Limits of Morphological and Civic Negotiation

Shortage and scarcity breeds competition, cooperation and ingenuity. It is almost ironic that supposedly the most egalitarian system of communist China created the land with such a high degree of scarcity. From the huoku system to the Great Leap Forward; these and other “special” policies contributed to a fractured social landscape with uneven distribution of resources and rights. In an allegedly egalitarian society it does not get more “special” than a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), an incubator of free market and global economy. A political act in 1978 transformed the Pearl River Delta (PRD) into a first SEZ, a resource of liberal capitalism – an utterly scarce resource in otherwise socialist China.

This special situation and its exclusive character made the condition of PRD a highly desirable one. We could say that on the level of China, this kind of condition was scarce indeed. The following 30 years witnessed an unprecedented rural urbanization that fuelled a wild social, cultural and spatial experiment. A deregulated “land of the plenty” within the PRD experienced intense pressures and transformations and a subsequent creation of some of the most unique urban patterns we can imagine. These strained conditions unleashed creativity that produced an endemic urban form, one that accommodates change well and is highly flexible. 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 consisting of kilometres upon kilometres of fragments – interlocking low-end housing, factories, rudimentary services, walled villa estates and agriculture. This meshwork landscape is as varied in its social life as it is in its physical appearance. From afar it looks hopelessly disorganized and mishandled. However, if we look closer at the morphological organization and further into the patterns of civic negotiation, we see that this varied and mixed environment is anything but mismanaged. It accommodates disparate claims to the territory; from the order of local community all the way up to the regional order asserted from Beijing. Within the bounds of spatial scarcity, translating liberal economy into spatial policy, shortage of available land causes developmental pressures that bring out the creativity of individuals and groups, reconciling local and regional orders.

This research paper seeks to outline and identify an urban order that manages to test the limits of disparate claim appropriation on one single territory. In this sense we will be revisiting the question of institutionalization of civic conflict. We will argue that this new civic order does not only accommodate divergent political and social groups but also enables their moderate well-being within a very limited and scarce territory. A studied area in Pearl River Delta will be used as a prototype site that demonstrates a new kind of civic space – a space where scarcity breeds an arms race that in turn breeds new and intelligent morphological organizations. As an ordering device, idea of morphological fragments will be put forth. We will argue that the unfinished character of a fragment is its single most important quality that enables reconciliation of divergent programs or uses and gives a basis for a new civic order. As the West is trying to engineer this elusive quality, the rural industrialized areas of PRD have it engrained in order to survive.