Research Articles

Space reconstruction process and internal driving mechanisms of Taobao villages in metropolitan fringe areas: A case study of Lirendong village in Guangzhou, China

  • YANG Ren
  • School of Geography and Planning & Land Research Center, Sun Yat-Sen University, Guangzhou 510275, China

Yang Ren (1984-), PhD and Professor, specialized in rural reconstruction, rural-urban transformation and land use optimal allocation. E-mail:

Received date: 2022-06-17

  Accepted date: 2022-08-30

  Online published: 2022-12-25

Supported by

National Natural Science Foundation of China(42171193)

National Natural Science Foundation of China(41130748)

The Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities, Sun Yat-sen University(22lgqb13)


This paper examines the process and internal mechanisms of rural ecommerce industry agglomeration and space reconstruction in metropolitan fringe areas, employing Lirendong village in Guangzhou, China, as a case study. Questionnaire surveys and in-depth interviews were utilized and interpreted through the perspective of the actor-network theory. The results show that, in Lirendong village, local government, processing enterprises, rural collectives, e-commerce entrepreneurial talent, and other key actors participate in the pursuit and realization of suburban land value according to their action logic. Actors jointly evolved and constructed the phased industrial processes and space value accumulation process of the e-commerce industry. The reconstruction process experienced three stages, including the government-led agricultural decentralization stage, the market-oriented industrialization stage, and the Internet+ stage dominated by the social network of fellow villagers. The development process has evolved from the dominance of exogenous forces to that of endogenous forces, and, as a result, the types and structures of rural land use are diversified. The spatial texture and rural environment of the traditional country gradually disappeared, forming a diversified mixed form of urban-rural land and mixed-use landscape of industrial, commercial, and residential land in vertical space. At the same time, the social network changed from a single and homogeneous social network of acquaintances to a multiple network of strangers.

Cite this article

YANG Ren . Space reconstruction process and internal driving mechanisms of Taobao villages in metropolitan fringe areas: A case study of Lirendong village in Guangzhou, China[J]. Journal of Geographical Sciences, 2022 , 32(12) : 2599 -2623 . DOI: 10.1007/s11442-022-2063-9

1 Introduction

With rapid globalization, urbanization, and industrialization, rural areas within the metropolitan areas have undergone a rapid transformation process under the changes of an external environment system. The economic forms, land use, social structure, and ecological environment of rural areas have undergone significant changes and reconstruction processes (Long and Tu, 2017). Rural recession has always been a global problem (Liu and Li, 2017; Dax and Fischer, 2018): developed countries such as Britain, Sweden, the United States, Canada, Japan, and South Korea have all experienced a widening of the urban-rural gap and the rural recession, which is closely related to the processes of globalization and urbanization, increasingly connects the local and the global, thereby, one could say, forcing rural areas to participate in global trade competition (Hedlund and Lundholm, 2015). In China, since the reform and opening-up policy in 1978, the urbanization rate has increased from 17.92% in 1978 to 59.58% in 2018 (NBSC, 2019). Rural youth continuously flow to cities on a large scale and rural communities have become a place of residence for “left-behind” older people, children, and women. In addition, with the abandoned farmland, rural poverty, environmental pollution, disappearance of symbolic and cultural memory, the phenomenon of “hollowing villages” has appeared (Long et al., 2016; Luo et al., 2018).
Since the 1990s, the rural agricultural sector is reconstructing, counter-urbanization with the “second homes” phenomenon appeared, and the development of the global countryside presented volatility, complexity and diversity (Ward, 1993; Peck, 1996). The traditional modernist position centered by the cities of rural research has been criticized by scholars, and they focus is now on the novel issue of rural transformation and development, which has attracted attention worldwide (Halfacree et al., 1999; Marsden, 1999; Holmes, 2002). The popularity of rural transformation theory has been widely debated, such as post-productivist countryside, which has prompted scholars to carry out empirical research in different regions of the world. Hoggart and Paniagua (2001a) found that there is no consistency regarding rural reconstruction brought about by globalization. In the United States, rural development relies on natural facilities, such as coastlines, forests, lakes, and other natural landscapes, to reveal obvious gaps and divisions (Brown and Swanson, 2004). Van Auken and Rye (2011) compared the rural restructuring process in the United States and Norway through the use of participatory observation and a photo-inspired method (Wilkinson, 1991), and found that consumption has become the driving force of rural reconstruction in the post-productive rural areas of developed countries. Under this new driving force, the rural value of production has been replaced by the value of consumption, daily life, and the view of natural landscapes. The growth of tourism, the new competition pattern of land use and the public concern for the environment have become the manifestation of the new consumption-oriented rurality (Halfacree and Boyle, 1998). The process of rural reconstruction in Europe was significantly influenced by market liberalization policies, and since the 1990s a rural development paradigm characterized by multi-functional agriculture and peasant entrepreneurs has been formed (Wilson, 2007; Wilson, 2008; Irwin et al., 2009; Morgan et al., 2010). Cloke et al. (2006) believe that the future development of rural communities depends on the ability of communities to adapt to macro-social trends. Wilson (2001) believed that “multi-functional agriculture” could better reflect the spatial heterogeneity, diversity, and non-linear characteristics of rural transformation.
Rural change is recognized as a multi-dimensional and interconnected whole phenomenon (Hedlund and Lundholm, 2015). The process of rural reconstruction should be examined from a comprehensive perspective of social economy, politics, environment, and culture (Argent, 1999; Hoggart and Paniagua, 2001b; Nelson, 2001; Hedlund and Lundholm, 2015). Existing studies concentrate more on the economic restructuring, though a connection to the global economy and the introduction of science and technology (Fink et al., 2013). This typically points to three structural changes: the recession of agricultural economies (Wilson, 1995), the growth of low-wage jobs in manufacturing and service sectors, and the growth of consumption (Vias, 2004). Woods (2005) claims that rural reconstruction is driven by globalization, technological progress, and social modernization. Concurrently with the processes of industrialization and urbanization, rural areas reshape their social and economic structures under the interaction impact of the declining agricultural economic status, the new rural services sector, and the moving urban-rural population (Woods, 2007; 2010; 2014). Cloke (1997) believed that population migration is one of the key factors influencing the American countryside to reconstruct and investigate reconstruction and change from the integrated perspective of economics and culture. As a consequence, the countryside are more diversified in the traditional land use, the family and class and highly complex in rural community. Bigmore et al. (1994) emphasized the reconstruction analysis of social space based on social relations, and regarded the place as a “meeting place” composed of a series of social relations, which were bound together by actors pursuing different interests. Tigges et al. (1998) argued that the non-economic dimension was necessary to bring in rural reconstruction research to understand rural communal adaptability. Therefore, he used the perspective of embeddability to study social relations in rural reconstruction. According to the theory of embeddability (Granovetter, 1985), the production and reproduction of social relations is the basis of livelihood strategies generated by farmers and their families in the process of rural reconstruction.
Based on Chinese practice, Long and Liu (2016) constructed the theoretical framework of “factor-structure-function” of rural regional systems to explore the influence of rural reconstruction on changes to the rural internal and external elements system: they then put forward the realization path of rural reconstruction in economic, social, and spatial aspects. Chen et al. (2019) analyzed the government-led rural reconstruction process and mechanisms in south Jiangsu Province based on the theory of actor-networks. Zhang et al. (2018a) analyzed the impact of e-commerce on economic restructuring (i.e. production space) based on the theory of flow space, and as a result, agricultural elites were considered as the fundamental driving force to activate entrepreneurial activities. Liu et al. (2018) argue that the centralized resettlement project dominated by the government results in rural reconstruction of space, governance, economy, and socialites.
In the last ten years, with the development of global digital technology, a new type of technology, Internet technology, has deeply influenced rural areas, following the improvement of industrial technology and the introduction of agricultural technology in the 1990s. E-commerce involves the purchase and sale of products or services through electronic systems, such as computer networks and the Internet (Kasemsap, 2018): it has reduced transaction costs and promoted connections between users around the world by eliminating the geographical barriers that existed in traditional commerce (Cristóbal-Fransi et al., 2015). Moreover, the rise of rural e-commerce has brought about the so-called Information Society and a new process of rural reconstruction (Hedlund and Lundholm, 2015; Laudon and Traver, 2016). Studies have proved that Internet technology has a positive influence on rural reconstruction. It improves the educational and employment prospects of the youth (Fennell et al., 2018). Furthermore, it improves rural development conditions and local economies, which is maintained by local trade (Sun and Wang, 2005; Galloway et al., 2011). In China, with the development of e-commerce and information communication technology, e-commerce has become a driving force for Chinese rural economic development (Cui et al., 2017). Taobao villages are formed in this context with the development model of a specialized village with characteristic industries and a third-party e-commerce platform (Xiao and Wang, 2019). Taobao village refers to a village where a large number of e-commerce businesses grow/flourish in a single location: the village has an annual turnover of more than 10 million yuan and more than 100 active online shops. This model, typically has small-scale family workshops as the production unit, reduces the cost of production and operation and it is also easy to develop and disperse, thus increasing the number of Taobao villages in the vicinity (Xiao and Wang, 2019). The cooperative model based on the contractual relationship formed by a society with acquaintance social networks has a synergistic effect in Taobao villages (Guo, 2015). The employment and wealth generated by Taobao businesses causes the original spatial agglomeration of talents and industries from the bottom up through the diffusion and demonstration of geographical and relationship proximity (Zhu et al., 2016). In a word, Taobao economy is embedded in rural traditional society and relies on the support of the acquaintance network to form the Taobao market of intra-household labor division. The establishment and development of a Taobao market further strengthens the acquaintance network (Xiao and Wang, 2019).
However, there are some constraints for rural e-commerce development, including the infrastructure construction of express logistics, industrial needs, and the human resources of e-commerce, among others. The development of e-commerce cannot be separated from express logistics, which helps to form the service chain of e-commerce. At present, the geographical distribution of e-commerce construction is mainly concentrated in the eastern coastal areas of China (Sun, 2019). Ye et al. (2009) put forward the business model of a modern rural commodity circulation network: that is, the virtual platform of rural e-commerce is used to build an information network oriented by leading enterprises, supported by the trading market and distribution center, with retail stores as the terminal link and the information system of rural commodity circulation management as the information network of supply chains. The impact of e-commerce on economic restructuring was reflected in the change of the consumption structure, development of new business forms, such as online finance and logistics, upgrade of agriculture promoted by a new sales model, and return migration of population (Liu and Li, 2017). Further, the development of e-commerce has created a new social group in rural areas, namely innovative talent with characteristics unlike traditional farmers, such as an entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, youth, high educational level, Internet and technology skills, and new ways of thinking (Zeng and Guo, 2016). The main effect of spatial reconstruction is diversified transformation in Taobao villages. The new gathering spaces are generated in household production mode and spontaneously formed complex forms that integrate both work and living spaces. Internet shops proliferate in spread-point shape on the rural space and then present a scattered point layout (Wu et al., 2017).
The Pearl River Delta region is the forefront and focus of Chinese reform and opening up, with an innate development advantage of being located adjacent to Hong Kong and Macao. Since the reform and opening up in the late 1970s, rural areas in the Pearl River Delta undertook industrial transfer from the enterprises in Hong Kong, which processed raw materials for clients. Thus, the process of rural industrialization from the bottom-up begins to promote the urbanization and rural reconstruction driven by foreign capital (Yang et al., 2019). In the 21st century, the industrial transformation of the Pearl River Delta coincides with the rise of the Internet era. The rapid development of globalization and informatization has given birth to new industries and new demands, such as rural Taobao e-commerce, and then triggered a new round of rural restructuring. There is extant research that demonstrates the government-led rural reconstruction process with many case studies, but there are few on the rural reconstruction process, from a strong social perspective, in the Pearl River Delta. At present, most studies analyze the rural reconstruction from the perspective of the economy, or comprehensively analyze the various processes and influencing factors of rural reconstruction from the aspects of economy, space, and the social arena. Taobao villages promote the integrated development of the three industries by the form of “Internet+” coupled in the primary and secondary industrial bases. The fusion of the three industries in China is equivalent to post-productivism to a large extent (Liu et al., 2018). It is a feasible path to promote the integration of urban-rural development and rural revitalization of the fusion of three industries and scattered point layout adapted specifically to rural environments. E-commerce workers play a key role in the formation and expansion of the e-commerce network, and the rural internal infrastructure, industrial base, external market environment, and e-commerce platforms are important conditions for the formation of Taobao villages. The key actors of entrepreneurial talents at the center to promote the connection and play a role in these fundamental conditions (Zeng and Guo, 2016). The realization of rural reconstruction depends on the collective actions of the actors: however, the actions of the actors are different, depending on their motives. The stability of the actor-network has yet to be deeply analyzed (Chen et al., 2019). Therefore, this paper selected Lirendong village in Panyu District of Guangzhou City as a case study, based on its background of globalization, informatization, and urbanization, and will analyze the participation and coordination mechanisms of different actors by using the theory of actor-network, and put forward reconstruction process and internal mechanism of Taobao village in metropolitan areas in China, providing reference for rural transformation development path.

2 Conceptual framework

The spatial expansion of production and consumption networks on the Internet has led to the globalization of complex networks in remote rural areas. Historical factors, subcontracting networks, and social networks have strengthened connections between remote rural areas and global networks (Overton et al., 2011; Nelson et al., 2014; Lin, 2019). The subcontracting operation model of e-commerce geographically connects rural and urban areas. Internet technology overcomes geographical space barriers and conforms to the decentralized layout of rural areas, making it possible for e-commerce industry to flourish in rural areas, and then forming Taobao specialized villages. The infrastructures of information and communications technology and production networks are the foundation of e-commerce development.
In general, the complete cycle of industrial cluster evolution includes germination stage, growth stage, expansion stage and the take-off stage (Engel and del-Palacio, 2009). Brusco (1990) put forward a growth model with two stages according to his study of Italian industrial clusters. The first stage of industrial cluster relies solely on civil power and spontaneously formed without government intervention. The government becomes involved in the second stage and industry association is established in the industrial cluster once growth reaches a certain scale: the government began to intervene in cluster development and provided a variety of social services. The formation process of e-commerce agglomeration in China is, on the whole, consistent with the evolutionary path of Brusco’s growth model (Wu et al., 2017). In the Internet age, traditional rural industries realize labor division and cooperation of industrial value chain by means of e-commerce. The Taobao village transforms from the traditional agriculture village and goes through the agricultural decentration process, traditional industry accumulation, and infrastructure improvement. The village forms an e-commerce industrial cluster and provokes rural reconstruction with external factors of market demand and e-commerce platform. As a result, the village remotes intensive urbanization in space, rapid non-agricultural process in economy, gradual collapse of traditional social networks in society, and modernization in life (Figure 1).
Figure 1 Analysis framework of the spatial reconstruction of a Taobao village

3 Materials and methods

3.1 Research area

Lirendong village is located in the southwest of Nancun town, Panyu district, Guangzhou city (Figure 2), with excellent road conditions. The total area of the village is approximately 4.1 km2, and there are 13 villages in the village jurisdiction. As of January 2017, Lirendong village has a registered population of 5711, 2172 households and a floating population of 20,330. The collective annual income of the village is approximately 17.4356 million yuan and the per capita income is 17,304 yuan. In 2009, the Taobao stores started to enter Lirendong village. In 2013, Lirendong village was listed as one of the first “Taobao villages” in China by Ali Research Institute (Zhang et al., 2018b). In 2014 there were more than 600 Taobao merchants in Lirendong village, with an annual sales volume of 978 million yuan. There were more than 20 express delivery outlets, and 45 million parcels were delivered (Yang et al., 2016).
Figure 2 Location of the study area (Lirendong village)

3.2 Actor-network method

In this paper, the actor-network theory (ANT) is adopted to study and analyze the process and the dynamic mechanism of rural reconstruction in Lirendong village. This theory integrates all factors from both society and nature into a unified interpretative framework, and regards human and non-human factors as heterogeneous actors with their own initiative. Human and non-human actors embed in and co-construct each other, and evolve into a heterogeneous network through the process of translation. This theory focuses on the action process of actors instead of concentrating on the result, and, in this network, every node is an actor with subject status, including humans and nonhumans: non-human actors obtain the status, qualification, and power of subjects through qualified spokesmen. Nodes are connected through interrelated relationships and weave a seamless network of coordinated actions. As different actors translate through the “obligatory point of passage” (OPP) and define their respective roles, they are combined to form a stable actor network (Law, 1992). The actor-network usually goes through five foundation steps: Problematization, Interestement, Enrollment, Mobilization, and Dissidence (Callon, 1984) (Figure 3). First, the key actors problematize concern objects of different actors by pointing out the realization path of other actors’ interests. It makes the problem of key actors become the “obligatory point of passage” for all actors to achieve their goal. It then defines the role of other actors in the network through a variety of devices and strategies that confer benefits to other actors. As the spokespeople of the whole network alliance, key actors wield power and mobilize other actors to maintain the stable operation of the network. In addition, it could overcome dissidence in this process. The translation process is the construction of power relations. Power is not an agent, nor does it belong to a person, but is rather the person or object in the relationship. Power is different from resources, and is a method through which to mobilize and deploy resources (Cheong and Miller, 2000). Any actor is a mediator rather than an intermediary, and is heterogeneous in terms of interest orientation and behavior model. Actors need to decode other actors through a process of translation, which is a type of role definition through problems and interests (Law, 1992): the stability of the network depends on the continuous translation process of the interests of various actors. There may also be dissidence forces within the network that deviate from the network. By focusing on the interaction process between actors and networks, ANT reveals the dynamics and patterns of network construction to analyze the stability and possible development of networks (Latour, 1987; Law, 1992).
Figure 3 The analysis framework of actor network
Latour believes that rural reconstruction is a unique movement of reconnection and recombination (Latour, 2005). In the Taobao village of Lirendong, it is the village elites in the central position of actor-network that bring the elements of the rural into play. The realization of rural reconstruction depends on the collective actions of the actors; however, the actions of actors in different roles differ and depend on their motive (Zeng and Guo, 2016; Chen et al., 2019). The actor-network provides a good analytical framework for research on the participation and collaboration mechanisms of different actors. This paper will deeply discuss the construction and stability of the actor-network in Taobao village from the perspective of ANT.

3.3 Social network theory

A social network is a collection of points (social actors) and lines (relationships between actors). In a social network, any social unit or entity can be regarded as an actor, such as individuals, enterprises, countries and so on. The relationship represents a type of bond that actually exists between actors due to communication and contact: this is different from the abstract relationship, such as variable or hierarchical relationships, used in traditional analysis to represent people’s attributes and category characteristics. It can be either a direct or indirect relationship. The actors in the network occupy scarce resources differently and allocate resources in a structure according to contact points. According to this theory, there are structural holes in the network, that is, non-redundant connections between actors. Burt (1992) argues that structural holes offer their occupants an opportunity to gain information benefits and control benefits, giving them a competitive advantage over other members of the network. In short, the actors in the holes of network structure have more resources and more power.

3.4 Data collection

In order to deeply understand the reconstruction process of a Taobao village and analyze the dynamic changes in the behavior of the actors involved and their interaction processes, the data in this paper were collected from field surveys in Lirendong village from March to April 2018, May to June 2019, and September 2019. We collected a total of 90 effective surveys and in-depth interviews with 20 different actors, including rural committee cadres, local villagers, garment manufacturers, e-commerce entrepreneurial talent, migrant workers, logistics companies, and retail employees. According to the information obtained from the investigation, this paper summarized the history, development process and force of Lirendong village. In addition, the land use data in 1992 in this paper are from the survey data of Village Planning in Guangzhou from 2013, and the land use data from 2006, 2010, and 2019 are from the satellite maps of Google.

4 Results

4.1 Characteristics of the development stage and industrial succession process of Lirendong village

4.1.1 1992-2003: Government-led agricultural decentralization stage

Before the 1990s, Lirendong village was in a traditional stage. The road conditions here was blocked and dominated by farming, the main crop of which was black olives, with a few agricultural processing factories: villagers mainly relied on income from agriculture and working outside of the village. Since the reform and opening up, Guangdong Provincial Government intended to promote the rapid development of urbanization as the key actor. The area north of Panyu District and across the river from the main city zone of Guangzhou was designated as the main area of Urban Space Expansion. The role of Guangdong Provincial Government was transformed into Guangzhou Municipal Government: Guangzhou Municipal Government dominated the spatial reconstruction process of Lirendong village through administrative requisition, which included adjustments of administrative divisions and construction of infrastructure. Guangdong Province changed Panyu District’s designation from county to city in 1992, which meant the dominant function of Panyu changed from agriculture to industry. Thus, Panyu was included in the expansion of urbanization and industrialization of Guangzhou. First, a first-class highway, Yingbin Road, connecting the urban area of Guangzhou and Panyu (Lirendong village) was built by the Guangzhou Municipal Government, which led to the construction of urban infrastructure in Panyu and improved its traffic location. During the construction of this road, the government of Panyu expropriated land and demolished houses in the village by offering either finance or housing subsidies to build the highway: this was done to re-designate agricultural land as “urban construction land,” which improved the traffic location of Lirendong village. Benefits of improved traffic location were given to labor-intensive factories. After completing the highway, by right of a location next to Guangzhou and its convenient transportation, as well as adequate and inexpensive land supply, Lirendong village attracted the industrial conglomerate. A Lide Shoe Factory and Asbestos Tile Factory, among others, were established in the village, and the development of industry brought many migrant-workers. The village committee organized villagers to develop the collective land to lease them to the factories and work personnel, and signed an agreement with Lide Shoe Factory to develop a property leasing industry. Therefore, the manufacturing industry, real estate industry, and property leasing industry of Lirendong village began to develop. The primary industry transformed to the second and third industries, and the villagers devoted themselves to these new industries. However, agriculture was marginalized during this process. Guangzhou further proposed some ideas about merging Panyu District in 1997, but the government of Panyu dissented from the municipal government, because of a concern over the loss of economic development independence. Before the (administrative) first-level financial power was recovered by the municipal government, Panyu’s government sold a large amount of construction land belonging to the villages and towns in Lirendong village to a developer at an extremely low price. The two-level government endowed interests to the real estate developers in the negotiations: Country Garden in south China and other large building organizations settled in the village, which led to Lirendong village becoming one of the main receiving areas and functional resolution zones of population outflow in the central area of Guangzhou.
In 2000, Panyu was demoted from a city to a district and became a part of Guangzhou. Lirendong village carried out the first-round village planning of Guangzhou and expanded a new district. Then the village distributed the land that available for construction among the villagers. For example, villagers with a surname of Li from Dongyuefang hamlet, which was allocated by Chaoyang New District, and each villager can receive 20 square meters of homestead. The dilation of land reserve occurred in Lirendong village.
In terms of housing, the morphology of the architecture in the village was chaotic, as the location of the houses was in disorder and the village road was narrow. The building area of each house was approximately 30 to 50 square meters, the height was one to two floors, and the house was typically a brick-wood structure. Concerning space, a great deal of agricultural land was requisitioned as non-farming construction land by the municipal government, and, due to a lack of unified planning, different types of building groups were mixed with urban and rural space and landscape. Economically, industry, such as the real estate and property leasing industry, started and developed, and as abovementioned, agriculture was marginalized. Many migrant-workers arrived, and in 1995, there more than 8000, according to an interview with the village head.
In general, the industry, population, and land that were dominated by the government experienced a period of urbanization and agricultural decentralization. During this period, the rural urbanization of Lirendong village in which collective land was used to build the city was a reflection of the land expansion and urban construction activities led by the government in the Pearl River Delta, and also a microcosm of the rapid development of regional urbanization.

4.1.2 2004-2008: Market-oriented industrialization stage

From 2004 to 2005, with further promotion of urbanization, residents had a higher demand of the urban ecological environment and life quality. Improving the city image of Guangzhou became a strategic starting point and working emphasis of government functional departments. The Guangzhou Municipal Government started to strictly enforce comprehensive regulations in industrial spaces, in which potential fire hazards and a filthy environment existed. Kangle village, in Haizhu District, downtown Guangzhou, possessed a large scale of garment workshops, which developed by relying on Zhongda International Textile City and conglomerating along the roads. During the period of comprehensive regulation of Guangzhou’s city centre, and under pressure of regulation, rent, and the environment, there was an urgent need to search for living space.
Lirendong village closed to Cloth Wholesale Market of Zhongda International Textile City, and a Slopwork Wholesale Market, Shisanhang, amongst others. For garment workshops, this village not only had convenient traffic and location, but was also linked to the source of the materials and the selling terminal; thus, Lirendong village became the new treasured land of garment workshops. Thus, when many garment workshops from Kangle village immigrated to Lirendong, there were many of the new migrants from Kangle who had established a business in this village. Garment manufacturers became a new key actor with the power to shape the space of Lirendong village. The conglomeration of garment factories endowed the advantage value of space to matching enterprises: a cotton thread factory, tape factory, clothing design factory, and other related factories connected to accessories supply and fittings successively settled in Lirendong village and the village gradually formed a large-scale garment manufacturing and processing industry cluster. These workshop-type process businesses leased the homesteads of villagers and recruited villagers into the developing actor networks by creating an agreement on renting houses. Enterprises rented the first floor of villagers’ houses as the production space of garment workshops, and utilized two or three floors as living space. These garment workshops possessed a small floor area, lower capital and technology threshold, and had the family as a work-unit, while larger garment workshops employed a small number of laborers. These informal housing markets based on villagers’ individual behavior had almost no demands for the use of leased property. This led to a large number of manufacturing enterprises being located in a single residential building built by villagers: the architectural functions of the space differed vertically and formed a multivariate vertical space layout. Accompanied by a large floating population, villagers leased their houses and many emigrated in order to seek other development opportunities.
The independent and homogeneous social spatial structure of the original communities of Lirendong village disintegrated with the change in the population structure, the promiscuous features of community were further highlighted. With the excitation of benefit maximization action, village collective organizations obtained surplus funds principally by leasing the collective land and their property due to the incomplete property right of collective land. A specialized department was established in 2007, which was responsible for attracting investment, and leased rural construction land to third party factories so as to unify management. Xianzhuang and Jinshan Industrial Park were two large village-level industrial parks that were built in the southwest of the village. The site area of Jinshan Industrial Park itself was 46,667 square meters, and the building area was 80,000 square meters: it possessed 10 industrial buildings and 10 office buildings, whereas Xianzhuang Industrial Park possessed nine industrial buildings and one office building.
Lirendong village was chiefly in the processing industry, such as the processing manufacturing industry and retail merchandise industry, which had a scale development. Driven by market economy during this period, the spontaneous and dispersed production space of family workshops developed willfully in Lirendong village. The village industrial structure was mainly concerned with garment manufacturing, small scale enterprises, low technical requirements, and a loose production connection. The same industrial firms had a relatively concentrated distribution: due to dense residential areas with inconvenient roads and relying on interstices between buildings, small-scale workshop fabric processing and accessories enterprises, raw materials and products were typically moved by hand. Industrial space and residential space depended on each other: further, there was a mixed utilization of the vertical space and a mixed use landscape of industrial, commercial, and residential land in vertical spaces. On both sides of the main road with smooth traffic in the village, there were large-scale manufacturing enterprises, which had higher requirements for road conditions, a larger scale, and stronger ability to pay the rent. The admission to the manufacturing enterprises of Lirendong village provided low threshold entrepreneurial space for migrant workers, but aggravated the order of space so that spatial heterogeneity appeared.

4.1.3 Post 2009: The informatization stage dominated by the social network of fellow villagers

In 2009, Taobao had become the largest comprehensive sales field in China, as the Internet was suited to the rural decentralization layout and made it possible for farmers to start a business. Under the opportunity of internet in May, Luo Wenbin, who is an entrepreneur in the garment industry from Shahe Slopwork Wholesale Market intended to utilize the internet technology on the basis of traditional garment industry in order to develop a new sale. Thus, he chose Lirendong village, because it was not only close to the market (Shahe Slopwork Wholesale Market), but also adjacent to the source of raw materials (Zhongda Cloth Wholesale Market), and further, possessed many garment factories. Luo Wenbin started a Taobao business in a rented house (from a villager) and several laptops. Due to mounting evidence that Taobao entrepreneurship has generated wealth and employment, his staff, friends, relatives, and fellow townsmen in Puning of Chaoshan area were mobilized into the local Taobao network. Lirendong village generates bottom-up space agglomeration of talents and industries through ripple effects formed by the social network of fellow townsmen. The entry of grass root entrepreneurs who are leaders from Chaoshan area which located in the northeast of Lirendong village and the characteristics of the social relationship network of fellow townsmen causes Taobao shops in Lirendong village to expand rapidly through fission and replication, and provide the ‘right’ dynamic for an explosion of development of e-commerce industry in the village. More than 90% of e-commerce practitioners are from the Chaoshan area: e-commerce has started to face double pressure from increasing rent and insufficient development space due to each successive influx of new businesses. Thus, some Chaoshan leaders expand to peripheral villages and so drive the integral migration of the social relationship network of townspeople, with, at the core, the e-commerce industrial space of Lirendong village spread around the village.
The flourishing development of e-commerce attracts retail businesses focusing on lifestyle services and drives the development of tertiary industries, such as catering services. With the benefit of a large number of rental demands, villagers built several houses and formed a high-density architecture landscape. The specialized space of garment manufacturing conglomeration has transformed into a multi-space of e-commerce industry conglomeration, and has led to the spatial characteristic of “front shop, back workshop” and “upper shop, lower workshop.” The main road in the village is principally the space of commercial and service industries, while internal streets and lanes contain production and supporting industries. The first floor of buildings contains the production or wholesale and property spaces of garment production and processing factories, which provides the businesses with a sufficient supply of goods: the second floor and above contains the management spaces. A single building generates a vertical spatial relationship between online stores and production plants. These Taobao shops in residential buildings have the quality of concealment in spatial distribution and fully reflect multiple randomness and flexible dispersion of e-commerce space. Driven by e-commerce, Lirendong village makes use of Internet technology and logistics networks and creates an environment where time-space is compressed. Lirendong village can thus connect to the wider production consumption market directly and conveniently with a lower cost and increase the traditional garment industry dependence on e-commerce platforms and worldwide sales by packing traditional products into a new type. This strengthens the frequent information flow, capital flow, population flow and goods flow between Lirendong village, the Guangzhou urban area, and the wider world, thus demonstrating the idea that the village is in close contact with the outside economically, while presenting decentralization in the space domain. The influx of a floating population generates Lirendong village’s diversity of regional cultures, while simultaneously disintegrating the traditional acquaintance society, thus making it increasingly more modern with respect to its social formation. The development network no longer limits Lirendong village and commerce to regional boundaries.

4.2 Land use transformation process in Lirendong village

Since 1992, the space form and land use structure of Lirendong village experienced a rapid transformation process (Figure 4), and the land use structure dramatically changed. The reduction of cultivated land was 284.85 ha and the waters decreased from 40.08 ha to 5.56 ha. Conversely, the area of countryside homestead, urban residential land, industrial land, commercial land, and transportation land had a substantial increase (Table 1). Before 1992, during the stage of traditional agriculture, the land use structure of Lirendong village was relatively uniform, and utilized mainly for cultivated and forest land, waters, and other land, supplemented by rural residential land, urban road land, and other construction land. 80.7% of the total land area was used for agricultural and forestry, and waters, while 8.45% of the total land was used for rural construction land.
Figure 4 Land use transformation process in Lirendong village in 1991, 2006, 2010, and 2019
Table 1 Land structure information of each development stage of Lirendong village
Land use types Rural stage (1991) Agricultural decentralization stage (2006) Industrialization
stage (2010)
Internet+ stage (2019)
Proportion (%) Area
Proportion (%) Area (ha) Proportion (%) Area
Proportion (%)
Cultivated land 284.85 69.48 48.14 11.74 34.26 8.36 0.00 0.00
Forest land 5.90 1.44 63.82 15.57 57.73 14.08 66.91 16.32
Countryside homestead 34.63 8.45 66.03 16.11 61.81 15.08 59.82 14.59
Urban residential land 0.00 0.00 116.93 28.52 115.68 28.21 127.12 31.00
Industrial land 0.00 0.00 25.17 6.14 29.07 7.09 44.53 10.86
Commercial land 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 7.91 1.93 37.37 9.12
Public service land 0.00 0.00 2.29 0.56 1.95 0.47 9.95 2.43
Transportation land 20.17 4.92 38.45 9.38 49.13 11.98 53.61 13.08
Waters 40.08 9.78 1.84 0.45 0.23 0.06 5.56 1.35
Unused land 24.37 5.94 47.33 11.54 52.24 12.74 5.13 1.25
Figure 5 Transformation of social network
The stage of the decentralization of agriculture lasted from 1992 to 2006: this was when the industries of real estate and property leasing began to develop, and the type and structure of rural land use inclined towards pluralistic differentiation. Industrial and urban construction land greatly expanded so that the area of cultivated land and water was cannibalized. The residential, industrial, and transportation land in the village increased to 116.93 ha, 25.17 ha, and 18.28 ha, respectively, and the internal and external transportation networks improved. The ratio of cultivated land fell sharply from 69.48% to 11.74%, and the ratio of waters and the land of water conservancy facilities decreased from 9.78% to 0.45%.
The industrialization stage lasted from 2006 to 2010: the rise of village-level industrial parks prompted further expansion of construction land, and original agricultural land was replaced by bulk industrial land. Approximately 7.09% of the total land within a village was industrial land and was mainly located in the southwest of Lirendong village. Excluding the southwest, village land was relatively continuous industrial land, and other types were located very close to the residential land. Additionally, the commercial land, which had a development pace that mirrored that of industrial land, increased to 7.91 ha. The industrial production space was scattered on both sides of the road, while the residential space was distributed inside the roads of village; the agricultural space spread to peripheral areas like a planar, each embedded into the internal area of the village.
The Internet+ stage began in 2010. Cultivated land became more and more scarce: the development dynamics of unused land increased and the ratio to total land area decreased from 12.74% to 1.25%. Urban residential land, industrial land, and public service land all increased; however, the growth rate of commercial land was the greatest and amounted to 7.19%. Overall, the government expanded the urban construction land of the village by levying land, which improved the relative location of Lirendong village and attracted multiple actors. The industrial space of the village continuously reformed and developed, forcing rural construction land to spread to the peripheral areas. Cultivated land, waters, and unused land were developed in large areas, and the original space patterns and environment of the natural village gradually disappeared. The density and height of the buildings increased and infrastructure and service facilities improved so that it formed diversified urban and rural mixed land use patterns.

4.3 Evolution process of social relations in Lirendong village

During the stage of decentralization of agriculture, the entry of external tenants and the nonagricultural evolution of villagers’ vocations in Lirendong village caused the local acquaintance network to disintegrate. The relationships among villagers were still relatively close by virtue of clan relations, and formed a social relationship network with fellow townspeople as the main body. During the industrialization stage, the entry of people from Chaoshan caused the structure of the village to become a semi-acquaintance society, which was constituted of local villagers and those from Chaoshan as two core subjects. At the stage of Internet+, the development of e-commerce creates a large employed external population; In the meantime, the employment tendency of local people is non-Lirendong area. In the result, the traditional and homogeneous acquaintance society had transformed into a heterogeneous stranger society: the relation among external staff, local villagers, and external tenants becomes relatively weak and exists a structural hole. The flow of information depends on a middleman. Furthermore, some villagers choose to live in the city and stay away from the living environment of Lirendong village due to adequate capital accumulation. Hence, social relationships transform from being dominated by consanguinity and regional relationships to being dominated by industry connections: that is, a stranger society supplemented by consanguinity and regional relationships. The reconstruction of social rural space demonstrated a transformation from a homogeneous society into a heterogeneous society.

5 Discussion

The relation orientation of the actor-network is effective as a theoretical basis aid in the understanding of the cross regional practice of rural space during the process of urban-rural integration. The appearance of Taobao villages is not a historical event, but various development possibilities are formed under the relationship power interaction of the network, as actors develop and utilize their own knowledge, are autonomous, and develop practices based on these abilities.
In Chinese society, the power of government, market, and society are the principal dynamics of rural spatial reconstruction, and play an important role in promoting the intensive rural economy and efficient utilization of land (Li et al., 2014). Social networks are always regarded as a positive dynamic of rural development and potentiality expanded outside of the community (Meador, 2019): it plays a key role in the restructuring direction of rural settlements and population migration (Hiwatari, 2016; Kong et al., 2019).
Figure 6 Spatial reconstruction mechanism in Taobao village
Rural reconstruction is closely related to national macroscopic targets and systems in the same period. Based on macroscopic targets from governments at all levels, governmental powers regulated the direction of the development of rural land use pattern through national systems or policies. In terms of political logic, there exists a power relation wherein the junior must obey the senior unconditionally; the two levels of government coordinate with each other mutually. The will of the senior is always transformed into the role of the junior level, and executed by the latter. Sometimes there will be a potential interest negotiations process between the senior-junior government because of bifurcations of tax revenue or political target. The urbanization process of Lirendong village demonstrates the dominant role of provincial and municipal governments, while the local government also attempts to strive for financial control of their own treasury. Government power influences the direction of the development of land use and the development of the rural land leasing market (Zhang et al., 2019).
Non-agricultural employment and income of peasant households are more likely to be influenced by local policy initiatives (Alasia et al., 2009). As the enrollment and mobilization of government power, villagers, village committees, enterprises, and other social or market subjects change with the change of its adjustment, search for development space and achieve benefit maximization of their own (Yang et al., 2018). In terms of market power, social enterprises superpose urban capital and cheap rural land resources, and dominate the development process of rural land. Enterprises seek advantages in competition by using multiple strategies and make good use of supply networks in order to reduce the cost. In term of market logic, cost is the main determinant to succeed in the market. The industry seeks and develops new areas for a lower cost, especially land cost, although the risk of failure may be higher. Thus, an area is often chosen that has previously had a production history; people drive local infrastructure investments through strategic investments, prompting regional accumulation and spatial reconstruction. This kind of strategic investments in turn can reduce risk and generate economic opportunities. If there is a prospective intervention from local intermediary organizations, such as the management organization of industrial parks, enterprises put market strategies into motion, such as the centralized trend strategy. Enterprises form advantages of scale economy in suburban areas with beneficial geographical locations and present the strategy of centralized trends with the result that a large number of industrial landscapes are produced in rural areas, such as service buildings and expressways, and gradually form a town for non-agricultural employees to live and work (Overton and Murray, 2011).
In term of social power, social capital is an asset with high value and is a cornerstone of rural communities (Tiwari et al., 2019): the social network is an important part of rural new endogenous development (Meador, 2019). A social network carries important information, and can transfer useful social capital from urban to rural areas, which then promotes rural development and becomes a channel for human and social capital to enter rural areas (Meador, 2019). Social enterprises are key participants of social networks. In terms of elitism logic, rural social enterprises have an ability to link rural society and external networks, and have been proven to be an important innovator (Richter, 2019). Rural social enterprises are motivated by their spiritual-religious beliefs, guilt, compassion, etc. to improve rural reconstruction (Sandeep and Ravishankar, 2015). Rural social enterprises that participate in populations and networks with a higher spatial scale can grasp new ideas, causing the acquired knowledge to be contextualized anew and increase resources. Similarly, because of taking root in rural areas over many years, rural social enterprises can recognize social demands and develop innovative solutions and seek local support. E-commerce entrepreneurs who started a business in Lirendong village showed different characteristics than those of traditional villagers, for example, more entrepreneurial spirit and creativity, young, high educational level (over senior high school), internet skills, and a different way of thinking (Zeng and Guo, 2016). These features originate in their experience of migrating between urban and rural areas: the entrepreneurs had both urban experiences and characteristics of regional culture and thus formed social and cultural capital of their own. In the e-commerce business, enterprises mainly use social networks to integrate marketing strategies and for contacting and informing customers (Hofacker and Belanche, 2016). As for local villagers, social networks can enhance their abilities of obtaining and developing knowledge and resources, which then enhances their adaptability and ability to cope with environmental change (Chaudhury et al., 2017). Consequently, networks also play an important role in constructing social society and linking and maintaining social capital (Tiwari et al., 2019).
On the one hand, Actors’ activities play a leading role in spatial reconstruction, however, behavior subjects are linked by the mechanism of benefit giving. Regions are generated and reproduced by social actors through a variety of social practices and discourses (Paasi and Metzger, 2017). First of all, the perception of spatial conditions endows each actor with practice resources and rule constraints (Zhong, 2012). As for Lirendong village, the benefit perception of subjects to space comes from systems, experience, and knowledge related to space. Based on the pursuit of existence and development, each subject, such as local government and rural collectives, utilize their capital power to maximize land values. The government perceives the value and possibility of the urbanization development of the land in the suburbs of Lirendong village. The industrial enterprises and e-commerce entrepreneurs understand the cost-benefit brought by the low land resources and advantageous location. The villagers and village collective realize the considerable potential income of leasing land under the property right system.
Secondly, the spatial practice stimulates the action power of subjects. The spatial reconstruction stimulates actors’ cognition and use of resources in their possession. For example, Lirendong village carried out the first-round village planning in 2003: they expanded into new areas and the distribution of homesteads, and the villagers collectively built new houses. The agglomeration of garment factories began to appear in Lirendong village from 2004 to 2005, and the first group of e-commerce entrepreneurs recognized an entrepreneurial opportunity in opening Taobao clothing shops.
Lastly, spatial practice brought change of social relationships (power relations). A good method to examine power relations is through studying social practices with embedded power (Frisvoll, 2012), as power relations are a type of intricate network (Foucault, 1980). The final purpose of exercising power is to obtain interests and rewards (Blau, 2017). Operation of power and access to benefits need to be executed in a certain field, therefore, space bears the link between power and interest. In China, special attention is paid to the interests and power relations of the village organization, villagers, migrants (including migrant elites), and local governments in producing and reproducing space (Lin et al., 2016; Lai et al., 2017). Each actor strengthens and maintains the social connections with other actors by supplying interest in order to consolidate network relationship. The equilibrium point of interaction is the benefit equilibrium of each economic subject. Entrepreneurs in Lirendong village have social capital mobilized by local networks, industrial enterprises have market capital with commercialized operations, and government officials have discourse right and power capital of integrating social power. Concerning the rivalry of interests, each subject depends on their own capital formed in spatial practice, which limits the evolution tendency of spatial reconstruction in Lirendong village directly according to the wishes of one faction. Thus, such practice makes rural reconstruction of Lirendong village to maximize the balance of the interest lever (Hu and Bao, 2016). The process of rural reconstruction in Lirendong village demonstrates the process within which each actor subject seeks to protect and expand their own interests. The government, industrial enterprises, and e-commerce entrepreneurs are in key areas of power operation. This interest negotiations are in a complex space formed after a collision of politics, elitism, and market logic, which made for a unique evolution of characteristics in the landscape of rural reconstruction in Lirendong village.
The results of spatial reconstruction can initiate changes to dynamic mechanisms, which can be triggered and realized by reshaping space and altering the inherent value. Urban suburbs are a low-point of land value relative to downtown, which, at the same time, enjoys the externality brought by surrounding areas. Therefore, urban suburbs become the greatest vector for specialized markets to seek profit maximization, while the improvement in suburbs needs construction investment from the government. In Lirendong village, the process of urbanization dominated by the government forms relatively perfect urbanization landscapes, such as expressways, and attracts garment factories to settle in nearby urban areas and form an agglomeration. Rural collective organizations master collective land assets, however, they do not possess complete land property rights. The entrance of market developers makes rural collective organizations search for feasible ways to increase the long term value of their land. Thus, rural industrial parks and markets can efficiently be developed under the superposition of collective land rights, and form industrialization paths from below with the characteristics of the Pearl River Delta. The industrial agglomeration space under the action of the market lays a foundation for local entrepreneurship of e-commerce at the Internet+ stage. The existing physical forms provide opportunities of e-commerce growth, which has in turn reshaped them (Lin, 2019). In this process, production or resource value of rural land is replaced by consuming features and housing value (Nelson, 1986), and in their place value and diversified land attributes develop. This regional increment continuously increases, which is manifested as a continuous rise of land and rental price. The industrial upgrade from secondary industry to tertiary industry is beneficial to reduce the conversion rate of farmland (Li et al., 2014). Thus, it can be seen that the result of spatial reconstruction can attract innovative dynamic factors and trigger a change of dynamic mechanisms so that it brings a new round of spatial reconstruction (Chen et al., 2018).
As a case study, the results and conclusions of this paper are that there exists a certain uncertainty for considering representativeness and universality. This case is a type of development pattern formed in the new era, Internet+, in metropolitan suburbs of the Pearl River Delta. It has its own regional characteristics and is awaiting further comparisons and analysis of the development path and internal mechanisms of the spatial reconstruction of Taobao villages in different regions and types.

6 Conclusions

Rural reconstruction is a dynamic development network jointly constructed by different actors. In Lirendong village, a heterogeneous network of actors, including local government, real estate investors, manufacturing plants, rural committees, villagers, and Teochew merchants, and non-human actors, including land, roads, houses, social networks of fellow villagers, and the Internet, were formed in the flow space between urban and rural areas. Under the conditions of urbanization and informatization, the actors invested various kinds of capital according to their interest expectations and action logic, and then jointly evolved and constructed the phased industrial process and spatial value accumulation process of the e-commerce industry.
The formation of a Taobao village is not a one-step process. It is the result of superimposed Internet technology and business opportunities on the basis of the previous real-life economy. It is the result of the phased evolution of the internal and external environment and elements of the village. The reconstruction process of Lirendong village went through three stages: the government-led agricultural decentralization stage, the market-oriented industrialization stage, and the Internet+ stage dominated by the social network of fellow villagers. The development process has undergone evolution from the dominance of exogenous forces to the dominance of endogenous forces.
During the reconstruction process of Lirendong, the types and structures of rural land use tended to be diversified. Rural construction land and urban construction land expanded to the periphery. The density and height of buildings gradually increased and the infrastructure and service facilities constantly improved. However, the areas of arable land, water land, and unused land have sharply reduced. The spatial texture and rural environment of the traditional country are gradually disappearing, forming a diversified mixed form of urban-rural land and mixed-use landscape of industrial, commercial, and residential land in vertical space. Concurrently, the social network is changing from a single and homogeneous social network of acquaintances to a multiple network and fuses together.
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