The Chinese Dream

In China, the astounding scale and speed of urbanization is galvanizing a generation of rural activists.

Pearl River New Town looms above an urban village in central Guangzhou.
Pearl River New Town looms above an urban village in central Guangzhou. [David Bandurski]

“A village in the midst of the city”

On a bright December morning, a few years ago, I made my way across the sprawling plaza in front of Guangzhou Railway Station. Completed in the final years of the Cultural Revolution and too plain even to be demonstrably ugly, the building is a faultless example of Maoist architecture. The slogan atop the station once read: Long live the all-conquering thought of Mao Zedong, long live the glorious Chinese Communist Party. In 1986, as reforms seized the country, city leaders deemed the sentiment unsuited to a railway hub now in the service of a different revolution, a revolution of industry and commerce, and they hoisted a fresh rallying cry: Unifying the motherland, revitalizing the Chinese nation.

For three decades Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong Province and the largest city in the Pearl River Delta, has been a booming engine of that revitalization, and the main rail station a threshold of possibility for tens of millions of rural migrants, a fresh start at the end of the line. From here the itinerant workers disperse to fill the factories of the Pearl River Delta, to staff its restaurants and to construct its residential high-rises and commercial plazas, its roads and subways. And often as not the workers crowd into one of the hundreds of urban villages spread across the populous region — into one of the cheng zhong cun, literally “village in the midst of the city,” a semi-urban tenement built by local Chinese, where the rhythms of the metropolis merge with the cadences of the countryside and where the migrants form new communities on the margins of an imagined future. There are other  stations in the city — bolder modern statements gleaming with confidence — but the Guangzhou Railway Station is where the rougher dreams begin, and this gives the place an unwashed beauty. The austere facade, with its no-nonsense clock face, sells no polished dream of personal fulfillment; it opens the back door to the city and lets you through with the rest of the crushing masses.

Guangzhou Railway Station.
Guangzhou Railway Station. [Flickr/Commons]

Already, at 7:30 a.m., the plaza was buzzing with travelers — migrants from inland provinces mixed in with traders from Africa. Many lugged massive bags of goods purchased at local wholesale markets. From here, cheap clothing, home wares, and consumer electronics start the journey to distant markets in west Africa, to Nigeria, Ghana, the Ivory Coast. The goods are often manufactured in factories in the urban villages — in sweatshops, actually, like the one in Mawu, where I once saw hundreds of girls bent over sewing machines, under sallow fluorescent lamps, in scores of workrooms arrayed along the village alleys.

That day I was making my first visit to Hebu, one of the urban villages on Guangzhou’s northern edge, a bus journey of an hour. I was going there to see Huang Minpeng, a local man I’d met a few months earlier who in the past decade had become immersed in the turmoil of land-use politics and the toll of rapid urbanization and emerged as an advocate for villagers’ rights; Huang was going to show me the new university campus that, in the official way of thinking, was going to bring the boom to Hebu Village.

The old bus set off, rumbling up Guangyuan Road until we passed the northern tip of Sanyuanli Village. The Baiyun Mountains rose in smoggy blue swells on the horizon. Back in the 1990s, Sanyuanli was a busy rural enclave on the far northwest fringe of Guangzhou. Today it’s one of the countless urban villages caught up in the tidal wave of development that’s engulfed China for more than a generation. 1 Ever since China opened its economy to the world, in 1978, the foundation of economic growth has been industrial activity concentrated in urban manufacturing centers; as these areas have boomed, they have become magnets for rural workers, who supply the low-cost labor that sustains further industry. Which is why urban villages number in the tens of thousands in cities across China; apart from factory dorms, where it’s impossible to put down roots and raise a family, substandard tenements are the only options for migrants. 2

New high-rise apartments glimpsed through the wall of an urban village.
New apartments glimpsed through the wall of an urban village, Changsha, Hunan. [David Bandurski]

Today countless urban villages are caught up in the tidal wave of development that has engulfed China.

But they’re tenuous options, and in urban villages like Sanyuanli, in cities across China, it is not uncommon these days to find two or even three generations of rural migrants still adrift in the metropolis. As low-threshold entry points that attract the poorest and most vulnerable members of Chinese society, urban villages are often portrayed in the national media as “unsanitary” founts of instability, as “cancers,” “black spots,” or “breeding grounds of prostitution and crime.” 3 But this dismal portrayal overlooks the villages’ crucial role in the country’s economic development. With their crucial supply of low-cost housing, urban villages have in effect been underwriting low-cost labor and mitigating the costs of urban living. 4 Yet even as rural Chinese are drawn to the city as a matter of economic necessity, the countryside beckons them back as a matter of equal necessity. Rural land, even if it promises no more than subsistence, is their hedge against the deeper uncertainty of the system itself, a system skewed in the interests of the elite. More than a legacy, land is a form of security, and therefore their most prized possession. Without land, they are rooted nowhere. “The city offers nothing,” one of my urban-village contacts once told me. “You find work if you can. You make money if you can. The land is a fallback. You can always come back and work the land.”

‘The city offers nothing,’ said one urban villager. ‘The land is a fallback. You can always come back and work the land.’

As the bus rattled north, feeling at times like it would jostle itself apart, I realized I had no idea where the edge of Guangzhou was these days. We passed the shiny new developments, the clusters of residential towers, a seemingly endlessly blur of new construction. We passed Baiyun New City, then Cloud Mountain Metropolis. Even way out here, several miles north of the city center, a modest two-bedroom apartment cost over 2 million yuan, nearly $350,000. But the urban villages seemed to be everywhere too, hemmed in by the newer developments and offering affordable alternatives to the migrants who gave this outlying section of the city its character. There was Wanggang Village, or Prospect Mound, which by now, I supposed, had lost its prospect in the crush of high-rises. There was Yibian Village, Huangbian Village, Hebianyuan Village. Before long, the bus, which had left the station empty, was crammed with passengers, many lugging the red, white, and blue plastic bags that have become ubiquitous symbols of Chinese migrant life. One boy, who looked about thirteen, his bangs drifting over his sun-swept face, carried a bulging bag of clothing twice his size.

We passed the gate of Mawu Village, site of the recently completed Museum to the Migrant Worker. Housed in a renovated factory, the state-funded museum was intended as a testament to the national contributions of the workers. In preparation for the opening, a local university professor had produced a short film in which construction workers talked frankly about their grueling lives. The film was dropped in favor of a video, more palatable to propaganda apparatchiks, in which a young worker lamented his meager pay and was berated by an older worker, who told him, ‘”Young people must learn to face hardship. When I was your age, I worked twelve hours a day, and never once did I complain. If it’s money you’re after, just work overtime.” The youth’s face brightened. “Yes, if I work overtime I’ll be richer!”

On a new rural home in Henan, a wall that would traditionally be devoted to nature murals now depicts the state vision of the "road to prosperity."
On a new rural home in Henan, a wall that would traditionally be devoted to nature murals now depicts the state vision of the “road to prosperity.” [David Bandurski]

“Working hard to be a civilized satellite city”

On the road to Hebu, the idea of urbanization was inescapable. Displayed on the rear window of every public bus were depictions of contemporary cityscapes overlaid with the assurance: Building a national civilized city. Where, I wondered, would the city ease away and the countryside begin? Hebu Village, which was part of the larger jurisdiction of Jianggao Township, was more than twelve miles north of central Guangzhou, far from the restless industry of places like Mawu and Sanyuanli, and yet even out here, the pull of urban development has been inexorable. Many villagers had already lost their land-use rights; they’d been forced to relinquish the farms that were their livelihoods to make way for the future. Rural life had become impossible long before urban life was anything more than an idea.

Rural life had become impossible long before urban life was anything more than a promise.

After we passed Xiamao Village, about halfway to Jianggao Township, our surroundings became semi-rural. Xiamao was a cluster of close-set tenements surrounded by vegetable fields. In a few years, I thought, it’d be a full-fledged urban village, enclosed by the expanding city. We rumbled past more fields interspersed with housing plots. Newer developments were appearing less frequently. But further north, just as the city seemed finally to let go, we reached the narrow channel of the Liuxi River, and a sign at the foot of the bridge crossing welcomed us with another promise: Jianggao, working hard to be a civilized satellite city.

Huang Minpeng in his house in Hebu Village.
Huang Minpeng, in his house in Hebu Village. [David Bandurski]

When the bus finally pulled into the Jianggao Station, Huang Minpeng was waiting nearby on his red motorbike. Bulky and imposing, with a clean-shaven head, Huang looks more like a nightclub bouncer than a rights defender. He is semi-literate; for many years a farmer, he never finished school. But as the frenzied logic of land development took hold in Hebu Village, Huang has gotten himself a rich informal education in property law, land use policy, and community organization. After we greeted each other, Huang kicked the motor to life, and we sped off through the dusty landscape. In the fields to our right, a group of farmers in broad-brimmed hats bent over a dark green plot of strawberry plants; towering above their heads was an elevated high-speed rail line. A few minutes later, we skirted the edge of Yebian Village before darting across a highway underpass. Huang Minpeng brought the motorbike to a stop. “This is it,” he said. Spread out before us was a massive wasteland, an immense plain of broken earth stretching to the horizon. The soil had been heaped up into piles, gouged out to create waterlogged trenches, now polluted with garbage and chunks of brick and concrete. A few solitary figures wandered among the mounds of barren soil, probably scrounging for scrap. Off to our right, a yellow bulldozer sat idle. “In the distance there, that’s Hebu Village,” said Huang. He pointed straight ahead to the horizon, where a line of squat homes rose behind a group of buildings that I assumed formed the new campus of Guangdong Polytechnic Normal University.

“And that’s the university?” I asked.

”That’s right,” he said. “Those buildings are on Hebu Village land.”

The story of how those buildings came to be constructed on Hebu Village land is a version of the same fraught story playing out all over Guangdong Province, all over China, with authorities seizing property via secret deals and preempting local resistance via the deployment of para-police armies of mercenaries called chengguan, or “urban management officers.” In revitalizing China these are the enforcers who handle the rough, insensitive jobs the police want to keep at arm’s length, who sweep unlicensed vendors off the streets, execute seizures of land and demolitions of collectively held village structures. The chengguan are fighters on the front lines of China’s urban assault on the countryside, and their emergence, about 15 years ago, paralleled the stratospheric growth of the nation’s cities. 5

Back then Hebu was a farming village, and the city seemed far away. But already the initials ‘GDP’ were on everyone’s lips — like a shibboleth, or an incantation.

In Hebu Village the first signs of the coming storm arrived early in the new millennium, when the Communist Party leader of Jianggao Township assembled the villagers at the campus of nearby Baiyun University and gave a rousing speech about the need to promote local growth. Back then Hebu was still a farming village, and the city seemed far away. But already the initials “GDP” were on everyone’s lips — like a shibboleth, or an incantation. If development was the magic potion that transformed struggling peasants into prosperous citizens, rural land was its secret ingredient. Huang Minpeng never forgot the township leader’s words: “Look, that land of yours will be of no use to you if you don’t develop it. There’s no money in farming the land any more. You have to move on!”

On the wall of a condemned building in an urban village, authorities have painted the word "Seized."
On the wall of a condemned building in an urban village, authorities have painted the word “Seized.” [David Bandurski]

Ten years after the township leader’s speech, the storm hit full force: When in August 2009 Huang Minpeng and his fellow Hebu villagers learned from newspaper reports that an agreement had been reached for the sale of the usage rights to their farmland to the polytechnic university, it was like the earth had shifted under their feet. While the agreement purportedly settled the issue of compensation for the rights to the farmland, the villagers themselves had played no part in the negotiations. “Until they made it public, none of us had any idea the land was even being sold,” Huang told me.

Soon after the agreement was signed, the chengguan established a temporary headquarters in Hebu: a clear signal that land seizure was imminent and authorities were maneuvering to preempt local resistance. 6 Huang Minpeng led daily protest marches. For several months, Hebu was in a state of constant unrest. The villagers pushed for township leaders to make the land-use rights agreement public. In response, the chengguan waged a guerrilla war of intimidation. They cut electrical lines to the homes of families that spoke out. They destroyed sewage lines. They broke windows. Try as they might to organize resistance, the villagers had their hands full just repairing the damage. Finally, in February 2010, the top district leader of Jianggao Township agreed to meet with a small group of villagers, including Huang Minpeng. The purpose of the meeting — ostensibly — was to talk things through. The leader assured them the township had their interests at heart. There was no deception; everything would be dealt with openly.

But after the meeting, matters only became worse. The intimidation continued. “They did everything in their power to disturb the peace,” Huang said. In retrospect, he felt quite sure the purpose of the meeting had been to size up the most vocal protestors. For weeks the stalemate continued, until finally, in late April, the authorities made a decisive play. Huang Minpeng was having breakfast that morning near a local market when five plainclothes police officers surrounded him. They told him to leave the keys to his motorbike with a friend and carted him off to the local police station. He was interrogated for hours before being charged with disrupting public order. His sentence was 20 days of “administrative detention,” an opaque and arbitrary process that allows police to mete out punishment without the formality of a criminal trial.

Huang was having breakfast that morning near a local market when five plainclothes police surrounded him.

As it happened, a key government meeting on the seizure of Hebu Village land had been held three days before Huang’s arrest. At the meeting — attended by district Party leaders, local officials, and university representatives, along with urban planners, the police, and the chengguan — it was agreed the stalemate needed to be broken with “a detailed plan and a fierce hand.” 7 The detention of one of the land seizure’s most vociferous opponents was almost certainly part of the “detailed plan.” A few weeks later, just before Huang Minpeng’s release, the “fierce hand” descended. Early one morning, hundreds of police and chengguan poured into Hebu Village, barricading the entrances and ringing the perimeter of the village farmland. Inside the perimeter, chengguan teams leveled the fields with bulldozers, destroying the crops where they stood. In a public roster of “sudden-breaking incidents” for the second quarter of 2010, Baiyun District eventually noted a case of unrest in Hebu Village on May 12, citing “elements of instability” over the requisition of land-use rights. The district praised the township for its timely handling of the incident, even using it as a case study. 8 Huang Minpeng was released from jail on May 14, 2010, two days after the seizure of his land. The fields that for centuries had sustained the villagers of Hebu were now broken waves of earth, a wasteland awaiting development. It signaled a future in which Huang knew he had no part. But he would not turn his back. He would see this through, no matter the cost.

Propaganda on the wall of an urban village in Guangzhou promises a better life through redevelopment.
Propaganda on the wall of an urban village in Guangzhou promises a better life through redevelopment. [David Bandurski]

“Slow down, China!”

Now, as Huang toured me around, I saw that the campus was dwarfed by the expanse of idle land. Why, I wondered, had they taken so much land at once? “How much did they pay for this land?” I asked.

“Villagers got anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 yuan each. But what good is that anyway? Once the money is gone, you have nothing.” “So they paid 60 yuan or so per square foot,” I said. “That’s incredibly cheap.”

”It’s not about cheap or not cheap,” Huang grumbled, gesturing over the wasteland. “Look at this … sitting idle, waiting for real estate development. But people have to eat. How are we supposed to be productive now? This land will no longer yield anything for us. It’s not about the price; it’s about our livelihood.”

I wondered if the university would create other sources of income. Hebu Village was too far from central Guangzhou to attract migrant renters, but perhaps university students would eat in local restaurants or buy essentials in local shops.

“No, look. They’ve already built halls of residence,” Huang said. He pointed to a pair of six-story buildings near the main complex. “The few students they have get board and lodging. They have nothing to spend. … Did you notice all those motorcycle taxis at the bus station? I was waiting there for half an hour, and in all that time maybe one or two had customers.” Huang voiced his suspicion that the university had used the branch campus as a pretext to seize more land than necessary, knowing the rights could be resold at an immense profit. “First, they use the name of this university to get the land. As for how they use the land later, they might have other things in mind. It won’t necessarily be for the university. It might be a commercial project.”

”So you think they’ll sell off the rights to bits of the land to developers?”

“If they came right out and said it was for a commercial development, more people would be up in arms,” he said. “So they say it’s for the university.”

‘If you push development too fast, people can’t catch up.’

We stood silently for a while. Behind us, traffic whooshed past on the highway. The location seemed ideal for development — near the township center, close to the high-speed railway and between two arterials. If Jianggao’s ambition was to become an important “satellite city,” then this was prime real estate. “Development has to conserve resources,” Huang Minpeng said finally. “If you push development, it has to be workable development. If you move too fast, people can’t catch up with you.” The remark reminded me of a recent story in Vision Weekly, a magazine published by the Southern Metropolis Daily, one of Guangzhou’s top tabloids. The story, “Slow down, China,” had featured a series of photographs in which the last residents of Yangji, an urban village demolished to make room for commercial development, posed in the rubble outside their homes. Behind each villager, the photographer had placed a backdrop of glimmering residential towers. ”Slowing down is so we can see clearly the road ahead, and make sure we don’t lose sight of our original intentions,” said the text of the article. “Slowing down is about making sure every life has freedom and dignity, and that no person is abandoned by the times. … Slow down, China!”

A few months after the piece was published, one of the villagers who’d grinned for the camera killed herself. As we gazed across the wrecked fields of Hebu, Huang talked about how the dream of development could lead to destruction if it was not balanced against the rights and interests of individual citizens. “If this is how things are done,” he said, “if people lose their land at one blow … how are they to survive? People can’t adjust like that. They have no way of making the transition.”

Alleys in urban villages.
Left: An alley in an urban village, with a poster reading “The sooner you sign/the sooner construction begins/the sooner it is built/the sooner you move back in.” Right: An alley in the urban village of Mawu. [David Bandurski]

An urban village in central Guangzhou in the midst of demolition.
An urban village in central Guangzhou in the midst of demolition. Huang Minpeng joined villagers in the fight against its redevelopment. [David Bandurski]

Huang took me on a motorbike tour through Hebu. We whirred through the alleys, where the newer houses cantilevered over the streets and touched at the second-floor level, turning the streets into tunnels. We passed the offices of the village committee, where Huang and other villagers had gathered a while ago and, beneath the garish pink portico, unfurled a red banner that read: They’ve sold and devoured our fields. No land means no yield! We came to a small plaza where construction workers were outfitting a six-story palace faced with light-brown tiles, with balconies jutting out on every level, accented with columns. “Whose place is that?” I shouted over Huang Minpeng’s shoulder.

“It belongs to a village cadre,” he said above the whirr of the engine.

“It’s so massive. It looks like a hotel.”


“Is it the village leader’s?”

“No,” he said. “It’s the village accountant’s.”

Turning left, we passed an old temple that had fallen into hopeless disrepair. Only its ancient facade and stone entry remained, disfigured with Cultural Revolution slogans, fading away, almost ghost-like. But the characters across the lintel were still legible: Serve the people.

‘Not in their wildest dreams did the authorities imagine a country bumpkin like me would file a lawsuit against them.’

Huang Minpeng’s house was a rustic stone structure overlooking a fishpond so strangled with withered and flowerless hyacinth that scarcely a drop of water was visible. A redbrick outhouse perched on the pond’s edge. Inside the house, the main room had high walls of flat-stacked stone, whitewashed years earlier. Windows on the pond-side wall drew in the crisp winter sunlight. The wall was lined with shelves supporting stacks of newspapers and petitioning documents, some snapped into plastic boxes to shut out the humidity. The sitting area — a slumping wicker sofa and coffee table cluttered with odds and ends — was partitioned from the sleeping area at the room’s far end by a wooden bunk bed draped with a gray cotton quilt. Huang’s only luxuries, it seemed, were his old cathode-ray-tube television and a DVD player.

We sat and sifted through the piles of letters and documents from a recent lawsuit that Huang Minpeng had filed against the police. “How do you write all of these letters and petitions?” I asked.

“I don’t,” he said, grinning. “I don’t even know how to write. I didn’t finish primary school.”

“Really?” I thought suddenly of how I had sent him a text message before arriving at the Jianggao Bus Station, and how he had called me back instead of texting.

“Other people type them out for me.”

“You dictate them?”

“Not quite. I lay out the situation and the facts, and they help me work out the wording. They think it’s so strange, that someone of my educational level can write stuff like this.” His chest rumbled with a laugh. His eyes sparkled. “Not in their wildest dreams did they ever imagine that a country bumpkin like me would file a lawsuit against them. Never.”

“But you can read a newspaper? And write a bit?”

“Yes.” He chortled. My surprise clearly gratified him. “I know most of the basic characters I see in the newspaper. Not all of them, though. These documents may look simple to a lot of people, but they took a lot of effort for me.”

Huang was put off by his textbooks, which stressed his obligations to the Chinese Communist Party but never acknowledged his rights and freedoms.

I asked Huang how he managed to press ahead with his rights defense work in the face of constant setbacks and defeats, and he talked about his personal character and circumstances. He had never married or had children, so he was unburdened, he said, by the demands of family life. He had no mouths to feed but his own. He had always had an independent streak. He recalled being put off by his school textbooks, which stressed his obligations to the Chinese Communist Party and to the nation but never acknowledged his rights and freedoms.

A few weeks later I was walking with Huang Minpeng near Xian Village in central Guangzhou. We had just attended a rally hosted by local Xian villagers amid the tenements of their half-ruined village — the end of a four-year campaign to oust a cabal of corrupt village officials who’d been leading the demolition and redevelopment plans. As we waited at the red light on Huangpu Avenue West, I asked for his thoughts on the Chinese Dream. What did he think it was? He fixed his eyes straight ahead. A satirical groan rumbled in his throat. “That’s exactly what it is: a dream,” he said, as the light changed. “And then you awaken.”

Editors' Note

This essay is adapted from Dragons in Diamond Village: Tales of Resistance from Urbanizing China, which is being published this month by Melville House. It appears here with the permission of the press.

  1. The scale of urbanization in China beggars the imagination. As recently as 2002, just over one-third of Chinese lived in cities. By 2011, China’s urban population had passed the 50 percent mark, meaning that in one decade roughly 160 million people — more than the entire population of Russia — had moved into cities. China’s rate of urbanization is expected to surpass 70 per cent by 2050. By then, another quarter of a billion Chinese will be living in cities. See Karen C. Seto, “Urban Growth in China: Challenges and Prospects,” Center for Integrated Facility Engineering Seminar, Stanford University, January 31, 20.
  2. In 2014, there were 304 urban villages inside Guangzhou alone; these villages were home to just under one million local villagers and roughly five million migrant workers, accounting for almost half of the city’s total population. See Luo Aihau, “Guangzhou Earmarks 10 Billion to Improve Urban Villages,” People’s Daily, May 8, 2014. See also “Scale and Distribution Data for Guangzhou City Population, 2013,” Guangzhou Office of Statistics, March 19, 2014.
  3. See Li Ruihe, “My District’s Determined War for Regeneration of ‘Urban Villages’,” Baohe District Government, May 26, 2008.
  4. Much of what passes for urbanization in China has not been urbanization at all — not in the sense generally understood, as an increase in the number of people permanently concentrated in cities. Rural migrants remain “rural” even after they begin living in the city, because that’s how their status is defined under China’s two-tier household registration — or huji — system. Dating back to the beginnings of the command economy, in 1958, but with antecedents in imperial times, this caste-like system classes an individual’s residency status, or hukou, as either urban or rural. Before the days of economic reform, any rural laborer wishing to enter a city, even for a temporary visit, required special permission from the authorities. All of one’s social benefits and prospects — education, work, medical care, food rations, even marriage — were vested in one’s place of registry. The urban-rural divide was social, cultural, and economic, but above all political. And that divide remains today.
  5. The first Urban Management and Law Enforcement Bureau formed in Beijing in 1997, in response to a new law that empowered cities to set up their own mechanisms for enforcing noncriminal regulations. In less than a decade, the chengguan were notorious for their brutal tactics and generally despised by the public.
  6.  A few months before the chengguan appeared in Hebu Village, a Guangzhou newspaper reported the existence of a training manual sanctioning the use of violence. The manual stressed that attack victims should emerge with “no blood on their faces and no wounds on their bodies.” See “Web Users Expose Urban Management ‘Hit Without Drawing Blood’ Manual,” Southern Metropolis Daily, April 22, 2009, A32.
  7. See “Jianggao Township Carries Out Land Requisition for Guangdong Polytechnic Normal University New Campus Development Project in Accord with the Law,” Baiyun District Government, May 13, 2010.
  8. See “County People’s Government, District Emergency Management Committee Member Units’ Information Report on Sudden-Breaking Incidents: April 1, 2010 to June 30, 2010,” Baiyun District Government, Guangzhou, July 2010, items 73, 104.
David Bandurski, “The Chinese Dream,” Places Journal, October 2016. Accessed 30 May 2023.

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