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Stuck in the middle: Suburban villages face unique challenges
Author :  Lu Fuying Source : Chinese Social Sciences Today 2016-10-31
By drawing on its natural resources, Donggou suburban village in the Laishan district of Yantai, Shandong Province, has forged a special path of green development and transformed into a beautiful holiday resort.
A special social form, suburban villages are grassroots social units located on the boundaries between urban and rural areas. Some of them are called “villages” while others are dubbed “communities” as administration undergoes reform in the process of urbanization.
With the expansion of urban space, suburban villages are being incorporated into cities and towns, losing their rural character in the process. These villages have achieved substantial development in the course of urbanization. However, due to the special form of urbanization involved, suburban villages often face social contradictions and conflicts.
Government agencies in various locales continue to explore ways to resolve developmental problems of suburban villages, but essential breakthroughs remain elusive.
After recent studies of suburban villages in Zhejiang Province, scholars have come to a consensus that suburban villages undergoing urbanization need to be reconsidered within the context of new development ideas and models of urbanization in order to realize an innovative, inclusive and green development pattern.
Unique social form
Statically, suburban villages are a part of the countryside under the urban-rural dichotomy. They are composed of farmlands, villages and farmers, with clear boundaries and definite ownership. In terms of their social nature, they absolutely belong to the category of rural society.
Dynamically, suburban villages are transforming into urban areas, resulting in a transitive, unstable society that straddles the boundaries between the country and city. This means these villages inevitably have the attributes of urban and rural societies.
Thus, there are two situations suburban villages face amid urbanization. On the one hand, under the social context of urban-rural opposition, these villages may become the focus of social contradictions caused by conflicting systems and cultures. On the other hand, they are located at the border between urban and rural systems, so a unique “fringe effect” can be easily generated. This effect has made suburban villages more inclusive and equipped with conditions for innovative development.
From a historical perspective, any given suburban village will come to an end once it is integrated into urban society. However, suburban villages will exist as a special type of community over the long term. In a sense, with the expansion of urban space, the quantity and scale of suburban villages will continue to increase for quite a long time.
Suburban villages are not only a purely transitional space but also a special durable form of society. It is necessary to focus more on the development of such villages in the process of urbanization.
The history of urbanization around the globe indicates that suburban villages will inevitably be marginalized at a certain stage of urbanization. However, due to various factors, the marginalization of these villages takes on a different form in every country. In the course of China’s urbanization over the past few decades, the development of suburban villages has manifested a unique Chinese-style marginalization.
In terms of marginalized content, such villages are a complicated combination of multiple forms of marginalization. They are in an ambiguous situation, belonging to urban and rural social systems. Also, they have double marginalized status since they are rejected by the urban and rural social mainstreams.
In a marginalized structure, different elements of urbanization are imbalanced in transition. The management of some villages has not been urbanized while their economy has undergone de-agriculturalization and territory is urbanized.
Some are still considered part of the countryside though they have no farmlands and agriculture. Some suburban villagers no longer engage in agriculture, but they still have rural household registrations. Some villages have been nominally changed to communities, but they still operate on the basis of villager autonomy and agricultural management.
Suburban villagers are not urbanized in their identity, rights and interests, and pay. This has resulted in social injustice and will possibly exacerbate the marginalization of suburban villages.
The government’s dominant role in the construction is one reason for marginalization. China’s urbanization efforts in the past decades have been pushed forward by the government, which is a typical national construction process. The government’s urbanization plan is implemented based on the dual system of urban and rural division, showing an obvious preference for towns over the countryside.
In the course of pushing forward the de-agriculturization of land and industries, it is hard to completely transform suburban villagers into urban citizens, and it is equally difficult for villages to achieve full urbanization.
Because they are in a a transitional marginalized state,suburban villages cannot equally enjoy the same rights and treatment as citizens in urban communities. This has caused the unique and complicated marginalization of suburban villages amid China’s urbanization.
The new urbanization means innovating models of urbanization. However, it doesn’t neglect the history of urbanization. Innovation must be achieved based on past experience. Therefore, the development of suburban villages in the new urbanization should face the fact of “Chinese-style marginalization,” starting with the current reality of such villages.
New development ideas
The fundamental changes of the development methods of suburban villages in the new urbanization first depends on changing ideas of urbanization. It needs to be emphasized in particular that the development of these villages is characterized by coordination, specificity, marginality and a long time scale.
The ideas of innovation, inclusiveness and green development should be established to fundamentally change the method of urbanization in suburban villages.
Adhering to innovative development is important. First, based on peculiarity of suburban villages, it is necessary to choose the right strategies for urbanization, explore and innovate the special model of their development, and construct a new type of grassroots governance system that is independent of and also inclusive of urban and rural areas.
Second, the “fringe effect” of suburban villages in urbanization should be fully recognized and utilized to achieve “fringe innovation.” Third, these villages can be encouraged to explore and innovate ways of realizing urbanization based on their actual situation. Keeping their own feature and relative independence, they may actively absorb urban factors and establish diversified and peculiar development models.
Adhering to inclusive development is essential. First, the policy system of suburban villages’ urbanization should be rebuilt in a uniform fashion that integrates the new model of urbanization.
Such villages should be treated as a link in the chain of the new model of urbanization and a node of rural urbanization. In particular, the process of their urbanization should be pushed forward from the perspective of social integration to realize harmonious development.
Second, based on the people-oriented principle in the new urbanization, the focus of urbanization should be shifted from the urbanization of land and space to the integration of residents as urban citizens.
Third, effective ways of innovation and grassroots governance should be explored that address the marginalization of villages to form a multifaceted economic and social development path through integration of urban and rural resources.
Fourth, the development of suburban villages should be advanced in accordance with the principle of equal rights and opportunities. It is important to break out of the traditional urban-rural binary opposition and change discriminatory policies in urbanization, allowing suburban villages to enjoy the same treatment as urban communities.
It is also necessary to adhere to green development. Green cities and towns should be built based on the concept of ecological civilization. The special value of suburban villages can be fully explored in the construction of green cities and towns. In addition, the green development strategy of these villages should be implemented in the new urbanization.
The method of pushing forward urbanization through the policy of land acquisition and relocation as well as administrative power should be fundamentally changed. The path of green development should be explored based on the situation in suburban villages.
Lu Fuying is from the School of Political and Sociological Science at Hangzhou Normal University.