By Katie Sperry
The first co-working space in China was established in 2009; three organizers of a series of informal art-technology gatherings in coffee houses, galleries, and private studios across Shanghai decided to start a coworking enterprise called XinDanWei (新单位 translated into English: new work-unit). Similar to coworking spaces in other countries, XinDanWei was established as a shared community space that provided desks and rooms for people to rent on an hourly, weekly, monthly, or yearly basis, and regularly hosted events around topics circulating in the fields of technology, arts, and design. What had bound the cofounders together was the shared belief that China needed spaces for people to explore new work and lifestyles (Lindtner, 2015). Many people involved in this coworking space, and others that spread to other major urban areas, aspired to help “open up” China; translating Western concepts of open sharing, free culture, entrepreneurship, and risk taking into the context of China. One influential piece of writing was the “Sharism” (分享主义) manifesto by Isaac Mao (毛向辉). Although its focus is on digitally sharing information, it still emphasizes the importance of sharing for humans and without explicably stating it, encourages Chinese to be part of the sharing economy movement. Unfortunately, after a series of interrogations by Chinese officials in response to his writings and public lectures on internet censorship, Mao moved to Hong Kong in 2011. With his departure, the local interest in Sharism slowly faded, and in 2013, XinDanWei’s cofounders decided they could no longer sustain the coworking space (Lindtner, 2015). This raises questions about the risks faced by other models within the sharing economy, such as cohousing complexes. If these communities come to be perceived as a threat by the CCP will they experience a similar fate?
Only two decades ago, people in China were living in state-owned communes guided by the strict socialist teachings of Mao Zedong. In the 1960s, it was reported that the total membership of urban communes reached twenty million (Lu, 2007). The transition from communism to market-socialism dramatically altered neighbourhood life. Under Maoist rule, social life existed within work-units, which formed self-sufficient neighbourhoods integrating workplace, residence, and social facilities. With the economic reforms of the 1980s resulting in increased residential mobility and changing lifestyles, neighbourhood socialization subsided (Hazelzet & Wissink, 2012). Recently, communitarian forms of living are making a revival in China, but now in the form of cohousing.
Faced with a widening wealth gap and the slowest economic growth in more than two decades, many Chinese millennials are embracing the sharing economy, and moving into cohousing complexes. As a prominent example, You+ opened its first location in Guangzhou in 2012. Now, around 10,000 people currently live in 25 of their cohousing facilities across China (Horwitz, 2016). Bedrooms include a private bathroom, and range from between 20 to 50 square meters. They generally come fully furnished in trendy decor, and cost around 2,000 RMB per month to rent. Renters have access to shared laundry facilities, gyms, and other common areas. Occasional planned events help the renters meet one another, and planned meetings help them work out any issues that may arise living in close quarters. These places are not just housing, they are also idea incubators – located in an old school, the Beijing cohousing space is home to around 60 business startups (Bloomberg, 2015). While cohousing establishments in the West have generally mixed demographics consisting of families with children and individuals ranging in age, the majority of You+ inhabitants are young adults, many belonging to the One Child Generation. Many of these individuals are choosing to live a cohousing lifestyle not only for financial reasons, but also to build social capital.
Besides central government intervention, another possible barrier to the expansion of cohousing and the sharing economy in China is what some refer to as a collective perception of a moral crisis that has emerged and taken hold in China (Ci, 2009). Everyday norms of coexistence and cooperation – whether moral, legal, or regulatory – are breached at an alarming scale. Also, according to Ci (2009) every sector of society, including officials and the academic community, are implicated. Moreover, the norms that are so often violated are fundamental ones, resulting in too many instances of dangerously unsafe food, medicine – notably severe abuses of maternal and infant health, water, traffic, resource extraction, and industrial operations. Some scholars have suggested that one of the reasons why this has occurred on such a scale is that traditional Chinese morality featured family oriented values that made it harder to build trust outside the family, leading to low social trust. This distrust and disregard of strangers is then transmitted from one generation to the next through both formal and informal channels (Yan, 2011). In comparison, the West has a deeply rooted culture of democracy that promoted equality and liberal individualism, in addition to a welfare state that protects and supports the individuals, two factors that are missing in the Chinese context (Yan, 2011). Participating in the sharing economy requires some degree of social trust. According to McLaren and Agyeman (2015: 319), “as sharing begets trust, so trust begets more sharing. And every sharing organization, every platform, every human interaction is another institutional deposit in a new city bank of social capital.” Could the rise of forms of the sharing economy in China be a sign of hope for a future of increasing social trust, and therefore sustainability, in Chinese cities?
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People carry their luggage across the courtyard of a You+ community in Beijing, China, on Monday, Nov. 30, 2015. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images.
Residents work at their laptop computers inside a You+ community in Beijing, China, on Monday, Nov. 30, 2015. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images.