Re-visioning the public in the city of difference: poetics and politics in postreform Guangzhou, China
This thesis attempts to contribute to the literature on urban public space. It focuses on urban China which is a non-Western social context and also undergoing unprecedented social, economic and cultural transformation since its market-reform in 1978. It suggests that the socio-spatial restructuring of post-reform Chinese cities has opened up new possibilities for examining the complex entanglement of social changes, spatial practices in the public and the reconstitution of social relations. This thesis first uses an ideal-predicament-practice framework to develop an overview of the extant literature on urban public space. It argues that in classic social theories public space is associated with two normative ideals, namely the ideal of political expression and the ideal of unfettered social engagement. However, since the 1970s most studies in Anglophone sociology, geography and urban studies have tended to focus on the decline of the public sphere. This rhetoric of decline is manifested in three major strands of research, namely the decrease of civic participation in public communication, the privatization of public space and the regulation of public space. In this thesis, I argue that this body of literature only presents a partial picture of the ongoing construction of the public realm. While it certainly offers a solidly critical stance in the examination of urban change, it does not need to lead us to the impression that the public sphere is no longer central to our civic and political life. Many studies in this literature suffer from two epistemological problems. First, many of these studies are undergirded by a closed perspective which reifies the binary oppositions of exclusion and inclusion, absence and presence. Being visible in the public is unproblematically seen as socially empowering, while exclusion is considered to reduce the social and political relevance of public space. Second, this body of literature also delineates the public sphere in terms of fixed types of spaces which accommodate fixed uses and produce fixed social and cultural meanings. Which has been dispensed with, as a result, is an epistemologically more open approach which actively locates and analyzes people’s actually existing practices and actions related to the production and construction of competing visions of publicness. Thus I argue that the social and political potentials of public spaces are never determined prior to social members’ active participation in the public realm. Public space is constantly made and remade through engaged practices which produce and construct the social and cultural turfs of space from below. Armed with this perspective, this thesis will use four chapters of empirical research to elucidate the complex socio-spatial dynamics associated with the production and construction of public space. Four stories are narrated in this thesis: 1. The emergence of grassroots leisure class in China’s urban public space and the possibilities which it has created for ordinary people to enact and perform their cultural identities. 2. Gay men’s cruising in Guangzhou’s People’s Park and the ways in which gay men negotiate a self-disciplining subjectivity in relation to their public presence and their “deviant” and “abnormal” cultural identity. 3. The construction of improvised grassroots public and counterpublic in the singing of socialist “Red Songs” and how this collective public culture provides opportunities for the production and reproduction of political identities and political discourses. 4. The regulation of motorcycle taxis and the ways in which visions of public space are intrinsically implicated in the constitution of dominant knowledge, social relations and power structures.