The Chinese Unit

Yuwei Wang:

Pages from Yuwei Wang_Dissertation22The new Chinese leader Xi Jinping referred to the ‘Chinese Dream’ on many occasions. The Chinese people have always had the dream of a Great Harmony of all ‘under heaven’, and longed for a society of noble virtue, material plenty, equality and equity, in which all belongs to everyone. This is the most central spiritual belief of the Chinese people. This dream, in the end, is the dream of the people. It relies on the people, for the sake of the people. Socialism ensures that everyone together enjoys the opportunity for a splendid human life, together enjoys the opportunity to see dreams become reality, and together enjoys the opportunity to grow and progress with the motherland and the times. The Chinese dream is for the common good.

Research Questions

[T]he Americans are just simply waiting for the moment when China finally becomes capitalist. I have a different assessment of the situation. I believe that the government is trying to, in a very intelligent way, introduce some of the advantages of liberalization without entirely giving up a kind of ‘safeguard’ for the entire nation. That is something you can either be serious or cynical about.
Rem Koolhaas 

 In the latter half of the twentieth century, the United States surpassed the Soviet Union through its free markets and democracy; but in the new century, the Chinese government has achieved great economic success by allowing a high level of economic freedom within its centrally controlled political interventions. Over the past thirty years, China has transformed from a command economy of industry-driven socialism to a market economy of state capitalism. This has brought China in the same period almost 10 percent GDP growth each year. State-owned enterprises account for about 60 percent of China’s GDP. Thus, the Chinese economy is essentially still under state control. Through these state-owned enterprises, the government intervenes in the economy to protect critical industries from competition. Today, the Chinese government is arguably both the wealthiest and the most powerful government in the world.

In the wake of the global financial crisis, some critics have argued that state capitalism is superior to the free market since most liberal capitalist countries have failed to save their economy. But state capitalism is equally riddled with problems. The problems of state capitalism are mainly a political rather than economic one; especially as political power is always converted into economic power. Many companies in state capitalism inevitably degenerate into crony capitalism, as powerful politicians extend their control for their own gain. Therefore, a small proportion of politicians has vastly benefitted from the economic achievements of past decades, largely through corruption. The central government has not made social welfare and the fair allocation of resources their priority, but instead, has prioritized its own benefits and powers.

The dilemma of state capitalism is that its viability largely relies on a virtuous government that stand for public interest rather than personal gains by an elite. Since coming into power, the new leadership of China has therefore started an anti-corruption campaign against government officials. President Xi Jinping and his political peers identified widespread corruption as a grave threat to China’s political stability. China’s new Prime Minister Li Keqiang announced thus, in his first official comments on 17 March 2013, a vision for an equitable society in which government officials put the people’s welfare before their own financial interests. In particular, he asserted that the government’s growing workforce would be reduced to increase spending on social welfare.

The state today is beginning to question its role and function in both the economy and social structure. Thus, what is the responsibility of the government and what is the developmental strategy in state-capitalism? As a socialist country, I would argue that China should have a more advanced welfare system that better reflects its economic prowess. The government should take the responsibility to realize a ‘people’s republic’ by making state capitalism benefit all its people.

The Urban Question

Since China has a particular social context and political mechanism, two questions need to be discussed before other considerations: what should be the idea of the Chinese city and who should make decisions on behalf of the Chinese society? To answer these two questions, I will examine the urban conflicts that emerged during China’s reform and opening. The city of Beijing as a historical Chinese city, which is still under a continuous transformation from a typical industrial city toward a global metropolis, will be used to unfold the conflicts faced by most major cities in China, as well as the driving forces behind these conflicts.

Beijing’s master plan and the elemental urban block have represented the change of Chinese urban ideas and the decision makers in power. Before 1978, the organization of Beijing was not based on the market but on the idea of collectivity. By comparing maps from before and after 1980s’, we can easily find a city that relied on urban blocks, while today it relies on an infrastructural system – and the urban plan has transformed from very specific plans of blocks to very general plans of a circulatory system.

What has happened over the past 30 years is not merely a transformation of urban morphology, but also a transition of society and the way in which people live in the city. As a command economy, the central government has intervened and mobilized labor forces by setting rules within the work-unit in which they lived and worked. During the process of urbanization in China, the urban population, events and social ties have been redistributed and re-organized by the market. Therefore, people previously defined as the labor force are today redefined as consumers.

Although this transformation has considerably advanced Chinese society, it is also fundamentally problematic. I am hereby particularly interested in two questions. One is an increasing traffic congestion despite the government’s growing expenditure on infrastructure every year. The other is the absence of social cohesion within a community and between communities, amongst citizens. A citizen could be defined in China in two ways: one is through the social events which compose his or her life, like studying, working and living; the other is through the social ties which they belong to or establish, such as kinship and friendship. From the first definition, we can see that the fragmentation of peoples’ lives in a city with around 21-22 million population would inevitably cause serious traffic congestion. From the second definition, we can understand that one’s social ties have been stretched across the urban scale. Related people do not live in the same community or block anymore, while people living in the same space have no reason to communicate with one another, which has caused the loss of social cohesion within the community. Normally, people would blame this on the fast expansion of the city and land values.

However, I would argue that the fundamental reason is that the urban block failed to function as a social device to frame people’s lives and define peoples’ social roles as it did before. Today, urban blocks are nothing but containers of population. Peoples’ lives majorly happen outside of the blocks they reside in. I also would argue that it is the very definition of people that is problematic and has caused all of the urban issues I outlined above. Human behavior in the city has become purely profit-driven and only for the purpose of fulfilling one’s own desires. The city, as well as the so-called community, has overlooked its potential to be a device of social organization and reduced itself to becoming a mere container of life. I therefore critique this notion of urbanization and the way it has defined citizens.

Aim and Structure of the Thesis

This dissertation attempts to re-strategize the relationship between the role of architecture and the idea of the city as a social space defined by the state and its citizens in China. The above critiques of current urban context have converted two urban problems into two spatial and scale issues through a definition of people. The thesis explores a middle scale between both the private family and the public city. The study begins with examining the urban model before Chinese marketization, and results in the assembling and re-arranging of typical events and social relationships by inserting this middle scale into the contemporary city. The aim of the proposal is to rethink the architecture and urban space as first and foremost a social and political construct, embodied throughout history in the Chinese urban unit rather than overall master plans. The population framed by this middle scale model transcends the concept of the private family, and is defined as a component of a collective group. Thus their behaviors are not entirely motivated by individual gain and loss. As a group, their expansion and contraction are due to a collective demand. Architecture then is regarded as either a framework for social events or a framework that embodies social ties.

The idea of transforming the utilitarian block into a collective social model has to be supported by the state, as it is the state who holds political and social power and controls the urban model. As a social framework produced by the state, the new urban model needs to find a spatial strategy to organize and bind people rather than simply provide them with a place to live. In Chapter 2, the thesis will work on the idea and the deep structures of historical Chinese urban models, in order to reveal the principles of the urban strategy before Chinese urbanization. In Chapter 3, the thesis will further discuss the unique social and political context of Chinese society, especially the function of the government in state-capitalism. Then the thesis will put forward a critique of the current urban condition and the dominant type of Beijing. The game between local government, developer and consumer will be unfolded to reinterpret the particular type of Chinese housing block. Finally, the thesis will conceptualize the principle of the Chinese unit and propose to insert this very idea into the current urban model, and convert it into a social framework.

This dissertation started with questioning the meaning of state capitalism and the role of the government, then analyzed the courtyard housing type and the Danwei type to grasp the principles of the Chinese unit, and the method of building collectivity. Then the research on Chinese society and political strategy after the economic reform led to a discussion of the problematic urban planning and the housing market. After the examination of these changes, I focused on a study of the megaplot and the typical Chinese housing plan. Finally the research went back to investigate the relationship between state, corruption and the welfare system. At this point, several observations were made and posited:

1) The historical Chinese units as means of political production: they successfully assembled people’s lives and framed their social networks through a hierarchical system. This hierarchical system could be separated into a spatial system and a system of sharing. What was shared by people could be seen as commonalities that bind individuals together. In other words, this system of sharing is a system of typical and collective events.

2) The current urban conflicts could be understood through the typical events that compose people’s lives and the social networks they belong to. The megaplot rather than urban planning is the opportunity to change the current urban situation. I argue that the state needs to reintroduce the culture of collectivity through combining workplace and housing, and by providing communal facilities. These measures could be considered as a new welfare system, and benefit all workers to improve their urban situations and living qualities. The typological change of the megaplot is not simply an adoption of the deep structures of the courtyard house or Danwei, but use their ideas and the different urban types to re-establish a new spatial hierarchy. The new spatial order creates the possibility for collectivity to occur.

Ground Floor Plan


Ground Floor Plan (Fragment)


Typical Plan
2 FLOORAxonometric (Fragment) 
Axo Urban Section
Interior View

RenderRead the whole dissertation here.

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