“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”.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.