“My family has lived here for generations. We don’t want our house destroyed”: on China's mass evictions

A man raises a flag at a Shanghai demolition site. Image: Wade Shepard.

A single house stood alone like an isolated island of Old China amid a flowing sea of rubble. The surrounding community of traditional style, single story brick houses had already been demolished, effectively erased from the slate of modern China. Now there was but one reminder that this historic neighbourhood ever existed at all, and that was the house I was standing in.

Red banners with bright yellow slogans saying “We are common people, we are not officials” and “A violation of the law” were draped over the tiled walls of the three story, rural-style villa. “Where is the justice?” was spray-painted in bright red on the outside of the century old courtyard’s grey brick wall.

This house, which sat just across the street from a new Wanda Plaza shopping mall in the small city of Taizhou, in China’s Jiangsu province, was on the chopping block of progress, and was set to be demolished – just as soon as the people living inside could be rooted out. 

As the final “nail house” refusing eviction, the Zhang family went about their days in the middle of a construction zone. Backhoes and bulldozers were already at work, moving fluidly around the house as if it were a three-storey tall boulder lying in a river of dirt.


The family was holed up within, as though the ceramic tiled house was a fort of brick and stone. They claimed that they had not left in months, out of fear the demolition squad would move in and knock the place down in their absence. Security agents for the construction company were posted like sentries outside the home; Mrs. Zhang said that they were watching it day and night.

“My family has lived here for generations. We don’t want the money, we don’t want our house destroyed, we just want to live here,” Mrs. Zhang declared.

The family had lived in Taizhou for 300 years; for the past century of that time, they’d lived in the property they were currently being booted out of. They asserted that this wasn’t a matter of money (refusing to move off of expropriated property is a common tactic to get a higher pay-off from the government in China). Nonetheless, they said, the government’s offer of RMB2.2 million ($345,000) for their 800-square-meter home in the city centre was too low even if it was.

The Zhang family house in Taizhou. Image: Wade Shepard.

The Dalian Wanda Group, which is headed by Wang Jianlin, the richest man in China, has other plans for Mrs. Zhang’s house: to smash it to pieces, clear it away, and then build another thicket of luxury high-rise apartments to complement the ones he already has across the street.

While the Zhangs and some other members of the former community protested the forced eviction, the tolerance of the developers and the local government soon wore thin. One night the eviction squad was called in. A witness described the scene: “It was around three in the morning. They closed off the street and a hundred police in riot gear charged in. The family was on the roof yelling things through a blow horn. They said they didn’t want to leave. I heard windows breaking.”

The Zhang family are just one of the 64m families who’ve had their homes requisitioned and demolished to make way for development since the beginning of China’s economic boom period.


Before we can talk about eviction and demolition in China we must first understand Chinese property law. It’s simple, really: all land belongs to the government.

There was no semblance of private property in China from 1949, when the Communist Party took over, until 1978, when major economic upheavals began being implemented. During this time, rural land was owned by the collectives; urban property was owned outright by the state.

As housing reforms began happening throughout the 1980s and 1990s, what amounted to a form of leasing was initiated. The government would still own all of the land, but usage rights could be purchased by individuals and companies for specified periods of time. Eventually, residential property could be leased for 70 years, commercial property for 50, and industrial land for 40. Meanwhile, peasants would be given access to their plots of rural land for extendable 30-year blocks of time.

So while people in China technically own their homes they do not own the land they sit on – which is one of the main reasons why they can so easily be moved out in the name of eminent domain.

A neighbourhood in Taizhou, Shanghai, midway through its demolition. Image: Wade Shepard.

Roughly 2,000km2 of land across China is being taken back by the government each year. According to Tianjin University, China lost 1.1m villages between 2000 and 2010; research firm GK Dragonomics has estimated that 16 percent of the country’s housing stock was demolished between 2005 and 2010. 

This means that whoever lives on this expropriated land needs to be moved elsewhere. According to a joint survey between Landesa Rural Development Institute, Renmin University, and Michigan State University, upwards of 4m rural Chinese are being forcibly relocated annually, and roughly 16 percent of the total population had their homes demolished and/or land requisitioned by the government since 1978.


“Chinese cities and planning do not function like their Western counterparts,” explains Michael Meyer, author of The Last Days of Old Beijing and In Manchuria. “Financing is completely different, as is the tie between an official and his or her constituents. There is little, if any, transparency in China.

“So you have these mysterious, anonymous, forces telling you to leave your home – which, in many cases, was not yours to begin with, but managed by the housing bureau and now ‘bought’ by a developer, who is paying you a fraction of the location's value, ordering you to move.”

This is all in the face of the fact that compulsory eviction and property expropriation without proper cause and compensation is technically illegal in China, a country that signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. By the auspices of this charter, “all persons should possess a degree of security of tenure which guarantees legal protection against forced eviction, harassment and other threats.”

The Chinese constitution and property law attest that property expropriation can only be permitted for initiatives that support the “public interest” – although what public interest means is tactfully left undefined. And those who are relocated are supposed to be provided with property of equal or greater value to that which was taken from them – or a cash payout that reflects the property’s value.

In practice, there is no singular narrative as to what constitutes the fortunes of China’s evicted masses. “A common refrain in Beijing is ‘Pa chai, pan chai’ – fear demolition, hope for demolition,” Michael Meyer explains. “For elderly residents rooted in their communities, relocation is, naturally, disruptive and often traumatic. For younger residents, including people wanting to start a family, relocation is a lifeline to a new apartment they otherwise couldn't afford, even if it is in the far suburbs.”

Sometimes, when the government develops a new area, seizing property becomes a get-rich quick, moving-on-up scheme for the people giving up their homes, and they are compensated fairly and adequately. Very often, the rural villages that lie within the path of development have already descended into ruins of their own accord before a sledge hammer strikes a single brick; many of them are more or less geriatric ghettos that the young and able have long abandoned in pursuit of better opportunities elsewhere.

“In the cases where I did research it seemed that most home owners where happy [about being relocated], and even looked forward to it,” says Harry den Hartog, the author of Shanghai New Towns. “Their old houses where not often good quality, small, and usually without a private kitchen and bathroom. In the new situations the building quality is, for the moment, better and much more spacious.”

A house in Hongqiao resists demolition. Image: Wade Shepard.

But sometimes, the government developing a new area and seizing property amounts to a financial and personal travesty for the people being given the boot: they are not properly compensated, often being given substandard housing in an out of the way location, or a payout that’s vastly less than their property’s true value.


When the government took the Qin’s two story villa in Taizhou, Jiangsu, they inflicted a wound on the family that has not yet healed. “We felt terrible,” Amy Qin recollected. “I lost my home, together with the memories of so many years and all the bonds we had with my house. I had been living there since I was born.”

For their home in the city centre the Qins were given a payout that was far too low to purchase a similar home, and a resettlement apartment in a rural area that so remote that the family could neither use nor sell it. “Life has changed,” Amy said. “I lost my comfortable home and had to start a new life. I have a monthly payment on a mortgage now, and I am short of money and not as happy as before.”

All the same, Qin family fared better than many others — at least they received something for their home. According to the study by Landesa, Renmin University and Michigan State University, 20 percent of the multitudes whose property is expropriated in China are not given any compensation at all. That leaves upwards of 13m families without a home, land, or the means to start anew.

When entire communities, many of which had been intact for centuries, are broken apart and dispersed — often being sent to live in hi-rises in newly developed areas outside of established cities – the social impact is immeasurable. One way of life is succinctly put to an end while another is begun.

“The result, naturally, is a fracturing of the dense community and social fabric woven there over the decades,” Michael Meyer explains. “Will a new community spring up in the new suburbs? Eventually, yes, but of a different nature than [Beijing’s old] single-story, narrow lanes of mixed commercial and residential use.”

The Zhang house didn't make it. Image: Wade Shepard.

“The main impact is the change of lifestyle in the new neighbourhoods, although there will still be some continuation of some traditions in the new ones,” says Harry den Hartog. “In the new communities, which are usually in high-rises, life is quite different, especially the street life. There is less of a need for interaction with neighbours since everyone has more square meters of indoor living space as well as their own bath and kitchen.

“So, life becomes more individualistic, and there is less contact with others.”

The physical re-facing of China is cutting some very deep social scars. Abuse of power, corruption, developers in cahoots with government officials, and the misappropriation of funds are rife throughout the eviction and relocation process, littering the country with the seeds of discontent. According to official figures, 80 percent of the 20,000 formal grievances filed with the various levels of China’s government each day – and 65 percent of the 180,000 mass social disruptions which occur across the country each year – are due to issues relating to property seizure.

“A long time ago we used to fear the Japanese,” an octogenarian resident of Taizhou who lived through the dreaded occupation, one of the darkest periods in China’s long history, tells me. “Now we fear our houses being destroyed.”

Wade Shepard is the author of “Ghost Cities of China”.

 
 
 
 

Ducks and the City: how birds thrive in urban spaces

A mandarin duck, possibly a distant relative of New York’s Hot Duck. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

New York may be well known one of the most diverse, cosmopolitan places on Earth, but the arrival of one East Asian migrant in October 2018 still managed to surprise and delight the city. One lonely male mandarin duck – a gorgeous rust-red duck streaked with white and blue, native to Japan, Korea and East China – somehow found its way to Central Park and settled down on one of the ponds among the mallards and wood ducks to become the media sensation “Hot Duck”. Although not strictly wild in the birdspotting sense as it likely escaped from someone’s collection, the duck lives as free as, well, a bird among the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

A few months later, the mandarin’s native territory was graced by a rare visitor of its own when a European robin ended up in the heart of Beijing. Having shown up just when Britain was falling deeper into political crisis, Chinese birdspotters nicknamed it “Brexit refugee” and raced in from across the country to see what Brits would probably consider an incredibly ordinary bird.

A rash of unusual birds have hit the headlines after landing in cities lately – other recent examples include Melbourne’s “Goth Duck” (a tufted duck, a mainly northern European species never before seen in Australia) and the eagle owl that divebombed bald men in Exeter – but when they do, it’s always their rarity that makes them newsworthy, along with the incongruity of seeing a beautiful wild animal among concrete and litter. Normally cities aren’t home to anything more interesting than a dirty pigeon or a bloodthirsty seagull.

Right?

Moving in

Popular myth says London’s first ring-necked parakeets were released in Carnaby Street by Jimi Hendrix. It’s probably not true, but it’s one hell of a story. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and nor was any other city. Thousands of years ago, wild birds discovered new opportunities on the edges of the first villages. Today the house sparrow is ubiquitous in just about every urban area in the world, but before the first house was built it lived in the dry grasslands of the Middle East, picking seeds out of the sandy soil. Then humans came along and started farming wheat; and whenever a grain fell from a mill or blew from a market stand, a sparrow was there to pick it up. As the technology of farming spread around the world, sparrows came along, too.

Other birds didn’t come by choice but were dragged in by humans. Thousands of rock doves, plump grey-striped birds that nest on cliffs, were caged up and brought into the new cities for their eggs, meat and uncanny ability to find their way home. Naturally, a few of these escaped, but quickly discovered that the walls of buildings were just as good for nesting as natural cliffs. The familiar pigeon was born.

More recently, many species of ducks and geese found a home in cities for the same reason, as have pets-gone-wild like the Indian ring-necked parakeets that brighten up London’s parks and the Javan mynas that chatter in Singapore’s streets.

Bohemian waxwings mainly live in the forests of Scandinavia, but in cold winters they will fly across the sea to British parks and gardens to feast on garden berries. No prizes for guessing where this one is. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

As cities have changed, so too have the birds that lived there. Back when most meat was butchered in shops and markets, piles of skin and bone attracted huge flocks of scavengers like ravens and red kites. Now city streets are mostly free of scrap meat thanks to bin lorries, supermarkets and industrial meat processing; both species fled into the countryside, where they found themselves persecuted by farmers and gamekeepers, the red kite almost to the point of extinction. Now both birds are making a slow comeback.

On the other hand, parks and gardens have lured new species out of the woods and into the town with their sweet berry bushes and seed-filled bird feeders. Blue tits – tiny birds that in the forest prefer to pick spiders off oak trees – adapted especially well to garden life: in the days of milk rounds, the birds learned how to peck open bottle caps and sip at the cream inside. The birds’ behaviour has recently changed again because of the rise of supermarkets and the fall of dairy delivery, and it certainly won’t be the last time.

What do city birds think of us?

Herring gulls are as happy in a Latvian bus station as they are on a windswept beach. Happier, maybe. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

If you walk in a forest you might well find yourself absolutely surrounded by bird song but unable to see where it’s coming from. Birds are shy and, unless they grew up on a desert island, they will fly away and hide at the slightest hint of a threat. They almost behave like programmed characters from a video game – they draw an imaginary circle around themselves (known as the “flight zone”) and if anyone enters that circle, they flee.

Urban birds consistently have a much smaller flight zone and will tend to let humans get much closer to them; and the longer a species has been urbanised, the more this radius shrinks. In the most extreme instance, urban birds will hop right up to someone who might feed them and even land on their hand. (In one of the best birding moments of my life, a parakeet in Hyde Park snatched a peanut from a tourist then landed right on my shoulder to eat it, staying there long enough to pose for a selfie).

If one bird invades another’s territory, things can get messy. Here, two magpies chase off a buzzard as its partner watches. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Then again, not all birds are that friendly. Many are very territorial, especially in the nesting season. Even medium-sized birds like vicious Australian magpies can cause eye injuries to people passing their nests; really big birds like swans can seriously injure people who get too close. Others, like the larger species of gulls, are just greedy and will attack people to steal their food.

Most birds aren’t quite that bold, but living close to humans has still affected their behaviour. Many species of birds are very intelligent – European magpies might be the cleverest non-mammal on the planet – and they’ve worked out how many of the systems of the city work. Pigeons can hop on-board trains for a lazier way to travel between feeding spots. Seagulls understand how to open automatic doors in order to raid branches of Greggs. Crows use passing cars to crack tough nuts, and will even wait at traffic lights to swoop in when the cars stop.

What do we make of city birds?

The robin was voted Britain’s favourite bird in a recent poll, which just goes to show what being small, cute and surprisingly aggressive can do for you. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Although we share our cities with a whole menagerie of wildlife, most of it is either shy and nocturnal, or prefers the dark, dirty places where humans rarely venture. Birds by contrast are inescapable – on any day on any city street you can expect to at least see a few pigeons flying overhead, or hear something singing from a nearby bush. For some people, this constant awareness has morphed into affection; for others, jealousy at sharing urban spaces with other species.


Even setting aside the risk of attack, birds can come into conflict with humans. Their droppings are not only unpleasant, but they can damage buildings and cause nasty lung diseases. Not every bird has a beautiful song either – a great tit squeaking away outside your bedroom window at 5am is bad enough, but spare a thought for the Australians who have kookaburras scream-laughing on their balconies. If waking you up wasn’t antisocial enough, big birds like herring gulls and Australian white ibises (better known as “bin chickens”) will rip open bin bags and fling the rubbish across your garden. The birds guilty of these indiscretions are generally classed as pests and many cities are fighting back – either by killing the birds or by taking eggs from their nests.

Herons eat fish from ponds and occasionally birds of prey will attack small pets. Urban pigeon keepers, angry after having a prize bird attacked by a sparrowhawk, occasionally try to poison or set cruel traps to kill hawks; but in general cities actually provide a safe haven for birds of prey. Scottish sparrowhawks seem to breed significantly better in cities, likely because there are so many other birds there to hunt.

In fact, many city councils are encouraging birds of prey as a natural way to control the population of pigeons and rats. Peregrine falcons – the fastest birds on the planet – are given protected nesting sites on church spires and skyscrapers and their every move is streamed on webcams. Harris hawks – native to American deserts – have been brought across the Atlantic to scare birds away from the tennis courts at Wimbledon.

Smaller, cuter birds don’t have any such image problems, and millions of Brits put bird seed in their gardens or feed the ducks at their local park. (I should add: if you do, please don’t give them bread, which lacks the vitamins birds need and causes a horrible disease called “angel wing”; seeds, vegetable peel or little bits of fruit are better.) Cities are increasingly recognised as places where you can spot interesting birds – right now, the bird tracking portal eBird lists no fewer than 289 species that have been seen in London – and the last couple of years have seen guides such as David Lindo’s How to be an Urban Birder and even scientific journals such as the Journal of Urban Ecology dedicated to the life of the town.

Save the birds

An American robin has a rest in Boston Common. American robins are in a completely different family to European robins, in case you ever wondered why the robin in Mary Poppins looked so messed up. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Although cities offer food and shelter, they also contain many threats. Glass windows are invisible death to birds flying at full speed – the exact number killed isn’t clear, but it might be as many as 30 million a year in the UK alone. Vehicles can also kill, especially in suburban areas where dense gardens meet busy streets.

Although city birds are protected from some of the predators that they would encounter in the countryside, there are still plenty of animals looking for a meaty meal – not least pet cats, which the RSPB estimates kill 55 million birds in the UK every year. 


These threats aren’t necessarily having an effect on bird populations as a whole – most birds lay more eggs than needed, and if one young bird is killed by a cat a sibling can take its place. The bigger risks come from changes to the environment itself. Pesticides, patios and over-neat lawns have reduced the number of insects crawling around, and therefore the amount of food available for birds like thrushes, starlings and sparrows.

In spite of how easy they are to observe, urban birds tend to be understudied compared to their rural cousins. The fact pigeons are so widespread means researchers often overlook them, but their ubiquity means that observing the birds can help scientists to track environmental changes and to compare cities that otherwise have little in common. Citizen science can help here – the bird tracking apps Birdtrack and eBird let anyone submit their bird sightings, and actually need more coverage of urban and suburban areas.

Thankfully, the idea of creating urban bird sanctuaries is now being taken seriously. Parks have a role to play, but many birds actually prefer the wild roughness of building sites and industrial land, where bare soil crawls with bugs and wildflowers grow gloriously high – ironically, brownfield sites can be as important to the ecosystem as pristine green belt. Perhaps the most spectacular example is the London Wetland Centre in Barnes. Just across the Thames from Hammersmith, this Victorian waterworks has been converted into marsh land and attracts huge flocks of water birds, many of which can’t be found anywhere else in London. In fact thanks to the reserve, a few birds such as the reed-dwelling bittern – which almost went extinct in the UK – are now easier to spot in London than in the countryside it.

Flying into the future

This blackbird probably doesn’t understand its rural cousins. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

In his book Darwin in the City, the biologist Menno Schilthuizen suggests that we’ve been looking at blackbirds all wrong. European blackbirds were originally forest-dwellers eating berries and bugs from the ground. For this, they needed long, probing beaks and the ability to migrate in the winter when the soil froze hard. However, a few blackbirds – possibly initially those living in the hills around Rome – made their way into cities and found plentiful supplies of food year round.

Since they no longer needed to pry into the earth or the bark of trees, their beaks started to get shorter. Because food was available year round, their migration instinct was switched off. And because they needed to compete with traffic and the other noises of city life, their songs got louder. The city dwelling birds became incompatible with their forest dwelling ancestors; the changes to their beaks meant that their songs changed too, until they were effectively speaking different languages. There is a compelling case to be made that there isn’t just one species of blackbird, but two: the forest blackbird, Turdus merula, and the city blackbird, Turdus urbanicus.

Where the blackbird has led, other birds are sure to follow. British great tits are evolving bigger beaks that help them dig around in garden bird feeders and many urban birds have started singing the dawn chorus earlier to avoid traffic and aircraft noise and to take advantage of artificial streetlighting. City-dwelling pigeons even seem to be evolving darker feathers, probably because the dark pigment captures the toxic elements pigeons accidentally ingest when they peck at paint.

Nesting in coated metal gutters like this exposes pigeons to dangerous chemicals in the paint, and this pigeon’s dark feathers are likely an evolutionary response to that threat. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Birds are no longer just accidental wanderers into cities, nor are they just greedy opportunists: they are an integral part of urban ecosystems. Not only do cities need their birds – Increasingly, birds need their cities.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets at @stejormur. Many of the birds mentioned in this article tweet in a tree near you.