Panhandling and the contestation of public space in Guangzhou

Flock, R.

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Flock, R. (2014). Panhandling and the contestation of public space in Guangzhou. China Perspectives, 98(2), 37–44.

begging , China , city , contestation , Guangzhou , marginalisation , panhandling , public order , public space

Urban public space is a product of contestations by various actors. This paper focuses on the conflict between local level government and beggars to address the questions: How and why do government actors refuse or allow beggars access to public space? How and why do beggars appropriate public space to receive alms and adapt their strategies? How does this contestation contribute to the trends of urban public space in today's China? Taking the Southern metropolis of Guangzhou as a case study, I argue that beggars contest expulsion from public space through begging performances. Rising barriers of public space require higher investment in these performances, taking even more resources from the panhandling poor. The trends of public order are not unidirectional, however. Beggars navigate between several contextual borders composed by China's religious renaissance; the discourse on deserving, undeserving, and dangerous beggars; and the moral legitimacy of the government versus the imagination of a successful, "modern," and "civilised" city. This conflict shows the everyday production of "spaces of representation" by government actors on the micro level where economic incentives merge with aspirations for political prestige.

Main finding
The author finds that most beggars are poor rural migrants who emigrated from remote areas of China due to lack of economic opportunity. They utilize public spaces in the city to panhandle, often sharing their story through signs and pictures or performing songs to convince passersby that they are deserving of charity. Recent discourse among state actors has claimed that "professional" beggars have come to dominate the share of poor residents. However, because helping the poor is seen as a moral imperative, the local police still struggle with removing beggars from public space, often limiting their efforts to popular areas or in the event of large international events.

Description of method used in the article
The author visited four districts of Guangzhou, conducting non-participant observations and semi-structured interviews with 22 beggars and 13 passersby. They also analyzed reports, regulations, newspapers, and academic publications.

Of some practical use if combined with other research

Organising categories

Other or N/A
Archival / Historical Field Observations Interviews
Physical types
Geographic locations