“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”.

 
 
 
 

How US planners experimented with “the iron hand of power” over colonial Manila

Manila in ruins, 1945. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1904, Manila must have appeared to its new overlords a despairing prospect. Racked with poverty and disease, it was still recovering from years of war, epidemic and a fire that had left 8,000 homeless.

For architect Daniel Burnham, it was an opportunity to put to work the radical ideas he had dreamed of in America.

He was among those asking how America’s unprecedented wealth at the turn of the century could be reconciled with the lives of the country’s poorest. Like many, he admired the ideas of harmonised city-planning articulated in Edward Bellamy’s bestselling science-fiction Looking Backward (1888).

At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Burnham constructed the “White City”. Built across 686 acres of parkland, boulevards, gardens and neoclassical structures rendered a spray-painted plaster vision of the future – all laid out to one comprehensive plan.

It was impressive – but implementing grand designs where people actually lived meant laborious negotiations with citizens, businessmen and politicians.

Instead, opportunity lay in America’s new overseas territories. As Daniel Immerwahr describes in How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States, “They functioned as laboratories, spaces for bold experimentation where ideas could be tried with practically no resistance, oversight, or consequences.”

An architect’s dream

The US had gone to war with Spain in 1898, taking advantage of an empire-wide insurrection. It ended up controlling the entire Philippines, along with Guam and Puerto Rico.

As a “territory”, the Philippines existed outside the protections of the constitution. Congress could impose any law, proclaimed the attorney general in 1901, “without asking the consent of the inhabitants, even against their consent and against their protest, as it has frequently done.”

Which is how Burnham, upon invitation by the Philippine’s new rulers, came to wield what the Architectural Record called “the iron hand of power” over Manila.

 Burnham’s plan for Manila. Click to expand.

Where Burnham’s Chicago plan was complex, took years and entailed collaboration with hundreds of citizens, Burnham spent six months on the Manila plan, and just six weeks in the Philippines. And with no voters to persuade, there seemed little reason to register Filipino input in his designs.

In 1905 Burnham submitted his Report on Improvement of Manila. It described filling the toxic moat of the Spanish fortress Intramuros and developing a rectangular street system modelled on Washington D.C., with diagonal arteries which even Chicago lacked.


Central to his plan was the city’s beautification through monumental buildings, waterfront improvements, and parks – “wholesome resorts” to “give proper means of recreation to every quarter of the city”

Burnham charged William E. Parsons as the omnipotent “Consultant Architect” to interpret his plan, who relished its authority over all public building as an “architect’s dream”. When concerned with the extent of his purview, he also chose to standardise a number of public buildings.

“I doubt if this method would bear fruit in our own city improvement plans, in which everything depends on slow moving legislative bodies,” reported the Architectural Record’s correspondent.

Despite Burnham’s colonial sentiments his biographer concluded his plan was “remarkable in its simplicity and its cognizance of Philippine conditions and traditions.”

His plans did not shy from asserting the colonial government’s authority, however. The Luneta, a favourite park, was to become the nuclei of government. The city’s avenues would converge there, for “every section of the Capitol City should look with deference toward the symbol of the Nation’s power.”

Unusual monumental possibilities

Burnham also worked on a summer palace for US administrators at Baguio, 150 miles north in the mountains. On land inhabited by Igorot people, Burnham saw an opening “to formulate my plans untrammelled by any but natural conditions”.

Baguio’s “unusual monumental possibilities” were facilitated by a road whose construction employed thousands, risking death from disease and falling off cliffs. Civic buildings would “dominate everything in sight” and a golf course would rival those of Scotland.

“Stingy towards the people and lavish towards itself,” griped La Vanguardia, the government “has no scruples nor remorse about wasting money which is not its own.”

As enthusiasm for US empire soured in the States, local power was relinquished to Filipinos. Parsons resigned in protest in 1914. He was replaced by Manila-born Juan Arellano, whose rebuke to imperialists was the mighty, neoclassical Legislative Building which hosted the elected Philippine Legislature. Arellano upheld Burnham’s plan, producing a beautified city bearing resemblance to Burnham’s White City.

But the Legislative Building, along with Burnham’s great edifices and almost everything else in Manila, was levelled as US troops recaptured it in 1945, this time ousting the Japanese in a brutal battle. “Block after bloody block was slowly mashed into an unrecognizable pulp”, recorded the 37th Infantry Division as they exercised their own “iron hand” over Manila.

American artillery had transformed Manila into ruins. “It was by far the most destructive event ever to take place on US soil,” writes Immerwahr, even if few soldiers realised they were liberating US nationals at the time. Burnham’s expansive vision was lost in the debris, and though some buildings were rebuilt a majority were replaced. Today, Manila’s pre-war architecture is remembered with fondness and nostalgia.