This is a guest post by Julie Tian Miao, the RSA’s Early Career Representative. Julie Miao is a Lecturer in Urban Planning and Development at Glasgow University, and Glasgow-Nankai Postgraduate School in China. 

The paper I am summarising today reports the first stage findings from my Regional Studies Association (RSA) Early Career Grant [November 2013 round], to which I am very grateful to.

In a nutshell, my RSA project intends to explore the potential disjuncture between the centralised social-institutional arrangement and the decentralised techno-economic system in China. I was inspired by the studies (such as Peck & Zhang, 2013) on the emerging Sino-capitalism regime but disappointed by the reductionist ‘neoliberalism’ label that broad-brush China’s distinctive social and economic evolution. As a scholar who witnessed China’s reforms over the past three decades, I am more than aware that the Central government still (have to) retain a firm hand over a wide range of social-institutional management and activities, partly because the fear of social disturbance and partly because the greater economic localism and decentralisation. Here, ironically, the faster economic neoliberalism in China seems has resulted in sustained (or even strengthened) bureaucratic-authoritarian in its social affair management.

Departure from this wider background, I focused my attention on China’s social housing provision as one example of its social-institutional responsibilities; and its labour market as showcase of its economic dimension. Spatial boundary was set on around the three National Self-Innovation Model Zones in China, namely Beijing Zhongguancun Science Park (Z-Park); Shanghai Zhangjiang Science Park (Z-SHIPs), and Wuhan Optics Valley of China (OVC), because I see the housing-labour imbalance to be the severest around these industry agglomerations. Three research aims were set for this project:

  • To profile Chinese policy evolutions and governance for labour markets and affordable housing;
  • To identify disjuncture in the different mixes of state-market relations in different regions;
  • To discuss civil society and government responses to emerging problems. 

This paper on ‘Housing the Knowledge Economy’ mainly addressed the latter two questions, in particular the awareness of social housing providers to the housing needs of knowledge workers. These issues were analysed mainly through secondary data analysis, assisted by interviews with local and national authorise and science parks’ managers. This method was chosen because the supply effect of social housing was the main concern of this paper instead of the demand. Based on extensive documentary coding and analysis, it was found that for China as a whole, its labour market has been liberalised to a similar extend as that in the West, but Beijing is still the ‘central nervous’ in setting targets of social housing constructions, which has resulted in substantial disjuncture between where people get paid and where people get housed.  Nonetheless, regional variations were prominent.

Frequency of the key dimensions appeared in the three SPs and national key regulations.
Source: the author

In Z-Park, where the most acute work-live imbalance was identified, the local authorities were least explicit in their social housing (or even commercial housing) commitment. Along with spatial expansion of Z-Park outside the central districts of Beijing, more social housing for Z-Park employees was provided at the outskirt and financed by the municipal government. In Z-SHIPs, attention to the housing needs of science park employees was much more noticeable. But what made Z-SHIPs stood out was its reliance on the market to provide affordable housing, a model that bears similarity to that in the West. In OVC, where land constrain was not as severe as the other two, the real estate sector has long been identified as the pillar of local development. Social housing was public financed and distributed, and often located far from city centre, a patter similar to Z-Park. But the much more aggressive real estate development in OVC raised the concern of its real ‘high-tech’ and innovation commitment.

By distinguishing China’s social-institutional and techno-economic domains, this research could uncover the multiple faces of the widely debated Sino-capitalism. Another novelty aspect of this research lies in identifying the possible inconsistent pace towards neoliberalism both temporarily and regionally, which in turn could hamper the overall system function as a result of the ‘Buckets Effect’. This draws policy attention to a systematic approach in promoting knowledge economy. A following paper from this project, which is based on questionnaire survey of knowledge workers, will further explore such inconsistence around the three Science Parks from the demand side.