DW Documentary, China has numerous dazzling cities for you to walk around singing “Bright lights and the big city”. Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen… these money-making cities are the bustling lands that compose the Chinese dream for one to live their lives and work. But that dream is shared by several hundred million of China’s residents, including a large number having no other choice due to their rural homes being taken away from them. 

From what used to be only 20%, over 60% of China’s population live in these modern megacities today, and the growth in number persists. Sadly, the majority of these migrants never reach the glamorous streets with skyscrapers, but end up in dark homes in the narrow, loud and dirty streets, hidden behind all the shiny structures of the city. 

Youtube for Architects: China's competition for living space - DW Documentary
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China’s Competition for Living Space is a documentary that sheds light upon what really lies within China’s metropolises; the struggles and conflicts between the people and the law, and the appalling and conditional livelihoods the working class lead. This 42 minutes long documentary was created and released on May 30th, 2021, by Deutsche Welle (DW), a German International Broadcasting service. DW is a German-based media organization that is unbiased, allowing viewers to conclude with their own opinions on the journalistic content that they provide. 

Intended towards an audience of any kind, especially those interested in housing and urban development, this documentary reveals the complications of national laws and their effects on its domain and people, even though made in the hope of the country’s advancement.

Youtube for Architects: China's competition for living space - DW Documentary
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This documentary takes us to several homes of migrant workers in Guangzhou and Shenzhen, giving us a visual understanding of what an ‘urban village’ in China really is. While authorities in China have set exigent standards as to who these modern cities should be populated with, millions agonize as they don’t reach the qualifications of being financially successful or having a political background. The most populated country in the world does not have a dense population, but the urban villages in its cities do at an alarming amount. 

Though filming isn’t officially allowed and capturing “the dark side of China’s economic boom” wasn’t attainable, the filmmakers were able to show glimpses of the impoverished, unhygienic and highly crowded homes as well as the homes of those who offered to show.

The film introduces Erk Schaffarczyk, a German architect, and author David Bandurski who have both lived and worked in China for over a decade. The two individually explain the forces that drive people towards the urban lands even though there are no ideal homes available for them, in spite of being the major contributors as a working and middle class for the city’s thriving economy.

Professor of Architecture Juan Du at Hong Kong University is also introduced in this documentary to unfold the law systems of the People’s Republic. Being a specialist in large metropolitan areas and urban villages, she elucidates how the people have no legal rights of ownership on their rural lands as well as no official rights to settle in a city. Step by step, she explains how these lands, which used to be farmlands, end up in the hands of authorities and contractors, even if it takes brutal force. 

Juan Du, Erk Schaffarczyk and David Bandurski provide the viewers with a vivid understanding of what China’s urban real estate has come to and what happens to those who oppose the authorities. 

DW Documentary
Youtube for Architects: China’s competition for living space – DW Documentary

To comprehend what happens when one takes a stand, the documentary takes us to Li Qizhong’s home in Guangzhou. He is one of the very few who dared to defend his home and fight back against the city administrator and an obstinate contractor. DW visited Li Qizhong in 2012 when he was one of the last residents who remained in his building. The film documented how Li fortified his home, and his perseverance to protect his family and land, despite threats and violent approaches. 

Li’s example in the film provides the viewers with an understanding that when it comes to China’s land and its potential, whether you’re protecting it or fighting to own it, people have resorted to extreme and savage tactics.

DW Documentary
Youtube for Architects: China’s competition for living space – DW Documentary

China’s Competition for Living Space is an eye-opener to how city development can affect people’s lives and mindsets if done without consideration of everyone who has even minimal involvement. Personally, this documentary brought a re-realisation as to what it takes for a city to make its mark, and the vicious cycles of migration and poverty a nation creates if humanity and correctness aren’t ensured in its lawmaking. 

This film has the capability to ignite curiosity in viewers’ minds about how urban development, planning, and housing works not only in China but in other countries as well, what hidden or unpleasant truths may lie within, and what can be done to alleviate such situations. 


DW Documentary. (2021). China’s competition for living space | DW Documentary

[YouTube video]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6wY2b9amnA [Accessed 03 June 2021].


Anjali is an aspiring architect from Hyderabad, with a bubbly, inquisitive outlook on life. She loves to explore and travel, whether it be on land or through literature. Someday her designs will solve social issues. Till then, if feeling muddled, penning it down or dancing it out is her answer.