“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”.

 
 
 
 

In search of the UK’s great “city films”: the South, East Anglia and the Midlands

Beachy Head, East Sussex. Image: Wikipedia via Creative Commons.

Earlier this year, in the first blog in this series, I looked at the best city films set in London. Here the search extends outwards – to the urban metropolites of the South, East Anglia and the Midlands. The focus is on films with some combination of local stories, connections and shooting locations.

That first blog outlines the selection method in detail. If you haven’t time to read it, the key things to know are that films must have received a total IMDb score of at least 6.5 from at least 100 votes – if a film is missing from the list it is probably because it does not meet those criteria.

South East

Described by the Guardian as “one of the finest post-war British crime movies and possibly the best depiction of the seaside town on film”, Jigsaw (1962) is about a murder investigation set in and around Brighton. The producers made the film in partnership with the local police and there is extensive footage of Brighton and its surrounds. Despite similarities with the real-life Brighton Trunk Murders of the 1930s, the plot was based on a 1959 American novel.

Brighton is again the location for Smokescreen (1964), yet this time insurance fraud is the crime. In addition to scenes at locations around the city and neighbouring Hove, the rest of the filming was at Brighton Film Studios, which operated between 1949 and 1966 and was the the last of four main film studios in the area. Its closure marked the end of an era, since as early as “1912, when Hollywood was just beginning, film companies in Brighton had already produced hundreds of comedies, dramas and documentaries”.

The Chalk Garden (1964) is based on a play of the same name by Enid Bagnold and, although not a period piece, inspired by Bagnold's own inter-war life at North End House in the village of Rottingdean that borders Brighton immediately to the east. Bagnold (a remarkable woman) lived a well-healed existence and the servants – notably the governess – figure prominently in the tale. Brighton features in the film – including a scene in Preston Park that recruited background players from the Preston Lawn Tennis Club.

The storylines of a couple of 1960s Oxford films centre on that city’s ancient university. The Mind Benders (1963) is a spy thriller involving brainwashing science, while Accident (1967) is about professorial-student relationships. Accident is based on a novel of the same title by Oxford-educated Nicholas Mosley (the eldest son of Sir Oswald). Both films have numerous shots of the university; we’re talking “The Full Morse” here.

A good deal of Quadrophenia (1979) is set either in London or between London and Brighton, but it does also feature the latter’s famous seafront and beach. The film, which is about a young working-class Mod in the mid-1960s, recreates the fights between gangs of Mods and Rockers that marred Brighton and other south-coast towns over holiday weekends during the Sixties.

Fast-forward two decades and Down Terrace (2009), a “Sopranos on Sea”-type dark comedy, is Brighton to its fingertips. It has a handful of local scenes but is more a house-based play than movie. Directed and co-written by Brighton resident Ben Wheatley, it is named after the street in which it was filmed. The other co-writer, who also has a lead role, is Rob Hill, who met Wheatley at the University of Brighton. The house in which most of the filming took place was Hill’s own home in Down Terrace and Hill’s character’s father is played by his real-life father – also a Brighton resident. Wheatley and Hill self-funded the film and did interviews with “local drug dealers and ne’er-do-wells” for the initial script. Several tracks come from local folk singers, The Copper Family. I loved it (as did the British Independent Film awards).


Emulsion (2014), a slick and clever film about a man’s search for his “missing wife”, is a Bournemouth film. Writer-director Suki Singh is a graduate of Bournemouth University’s Film School and still based locally. Despite the town council’s car park featuring heavily a good number of locations in Bournemouth and Poole are shown, including cafes, a local country house, department store, major hotel, police station, converted art deco cinema and Alum Chine suspension bridge. The film’s premiere came through a local Indie Screen scheme whereby Poole’s Lighthouse cinema guaranteed to screen good local indie films. The production company is locally based and, in addition to film-making (e.g. Bournemouth-shot feature, K-Shop), plays a key educational and networking role in the city’s film community. Even the score was by a (London-based) Bournemouth University graduate.

20,000 Days on Earth (2014) charts 24 hours in the life of Australian- born, Brighton-based singer Nick Cave. It is a curio in that, while the person is real, the day is artificial – made up of arranged but unscripted encounters with famous faces from 20,000 days-old Cave’s life. Many of the encounters take place in a car as Cave drives around the city, mostly away from the town centre and seafront. The film has been called “a great Brighton film, giving a neon noir sheen to Cave’s adopted hometown” and “as much of a love letter to the seaside city as it is to the man that inhabits it”. So, let’s include it.

South West

The film world owes a debt to the city of Bristol in that it gave the world one Archibald Alec Leach – better known by his screen name: Cary Grant. The Bristolian usually vies with the likes of Brando and Bogart for the mantle of greatest male lead in movie history. His upbringing in (and later ties with) Bristol is well captured in last year’s excellent documentary, Becoming Cary Grant.

Grant has long held a fascination for playwright Peter Nichols who, like the film star, grew up in north Bristol. Nichols converted one of his early plays into a challenging and amusing film of the same name, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1972). Nichols was rooted in the city, having been born there, educated at Bristol Grammar School, studied acting at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and had his first play staged at the Little Theatre (now part of Colston Hall). The play/film, based on Nichols' own experiences, is about how the burden of raising a very handicapped child can damage a marriage. The male lead is a teacher – just as Nichols had been. Funds to write the play came when legendary director-to-be John Boorman, then working at BBC Bristol, persuaded Nichols to write a screenplay for him – one that went on to make money. There are at least a handful of external shots filmed in the city although it remains more play than movie and you only hear a Bristol accent once – a funny department store scene.

Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990), which was also shot in London, and Paper Mask (1990) both show Bristol locations albeit without any great local rootedness. Starter for 10 (2006) is about student life and a University Challenge quiz team at the University of Bristol yet, despite a few good Bristol shots, most of the university scenes were filmed at UCL and the University of Greenwich.

East Anglia

Ipswich has The Angry Silence (1960), a film about strike-breaking and, seen more broadly, an individual opposing a group. It was shot mainly in and around a big local factory (operational as recently as 2005), neighbouring streets and a local primary school. Extras comprised of both local amateurs and many factory staff, one of whom lent their battered (ie realistic) overalls to one of the film’s stars. The lead actor, Richard Attenborough, even visited the factory beforehand to learn to use the machine he worked on in the film, and later hosted a private showing for local extras at the old Ritz Cinema in the Buttermarket. The film still holds up almost sixty years on, yet not everyone took civic pride in it – Ipswich Trades Council voted to boycott it. 

Following a successful online campaign named “Anglia Square not Leicester Square”, the world premiere of Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013) was held in Norwich’s Hollywood Cinema, with Steve Coogan appearing in character as North Norfolk Digital radio station’s own Alan Partridge. Coogan/Partridge greeted fans before being helicoptered to the London premier in Leicester Square! The film has some good shots of Norwich, although many scenes were also filmed on the Norfolk coast, at Sheringham and Cromer beaches, and around London.


Originally created as the master’s project of Norwich-born, -raised and -based director, Kris Smith, who was at the time studying film at Norwich University College of the Arts, I’m Still Here (2013) focuses on a young guy diagnosed with a terminal illness and draws on Smith’s own experience of a loved one in this situation. Smith, who both wrote and directed the film, worked with three locally based actor-filmmakers, and the soundtrack includes local band National Image and locally-based rap artist C.O.L.L. The main shots of the city are at the beginning – including a trip to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital (yet when a neighbour later drops him at “the hospital” the entrance shown is St George's in south London’s Tooting!). The premier took place at The Curve Auditorium, in Norwich’s Forum complex.

The short story that inspired the multi-award winning 45 Years (2015), which tells the tale of a retired couple, may have been set in north Wales, but the resultant film was indeed set in Norfolk. It includes a handful of scenes featuring popular Norwich locations and the nearby Norfolk Broads receive a nice profile too. The director, Andrew Haigh, has revealed that a lot of the scenes in Norwich featured genuine passers-by – lead actress Charlotte Rampling “would walk around the city and nobody even looked at her. We had the camera hidden in a van to film some of the scenes, so people wouldn’t see us”. Haigh knew the city well as he was living there at the time of filming while his partner was doing an MA in creative writing at University of East Anglia.

Blinded by the Light, at a cinema near you from 2019, is Gurinder Chadha’s film about the true story of a Bruce Springsteen-mad British Muslim growing up in Luton during the 1980s. The film is based on journalist Sarfraz Manzoor’s 2007 memoir, Greetings from Bury Park. Exact shooting locations are unclear although Manzoor, who is a co-producer and co-wrote the script, has said that “there have been moments on set when I could not stop smiling at the sight of a feature film crew in the middle of Luton”.

East Midlands

Nottingham is the focus of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), of which the screenplay, about a womanising hard-drinking young factory worker, was adapted by Alan Sillitoe, who was born and raised in the city, from his novel of the same name. The film’s anti-hero works in Raleigh bicycle factory – as Sillitoe himself had when it had been a wartime munition factory. The author’s family home was a main location for the film and his brother had a bit part. Numerous other city locations appear – from the castle to cinemas and pubs (including The White Horse – the setting for the short story that later became the novel). Although the closing scene was shot overlooking a Wembley housebuilding site, a Nottingham firm supplied one of its signs to bring “authenticity”. Not all locals welcomed the film: the then-Tory MP for Nottingham Central denounced it as a “foul libel on the respectful, clean living people of Nottingham”. The work was however deemed the 14th greatest British film in a 1999 BFI survey.

Shane Meadows, who moved to Nottingham from the eastern-most part of the West Midlands when he was 20, has shot several good films in and around his adopted home city. His first feature, TwentyFourSeven (1997), about a youth boxing club, was filmed in Nottingham suburbs and exurbs. A Room for Romeo Brass (1999), about two 12-year-old friends, was shot in Calverton – just outside the city. The relationship between the two boys is semi-autobiographical and based on the childhood relationship between Meadows and co-writer Paul Fraser. Much of Meadows’s This is England (2006), about skinhead youth in the early 1980s, was shot in residential areas of Nottingham. Meadows has used professional actors but has also drawn on local talent – notably from the Television Workshop in Nottingham – for key roles. The Workshop, now a charity, was originally set up by Central Independent Television in 1983 to act as a casting pool for young talent in their Midlands broadcasting region.

Leicester gets a look in with The Girl with Brains in Her Feet (1997), a coming-of-age tale, set in 1972, about a talented, mixed-race 13-year-old athlete at a school on the outskirts of Leicester. The screenplay was written by the late Jo Hodges who, back in 1972, had been a sporty, mixed-race 13-year-old at a school on the outskirts of …. you guessed it, Leicester.

Although it didn’t include lots of Northampton scenes, Kinky Boots (2005) is based on the true story of one of the area’s shoe-making companies managing to stave off closure through switching to producing women’s boots that were large and strong enough for drag queens and male fetish footwear lovers. The company was based a few miles outside Northampton although most of the internal factory scenes were shot at the Tricker’s shoe factory in Northampton itself.

The Unloved (2009) gives a child's eye view of the UK’s government-run care system for orphans and children in danger. Filmed entirely in Nottingham, it offers a handful of shots of the city and is a semi-autobiographical account of the upbringing of the film’s director, Nottingham-born-and-raised Samantha Morton (who has twice been nominated for acting Oscars). The film also gave leading roles to two actresses – Lauren Socha and Molly Windsor – who had attended the Television Workshop.

Oranges and Sunshine (2011) depicts the true story of Margaret Humphreys, a social worker from Nottingham who, in the 1980s, uncovered the horrifying and thankfully discontinued practice of Home Children; the forcible relocation, by misguided charities, of children in care from the United Kingdom to Australia and other parts of the Commonwealth. Humphreys reunited some of the children involved – now adults living mostly in Australia – with their parents in Britain and was awarded a CBE in 2011 for her work. Several Nottingham locations were used in the film although shooting also took place in Australia. The two main young actresses were Television Workshop alumni.

Nottingham was also the location for the Weekend (2011), which was named in 2016 by a BFI survey as the second best LGBT film of all time (Carol took first place, since you ask). The plot centres upon a casual encounter that shows signs of developing. The only real connection to the area, aside from locations including the Goose Fair, is that funding came from EM Media and the region’s now-closed development agency (EMDA).

Given that we are including villages just a mile or so outside Nottingham, A Boy Called Dad (2009), about a teenage father, also merits inclusion. An East Midlands production company raised the £1m needed to start shooting – obtaining funds from the former Regional Screen Agency, EM Media. North Wales and Merseyside locations also feature however.

West Midlands

Nativity! (2009), a film about a nativity play competition, is the stand-out Coventry (and West Midlands) film. Spon Street, various city landmarks and, in particular, the bombed-out St. Michael’s Cathedral can be seen in the film, which was written, directed and produced by Coventry-based Debbie Isitt, herself a product of a two-year Coventry Performing Arts Service course, and premiered at the city’s SkyDome Arena. The multi-talented Isitt even does the music along with her long-term partner Nicky Ager. Nativity! drew on Isitt’s memories of her primary school in Birmingham, which resurfaced when her own daughter (who appears in the film) reached the same age. The other children in the film, almost none of whom had agents, were recruited from schools around Birmingham and Coventry. In 2008, BBC Coventry and Warwickshire followed the filming and, to complete the local angle, Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre even played a part in production. It’s an enjoyable feel-good Christmas film suitable for all ages.

The absence of a film from Birmingham is the elephant (not) in the room; the world is surely due a great Brum film? That said, there have certainly been good films from the city and these are outlined in the spreadsheet referred to below.

Scoring

Overall the films from the South, East Anglia and the Midlands offer some additional perspectives on England to those in the films featured last blog. Through watching them we see a nation with vibrant seaside towns, attractive provincial cities, ancient and redbrick universities, factories, and the post-industrial landscape left behind when these closed.

Anyway, once again I have used my “highly scientific” method to score those films. The full list of scores, complete with further details on all films, is available here. The top-scorers, for each region, are:

  • East – I’m Still Here (Norwich): 10.5 points
  • East Midlands – This is England and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (both Nottingham): 9 points each
  • South East – Down Terrace (Brighton): 12 points
  • South West - A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (Bristol): 7 points
  • West Midlands – Nativity! (Coventry) 11.5 points

The next installment will look at the best city films from the three regions that make up the North of England.

The author, a Brit based in Washington DC, is founder of The New Barn-Raising a project to promote international exchange on ways to sustain parks, libraries, museums and other community and civic assets. You can find him on Twitter at @newbarnraising.