Resilient Topographies in PRD

The 30-year industrialization effort radically transformed the once rural coastal areas of China. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Pearl River Delta, one of the first Special Economic Zones. For example, industrialization of the once fertile agricultural landscape of Shipai township gave rise to a peculiar rural-urban order. Here traditional communities as well as migrant workers from other rural areas came face to face with technological and economic pressures of liberal capitalism. Rice paddies and fish farms were transformed overnight into a new industrial-rural landscape that consisted of kilometres upon kilometres of fragments – interlocking low-end housing with factories, rudimentary services and agriculture. This meshwork landscape is as varied in its social life as it is in its physical appearance. It has reached the stage where questions of nature versus technology are the most apparent and can be most adequately observed and researched. This paper seeks to demonstrate that this very landscape might give us a possible way “how to reconcile the inventions and achievements of modern technology, which have already established their autonomy, with the conditions of human life, our inherited culture, and the natural world.”

The predominant understanding of these areas is derived from, for example media reports on the treatment of workers by companies like Foxconn; but these are very superficial. My own site visits and detailed investigations of morphology suggest a rich topological order that reveals an intrinsic predisposition to accommodate change. A dense interlocking of different programs and societies creates clusters of industrial and agricultural production threaded along transport hierarchies through remnants of traditional towns and communal life. This topological order is the result of a complex negotiation between an infrastructural and capitalist order, with its efficient street grids, industrial compounds and foreign direct investment, on the one hand, and, on the other, a local order of villages with their connections to nature and farming, manufacturing, social and cultural traditions. In other words, understanding the order of these areas might give us an alternative understanding how to make urbanisation more sustainable and resilient.

After establishing the character of the interaction between the techno-capitalist and the traditional orders, based upon my recent visit to the area, the paper will suggest the insights to be gained from this unorthodox topography/metabolism, concluding with brief philosophical remarks on whether it can be considered a new form of ‘civic’ order as well.