The stubborn ‘nail houses’ protesting China’s rapid urbanisation

A half-demolished house in Wenling, in eastern China's Zhejiang province. Image: Getty.

A single house balancing precariously in the middle of a construction site may seem like a doomed and fragile structure. But in China, these residences have become a potent symbol of resistance. Known as “dingzihu” in Chinese – which can be translated as “nail house” or “nail household” – buildings like this represent those who, like stubborn nails, defy state-ordered evictions and demolitions by refusing to vacate their properties. The Conversation

Nail houses came to global attention in spectacular images published in the lead up to the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing. But the practice began earlier, when homeowners in China were granted inviolable rights to their privately-owned property following two important legal changes in 2004 and 2007.

Nail houses have come to possess a special meaning in a country that perceives urbanisation as a vital political, economic and ideological project. Local economies depend heavily on investment in infrastructure and buildings, and growing middle class consumption is seen as the next engine for China’s economic development. What’s more, urban citizens are considered to be more civilised, or have a higher level of “suzhi” (cultural attainment), and have better access to public services such as education, health care and housing.

Going up. Image: Ioan Sameli/Flickr/creative commons.

But building and expanding cities requires big tracts of vacant land for large-scale developments. This results in the demolition of existing homes, neighbourhoods and villages, which don’t fit the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) vision of an urban future.


Courts and compensation

Compensation for families whose homes are on the brink of demolition is always a major source of dispute. Offers are based on current valuations of properties, which is likely to be far lower than any of the residences which replace them. This means that displacement is often inevitable, leading to broken communities and psychological damage from stress and violence and compelling families to demand financial redress.

Petitions by residents face limited success in court. The heavy presence of the CPC in every sphere of social and economic life makes it extremely challenging for residents to make successful claims against the state. Court decisions are rarely made against governments, especially in areas where aspiring local governments have removed regulatory and physical barriers to development.

So instead, nail households endure power cuts, limited services and threats of forced eviction and demolition, in order to gain as much compensation from the government or developers as possible, to ensure their own survival in an increasingly unequal society. Resisting families are often stigmatised as “selfish” for trying to protect their own interests, at the expense of a greater good for their neighbours and the wider public.

Government authorities also feed this perception with posters, like this one from Guangzhou, which reads: “To protect the interest of homeowners, never surrender to nail houses.”

Rebel against the rebels! Image: Hyun Bang Shin/author provided.

Yet this kind of impasse is not inevitable. Nail households might not go to such extreme measures if they were consulted and provided with informed choices to upgrade their homes and neighbourhoods, without demolition. Families do not become nail households overnight. Nor is a nail house the outcome of some intrinsic “selfishness” on the part of the protesters.

Rather, families often endure long-term harassment and violence, and succumb to despair when they are unable to resolve disputes. Many residents start out by conducting persistent negotiations with local governments or developers, becoming “nail house embryos”. Over time, feelings harden and residents become more determined, until they are willing to take extreme actions to keep their homes.

Under pressure

Much of this can be put down to the process. When a neighbourhood is slated for redevelopment, residents face extreme pressure to move: the local government in charge would organise various bureaus – including public security, planning and propaganda offices – to work closely with neighbourhood leaders, to enforce the timely eviction of local residents. Various financial incentives, as well as direct threats and peer pressure, are designed to speed up the process of eviction.

A nail household in Tianjin, north-east China. Image: Hyun Bang Shin/author provided.

In this context, nail houses symbolise the inequality and unfairness prevalent in contemporary China. Yet a greater awareness of property rights among urban citizens may empower them so that they are no longer subject to whims of the authoritarian state and single-minded for-profit businesses. Enhanced rights consciousness would also enable them to demand for greater participation in urban planning processes that often exclude the voices of citizens.

If governments, developers and other Chinese citizens can acknowledge the plight of nail households, rather than rejecting and alienating them, it could lead to a fairer system for all. Then, no longer will nail houses stand as towering tombstones for vanished communities.

Hyun Bang Shin is associate professor in geography & urban studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.