3 The 2017 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture (UABB) in Shenzhen that took up the theme of urban village is one such example. The curatorial team particularly highlighted the symbiotic relationship between the city and its urbanized villages, insisting on the importance of difference, coexistence, and hybridity in urban growth. What was largely missing from the emphasis on “alternative urbanization experience and avant-garde experiment,” however, was robust engagement with the politics and sociality of the urban village on the ground—let alone any addressing of the state-guided neoliberal conditions that precipitated uneven structural development in the first place.4

In fact, although the prevalence of vernacular architecture and transitory residents within them may have reinforced the ideas of informality and temporariness so often attributed to urban villages, these spaces are remarkably institutionalized and well integrated into the urban fabric. In Guangzhou, for instance, basic utilities in these enclaves are usually maintained by a handful of management companies who offer services in exchange for a small share of each rental property. Working closely with incorporated village collectives, peasant landlords, and district governments, these businesses have become players in the management of hygiene, security, utilities, and rent collections within a dynamic urban environment.5 In essence, this industry carries out some biopolitical and disciplinary interventions on behalf of the state in an informal and yet highly institutionalized manner. Without the stable infrastructure provided by these companies, small businesses such as local shops, food stalls, and manufacturing workshops could not be as vibrant nor as integrated into the surrounding neighborhoods.6

Because of their extensive experience working in these informal settings, the entrepreneurs behind these companies are adept observers of the spaces’ everyday nuances. Some of them even consider themselves to be reformers seeking to modernize enclaves that have been neglected by the government—even though locals often refer to such business owners as jianghu dalao 江湖大佬 (big brothers), an expression that connotes triad bosses. By considering their initiatives as drivers for gailiang 改良 (improvement) rather than gaizao 改造 (renewal or remaking) of the neighborhood, these entrepreneurs also resist the way in which urban villages are demonized in official discourse. They offer concrete visions for improvement as well—introducing rooftop gardens, security cameras, and a richer communal life—not design fantasies as shown in many architectural exhibitions that have little relevance to daily life (Yan Wendou 2018: 513–17). Still, much like the curators and exhibitors of the Biennale, these entrepreneur-reformers maintain that urban villages should continue to coexist with the city.

The real significance of these competing visions is not so much whether these urban villages should or should not be preserved. In reality, Chinese urban villages have been coexisting with cities for decades; their existence as informal settlements is already longer than their history as socialist rural collectives. After all, as substandard urban enclaves for (almost exclusively) precarious migrant laborers, these spaces provide much “efficiency” for China's postsocialist economy in every sense. Like the famous “waiting room of history,” therefore, urban villages are manifestations of structural social and economic disparity (Mehta 1999: 97). As such, most of them have been quite resilient despite constant demolition threats as well as their perceived transient nature. To put differently, it is unsurprising that China's breakneck development has yet to eradicate these supposedly temporary spaces, as is implied by the popular expression “to let some people to get rich first,” attributed to paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. The uneven development of the city is instead an essential condition of high-speed growth. And—much like the special economic zones and their variations that were established for the new era of global and deterritorial production and supply-chain management—urban villages, despite their informality, are institutionalized zones of exception sanctioned by the sovereign state to bypass its own legal controls and standards for the sake of flexible accumulation (Easterling 2014: 42–44; Ong 2000: 56). In short, urban villages are by definition spaces of alterity—not by choice but as a condition for China's rapid economic development.

In spite of their persistence, China's urban villages have encountered additional pressure in recent years as the government tries to steer the coastal region in particular toward a high-value production and consumption economy. This desire to build ultramodern, tech-driven cities has diminished the role of informal settlements as warehouses, as it were, for surplus urban populations of precarious migrant laborers. Many local governments have therefore begun to further villainize urban villages and to call for their complete eradication. The recent high-profile and violent purge of what was dubbed the “low-end population” in Beijing, along with numerous similar cases nationwide, represents precisely this trend of sending rural migrants back to their native places using violence, not just market mechanisms (Hernández and Zhao 2017).

Like local authorities who try to eliminate urban villages altogether, those who advocate for their conversion into alternative living spaces must be understood in the same context of the shifting political economy. Architects, planners, and reformers like those mentioned earlier see urban villages as spaces for experimenting with organic urban forms and communal living environments that large-scale developments have failed to provide. For example, they consider those centuries-old ancestral halls, common in urban villages in south China, as the embodiment of the supposedly traditional culture. They are therefore keen on preserving the cultural practices surrounding these ancient architectures, if not always the original buildings themselves, in their experiments. Unfortunately, an approach that uses culture and tradition to convert urban villages into alternative spaces for urban consumption does not merely fail to prioritize the well-being of the migrant renters who make up the overwhelming majority of current residents but in fact prevents them from having any future at all in the city. The remaking of urban villages into desirable spaces for urban living is thus often simply part of the new trend in urban design that uses culture as the symbolic language that denotes a sense of exclusion and social privilege (Zukin 1995: 7).

Solidarity and Discord in Central Guangzhou

The changing status of urban villages from sites for labor reserves to sites of land reserves for development is perhaps best illustrated by those located in Guangzhou's new Central Business District (CBD). Given these villages’ location, the stakes associated with their redevelopment are undeniably high. At the same time, what these villages have in common is their centuries-long history. For example, Xian Village—the focus of my visual project—is eight hundred years old; nearby Liede and Shipai villages can similarly be traced back to the thirteenth century. It therefore comes as no surprise that, even before the new CBD project was announced, there was a sense of shared identity among the land owners in these urban villages emergent from collective memories of the imperial past, the legacy of socialist collectivization, and ongoing postsocialist urban encroachment. This last point, in particular, illustrated the function of the urban village as a land reserve for the growing city, as the lands of Xian Village were expropriated during the 1980s and 1990s for, respectively, the construction of a sports stadium and of upscale gated residential and office towers.

When, in 2010, the city government announced its proposal to demolish the historic area of Xian Village—which stood on its last piece of land—as part of an urban beautification plan being implemented in anticipation of the upcoming Asian Games hosted by the city, owners’ anxieties and hopes concerning decent compensation unfolded within the contexts of history, collective memory, and real estate speculation mentioned above. Driven by a fast-approaching mega-event, the government's decision to demolish and redevelop the village was swift, but the three-way negotiations among the government, developer, and peasant landlords were painfully slow and eventually went astray. This was due in part to the inability of village officials (who served as mediators among the different parties) to provide accounting records to fellow villagers because of their own illegal activities.7 But it was also due to the government's refusal to provide the same level of compensation offered to landowners of adjacent Liede Village just a few years ago. In the case of Liede, though there had again been allegations of corruption as well as a brief standoff, tensions subsided after the government worked with the developer to offer better compensation to peasant landlords and to incorporate some of their design input into the renewal project (Wu, Li, and Han 2018: 6–9). The renewed Liede Village has ultimately become a gated community for the upper middle class that includes residential apartments, office towers, and a large public park. Each village household was awarded multiple apartment units and was even given shares of a collectively owned strip mall built on a piece of communal land the village collective had managed to retain after the redevelopment. Meanwhile, villagers were also officially reclassified as “urban” residents by the state, doing away with the less desirable “peasant” status even though they had long been living in a dense urban context. Ancestral halls based on their original styles and sizes were, moreover, rebuilt and placed neatly in the communal square next to the residential towers built exclusively for former villagers (Crawford and Wu 2014: 22–24). As the poster child for a success story, the new Liede demonstrated the supposedly harmonic coexistence of tradition and modernity. By placing brand-new ancestral halls in an orderly, “rationalized” fashion within a curated landscape, the developer transformed “heritage” buildings into a globally legible spectacle for urban consumers. As for the villagers, their recreated and reinvented communal spaces reaffirmed their community pride and solidarity in the postsocialist economy of accumulation. In short, financial compensation aside, the renewed neighborhood also offered Liede villagers a new sense of belonging to a symbolic economy that evoked the aesthetic and cultural sensibilities of being “urban” and “global.”

The Liede story became an instant urban legend. Even though villagers were still being depicted derogatorily by the media as nothing more than nouveau riche peasants, they were the envy of the city: each household received, after all, multiple housing units in central Guangzhou. For Xian villagers, the Liede model was a motivating factor for their insistence on receiving equivalent compensation—even though the city government had made it clear that the Liede financial model was a one-time-only deal (Wu, Li, and Han 2018: 11). On the evening of August 13, 2010, amid the enduring stalemate, hundreds of police, chengguan 城管 (city control officers), and small groups of gangsters entered the village, followed by demolition crews and their heavy equipment. They descended on Xian Village with no prior warning. As they began to attack villagers resisting the forceful demolition of the market, school, and vacated apartments, many villagers fought back, resulting in injuries and arrests.8

This state-precipitated violence backfired immediately. The attempted forced eviction not only raised the stakes of the confrontation but also hardened many resisters, endowing them with a new sense of communal solidarity that not even the socialist revolution had been able to achieve. During the socialist era, when collectivization had firmed up the village's external boundaries, members of lineages with different surnames often did not get along in the politics of so-called class struggle even though they were all classified as peasants; those who were in power were routinely opposed by members of competing lineages and lineage branches.9 By the time economic reform began in 1978, these tensions had abated somewhat, as the focus of villagers shifted to the pursuit of profits through pig farming and entrepreneurship. During the 1990s, when rural migrants came to the city in search of jobs, the village urbanized quickly as former farmlands were replaced with mid-rise apartment buildings based on vernacular design.10 By then, the area had already been designated as Guangzhou's future CBD, and villagers knew that their fortunes would inevitably be tied to real estate speculation. Over the next decade or so, time seemed to stand still in Xian Village, though skyscraper luxury hotels, office buildings, and upscale apartments continued to mushroom in the surrounding neighborhood along with newly opened subway lines, shopping arcades, and sleek public spaces. When the authorities attempted to use violence to break the negotiation stalemate, therefore, many peasant landlords feared they might be missing their chance to fully take advantage of the real estate boom even though they were divided on how to respond. Facing threats from police and gangsters, as well as workplace intimidation, some capitulated quickly and agreed to the existing compensation packages. Others chose to fight back by standing firm and launching legal challenges to both the city government and the developer.

Those who opted to resist soon began to refer to August 13 as their shounan ri 受难日 (suffering day) and to August 19—the day resisters decided to continue to stand firm against the developer and the government—as their qiyi ri 起义日 (uprising day). These dates have since been ritualized and commemorated with an annual communal dinner held on the nineteenth in the former playground of the demolished school. For several years, there were enough attendees that nearly a hundred tables were needed, but by 2014, disagreements among resisters arose as a key organizer of the “uprising” had been bought off by the developer. Some resisters began to hold the dinner on the thirteenth instead. Remarkably, at none of these banquets—where men and women often sat at different tables—was there any division along lineage lines.11 As for the Lunar New Year, when all villagers gather for banquets, seating arrangements were based on whether or not a household had accepted the compensation package. Specifically, families who had not signed the contract were asked to join tables in the school playground; those who had signed were to dine in various ancestral halls and vacated buildings. By this time, it was apparent that tension among different lineages and lineage branches from the socialist era had become a thing of the distant past. Instead, the new fault line of the community rested on villagers’ positions in relation to renewal and their strategies for extracting the greatest compensations from the developer. Equally noteworthy was the fact that the long-abandoned traditional practice of fen zhurou 分猪肉 (distributing raw pork) to male descendants from each ancestral hall was revived after the resistance began, in order to reinforce the lineage bond.12 Perhaps even more than in Liede Village, tradition was reinvented in Xian Village in order to unite the community and press for greater compensation in light of the violent threat from the developer and the state.

Resisting peasant landlords not only brought back traditional practices from the imperial past but also appropriated political idioms and symbols from the socialist era for their cause. When the government claimed falsely that the number of households agreeing to the compensation package had reached the legal threshold for forced demolition of the entire village, resisting villagers immediately erected red flags—a revolutionary symbol from the socialist era—on their rooftops to make clear to the public that a larger number of them had yet to sign any contracts. Meanwhile, a poster of Mao was hung on the wall of the makeshift resisters’ command center. This is supposed to be “the People's Republic,” one of the resisting leaders said in a communal dinner. “If Chairman Mao were alive, this would not be allowed!”13

Significantly, for resisting peasant landlords, the socialist past meant more than just a few superficial images. In fact, it was precisely the old practice of collectivization—if perhaps in a twisted way—that provided them the ammunition to demand greater compensation. Resisters argued that, since the village collectively owned all the land, the school, the lake, and all the streets and public spaces should be included in the compensation calculation. Like their counterpart in Liede, Xian villagers also wanted to retain a piece of land for building a collectively owned commercial property in the redeveloped neighborhood so that their future generations could continue to collect dividend income.

Needless to say, such notions of sharing extended only to fellow villagers. Even in ordinary times, migrant renters did not have the privilege of using most of the village's “public” or collectively owned spaces. The school playground, for example, was reserved for children from village households and for owners,’ not renters,’ activities, even though most original villagers had moved away from the urban village into the nearby middle-class neighborhoods. The only places where migrant renters could escape their cramped rooms, ironically, were open spaces occupied by the rubble of demolished buildings. In brief, it was often migrant renters who had to endure the worsening conditions and sustained violence. Meanwhile, not unlike the government and the developer, landowning villagers were also eager to convert the current urban village into a gated middle-class neighborhood free of migrant peasants. These peasant landlords also shared some of the same vision as architects and vernacular urban reformers keen on transforming urban villages into alternative urban spaces: they wanted to use local heritage and culture to rebrand their future neighborhood, elevating the desirability of their real estate in the global marketplace.

Tradition in this context is more than just the cultural practices associated with ancestral halls and lineages; it also involves what Aihwa Ong (2011: 4) calls “worlding practice,” in which legible heritage is used to showcase a “unique” neighborhood in a global city. Whereas the government regards slum cleansing as a way of creating a sleek, ultramodern city, Xian villagers, like their Liede counterparts, viewed the renewal project as an opportunity to advance their aspirations to finally become “proper” urban citizens. “We are always being seen as nongmin 农民 (peasants). But we want to be equal and respected,” a resisting villager once told me.14 And it was through certain sensibilities and aesthetics as manifested in the ideas of tradition and heritage that Xian villagers sought to secure their social and cultural standings (Ghertner 2015: 142–47). The project of urban village renewal, in this respect, was a process of interpellation whereby villagers came to settle in specific social spaces and in subject positions made possible by the neoliberal logics of culture, hierarchy, and uneven development. Ironically yet unsurprisingly, the landowning villagers’ quest to be “equal” inherently excluded the migrant peasant renters from whom owners had been receiving rental income for decades. Thus, whereas migrant renters negotiate their precarious conditions in the labor market, peasant landlords have to deal with their own precarity. Facing physical violence and jail time, they risk losing everything but also stand to gain handsomely.15

Beyond Darkness and Bright Lights

The contrast between darkness and light is certainly visually striking in any aerial night image of Xian Village. However, the dark side of China's economic miracle is actually composed of shades of gray. Therefore, outside of simple binary constructs like rich and poor, rural and urban, state and people, there are many nuanced stories on the ground: unelected village leaders colluded with municipal officials for financial gains; the state-backed developer and villagers engaged in violent confrontations over real estate accumulation; precarious migrant workers caught up in the process were exposed to the double miseries of living in a deteriorating environment whose eventual destruction would foreclose their urban futures.

Nonetheless, in an age where reality is made up of spectacles and masquerades, the idea of documentary needs to be rethought as well. Even about a century ago when the world similarly witnessed a rise of new media and information technologies, and was plagued by crises that eerily resemble ours, the Soviet avant-garde movement known as factography was already searching for new epistemologies and visual techniques in their debates about documentary, reality, truth, and fact. In addition to embracing photographic and cinematographic modes of writing as a way to engage the emerging mediascape, factographers asserted that art had to speak to the greater political cause and to the common good, and that facts about the social world had to be created in order to attain a greater truth. After all, the word fact is derived from the Latin word facere, which entails the ideas of “to do” and “to make” (Dickerman 2016: 134–35; Fore 2006: 5). In the words of the pioneer filmmaker Dziga Vertov at the time, the production of facts was about “Filming facts. Sorting facts. Disseminating facts. Agitating with facts. Propaganda with facts. Fists made of facts” (Vertov 1984: 58).

Similarly, in our own troubling times, if art wants to become truthful it needs to do more than just accept and reproduce the absurd spectacle of the everyday by means of straightforward representation. In other words, even though the factographic movement has long expired, and the specific discussions about fact and truth introduced by factographers are no longer adequate, critical artistic fabrication and fabulation remain relevant in resisting the spectacle-ridden landscapes of Chinese cities. And this resistance is different from the resistance mounted by villagers whose main objective was to accumulate wealth, albeit precariously. Rather, it seeks to unmask the enduring violence inflicted by capital and state power. Indeed, in a world where facts and reality have become utterly unreliable, it is perhaps more effective to “seek facts from lies” than to “seek truth from facts,” as Ackbar Abbas (2015: 21–22) has noted in his discussion of documenting and representing China's breakneck urban development in Chinese cinema. The migrant worker poet Xu Lizhi, too, depicted the grim situation of the urban village by uncannily invoking the pink color often used to paint a rosy image of the speculative capitalist future:

I see a grave, in a village in the city
for such a long, long time
I see her pink tombstone, in pink grass
a pink stream and pink cumulous clouds
I will contract a pink disease
and lie in a pink coffin
and when the lid closes softly
will stare straight at the pink sun and the pink noon sky
crying two silent, pink streams of tears
(Xu 2013a)

In this spirit of experimenting with new ways to transcend state-sanctioned spectacles, my research-based art project Where There Is No Room for Fiction combines traditional documentary photography and on-site installations to explore the possibilities of a critical and investigative aesthetics or even an “aesthetics of resistance” to counter the dominant modes of documentary photography and knowledge production.16 In particular, my site-specific interventions involved projections of the neighborhood's quotidian images onto the ruins of Xian Village at night. By illuminating, inhabiting, and disturbing the gray zone with these everyday stories against the spectacular urban backdrop, these projections and their photographs invite the audience to reflect on the costs of high-speed economic growth and to reconsider the priority of development both in China and elsewhere. Furthermore, the project suggests that critically constructed fictional images may actually be more truthful to the situation on the ground. As well, these constructed images may also be more effective in provoking the audience to exercise their cognitive and perceptual power to disrupt the existing visual and knowledge regimes associated with the current GDP fetish and the so-called China Dream propagated by the state.17 And only then, alternative realities and futures may become imaginable.

Notes

1

As the world's largest technology manufacturer, the multinational Foxconn Technology Group is responsible for supplying a wide range of Apple, Kindle, PlayStation, Xbox, Xiaomi, and other electronic products. While its enormous Chinese plants often offer its migrant workforce highly regulated dormitory spaces, it is also common for its migrant workers to share rental spaces nearby (Pun and Chan 2013: 184–85).

2

Most recently in Shenzhen, the government has decided to pause its policy of demolishing urban villages and opted to manage them instead. It is an acknowledgement of the continuous existence of these spaces (Shenzhen shi guihua 2018).

3

Ou Ning's documentary film Meishi Street (2006) is one such pioneer work that stresses the value of organically formed old urban enclaves vis-à-vis new urban spaces built according to a high modernist vision.

4

For the statement by the organizing committee, see Biennale Foundation 2017. Unsurprisingly, given the size of such a large event, the qualities of the Biennale exhibitions were rather uneven, with some being more perceptive than others. However, based on my own observation of the exhibitions and many of the lectures that took place in the first four weeks, there was only limited analysis of the sociality and politics on the ground even though efforts were made to include some relevant exhibitions of the Global South that had previously been exhibited elsewhere. Overall, the main curatorial team had little engagement with the South-South question. As a result, it missed an opportunity for meaningfully developing ideas such as using Asia and the Global South as method (Ong 2011: 1–5) or having a China and India conversation (Phalkey and Lam 2016: 4–6).

5

My informants from the industry mentioned proudly that they were the ones who could deal with both the bright and shaded sides. They also repeatedly emphasized that the government, albeit skeptical of their businesses, acknowledged their contributions.

6

For example, in Guangzhou's Central Business District (CBD), Xian Village's neighboring village Shipai is the city's retail hub for electronic products. Similar cases can be found throughout Shenzhen.

7

By law, village officials were supposed to be elected by villagers, but that was generally not the case in most places, including in Xian Village, in reality. Most alleged illegal activities that took place in Xian Village were related to previous land transactions made by former village officials. The case ultimately led to the downfall of Guangzhou's former deputy mayor and party boss (Bandurski 2016: 23–32).

8

Based on my interviews with villagers and residents between 2013 and 2015. See also Bandurski 2016: 82–83; Yang 2010.

9

Based on my interviews with villagers between 2013 and 2018.

10

Xian Village prospered in the 1980s as villagers heavily involved in pig farming supplied pork to the city's emerging middle class. At the time, the village was still at the fringe of the city, as it took an hour for villagers to haul goods to the city by bicycles or carts. When villages began to be urbanized, those who had resources and connections were often able to build taller walk-up concrete buildings that reached seven or eight floors, while those who had little could only build three to four stories. Since compensations for urban renewal projects are at least partially linked to the square footage of each household's building, those early differences will be amplified in Xian Village's final settlement. Based on interviews I conducted in 2015.

11

Similar arrangements took place in other communal gatherings as well. These gatherings were attended only by members of resisting households, even though most of these resisters did not actually live inside the village, but in the gated middle-class residential apartments nearby.

12

Fen zhurou, or taigong fen zhurou 太公分猪肉 (ancestors distributing the pork), is a symbolic act in which male descendants of the lineage are given a small amount of the pork used for ancestral sacrifice in order to reinforce the beneficence of being in the lineage (Liu 1995: 38).

13

The statement came from a conversation in a communal dinner in 2015 in which I was invited to participate.

14

Based on a conversation in a communal dinner in 2013. Ironically, in being legally defined as “peasants,” villagers were entitled to receive monthly financial stipends that were not available to other urban residents. Also, in recent years, rising real estate prices have generally made landowning peasants the envy of many urban citizens.

15

By the end of 2021, most of the peasant landlords who initially rejected the standard compensation package, including their leaders, had agreed to individually negotiated undisclosed settlements with extra benefits. For the remaining few, their negotiations with the developer continue. Therefore, as Ching Kwan Lee (2016: 317) argues, the idea of “the precariat” should not be universalized since there are different “modes of precarity” and hence different responding tactics and strategies. See also Bandurski 2016 for additional stories of resistance by peasant landlords in Xian Village.

16

For a discussion of the value and limitations of artistic research as a form of “aesthetics of resistance” in contemporary art, see Steyerl 2010; Cotter 2017. See also Fuller and Weizman 2021 for their discussion of investigative aesthetics.

17

Like real estate commercials in Chinese public spaces, the “unreal estate” images of my project are presented in light boxes during exhibitions. For a detailed reflection of my artistic and ethnographic practices and on-site installations, as well as the politics and ethics of photographing and looking in regard to Xian Village, see Lam 2021.

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