- In Search of Paradise: Middle-Class Living in a Chinese Metropolis
Over the past two decades, few changes in China have had a more dramatic impact on urban life than the privatization of housing. Until the 1990s, most urban residents worked in state-owned factories and lived in nearby company-owned housing. They could easily walk, bike, or take inexpensive public transportation from home to work and back. However, in place of such mixed-use development, where people live and work in the same neighborhood, city centers across China are [End Page 179] being razed and rebuilt into central business districts (CBDs) of gleaming office skyscrapers. Both affordable housing and upscale gated communities are being pushed to the outskirts. Now China has one of the highest private homeownership rates in the world. As state-owned enterprises were closed, sold off, or relocated to the suburbs, workplaces became less accessible. Along the way, privately owned cars have begun to move from unheard of luxuries to necessities, a transition that culminated in 2009, when China surpassed the United States as the largest car market. In short, the emergence of a vast market for housing is simply a part of many simultaneous and reinforcing changes, each change having its own wide-ranging effects.
Li Zhang's book captures the complexity and importance—social and economic—of the privatization of urban housing. Of course, the country is not simply privatizing but also building more housing with staggering speed. When privatization began in the early 1990s, China had some 27 million square meters of residential buildings. This amount has doubled in only twenty years to 55 million square meters. Likewise, the number of people employed in the real estate industry has doubled to over one and a half million. Unsurprisingly, property is now the largest sector of the Chinese economy. A bigger wonder is why it has taken until now to have a full-length academic study of the multifarious implications of this dramatic change.
Zhang's study was worth the wait. Her focus is the gated communities springing up in and around Kunming, the provincial capital of the southwestern province of Yunnan, a city with over 6 million inhabitants. Here is ample ground for an urban anthropologist. Zhang shows that not only are more new buildings being erected and occupations being created. A dramatic shift in the way urban Chinese lead their lives is also apparent, a shift, above all, from the collectivist aspirations for a socialist utopia in the Mao era to the quest to buy and defend one's own "private paradise" (geren tiantang). In her hands, housing becomes a gateway to many key topics in postsocialist urban life: the creation of a new homeowner/ consumer politics, the privatization of community maintenance in the form of the dozens of guards patrolling housing complexes, and the transformation of China from one of the most egalitarian to one of the most economically unequal societies in the world. She insightfully shows, for instance, how the shift from collective goals to private interests does not mean the complete death of political engagement but rather its transfer into struggles between homeowners and powerful developers. She labels this struggle a "double movement"—seeking a privatized good life in homeownership while needing to engage in rights and justice advocacy to protect that new life. Stay tuned. This rights advocacy has greatly expanded since the passage of the 2007 national property law.
In Search of Paradise adds terrific specificity to the understanding of why scholars of China often avoid non-experts who ask whether China is socialist or capitalist. A valuable chapter on "unlocking the real estate machine" reveals the [End Page 180] complex and ambiguous interlocking relationship between the state and capitalism, particularly the importance of the political connections underlying the "pro-growth coalition" between developers and the local officials running cities across China. The picture that emerges is as complicated as many suspected...