In the past two decades China has systematically levelled and rebuilt a huge percentage of its housing stock. Some 129 million homes have been constructed across the country since 1995; 40 percent of all homes were built after 2000. Each year 2,000 sq km of floor space, nearly enough to cover Hong Kong twice, is being created in China. However, according to Gavekal Dragonomics, a Hong Kong-based financial research firm, this is still not enough: If China is to meet its urbanization goals it will need to have produced between 40 and 50 million more homes by 2020.
It’s not just old buildings in old cities that are meeting their end in China’s construction boom. According to the Ministry of Housing and Urban–Rural Development, almost all buildings constructed before 1999—more than half the buildings currently standing—will be demolished and rebuilt in the next twenty years. Shoddy construction is one of the main reasons for this, as buildings that were constructed between 1949 and 1999 are generally considered to be of low quality, as most were thrown up fast and cheap as housing for work units. Gavekal Dragonomics estimates that between 2005 and 2010 China demolished 16 percent of its total housing stock, totalling 1.85 billion square metres, enough to completely blanket the Comoros Islands.
Qiu Baoxing, the vice minister of the Housing and Urban–Rural Development Ministry, proclaimed that the average building in China will only last between twenty-five and thirty years before needing to be torn down. While this estimation has been contested, there are few people who assume that the apartment blocks that are going up with lightning speed today will be standing in half a century. For a sense of scale, on average houses in Britain last for 132 years and those in the USA for 74 years.
Li Dexiang of Tsinghua University told the China Daily that “what we see nowadays is the blind demolition of relatively new buildings, some of which have only been standing for less than 10 years.” Modern Chinese buildings are essentially disposable: They stand for one, two or three decades and are then requisitioned and demolished, whereupon bigger, better and more expensive buildings will go up in their place. This fits in well with the country’s broader economic structure: Houses that can last a century are not nearly as profitable as ones that can be demolished, rebuilt and sold three times over within this span of time. As 40 percent of construction land in China is created every year by the demolition of older buildings, the financial incentives for these urban upgrades is evident. Demolition, too, increases GDP. Under this strategy there is no limit on development, as once all the available construction land is used it will be high time to start tearing down what was just built to build it again. The Chinese have applied the economic stimulus of consumer culture to urbanization; these shiny new cities that are going up across the country today are like new refrigerators which are designed to break down after a few years of use so you have to go out and buy a new one—built-in obsolescence in urban planning.
What we see in many of China’s new cities right now is literally disposable. When a developer purchases a plot of land they are not permitted to sit on it, leaving it barren and unused. China has laws which require the purchasers of development land to build something—more or less anything—within a short span of time after taking possession. In new urban areas where there isn’t yet much of a population or commercial presence, developers are often hesitant to invest a large amount of money into constructing buildings that clearly won’t make a profit. Instead, they opt to build in waves. The first property they will put up in such a place will often be a sort of dummy round. They will throw up something quick and cheap, then wait until the city comes to life around it before demolishing it and then constructing what they actually intend to make a profit from. Parking lots are a popular choice for developers to build during this interim period; it’s a common sight to see massive empty spans of tarmac in the hearts of what are otherwise budding new cities. As leases that developers take out for development land are for fifty or seventy years, depending on whether it’s commercial or residential, they essentially have two goes at constructing something that will provide a return on their investment. In a very real sense, what we are seeing now in China’s new cities are essentially rough drafts of what will eventually exist.
Out with the old, in with the new; out with the new, in with the newer
For a civilization that is 4,000 years old there is a conspicuous lack of any signs of antiquity throughout China. Outside of re-furbished and romanticized tourist areas, China has been nearly sanitized of ancient relics. Even Chinese cities that have been inhabited continuously for over 2,000 years often only provide brief glimpses of their age with an estranged pagoda or a temple gate that, for whatever reason, wasn’t smashed to bits and carted away with everything else. China has undergone so many facelifts since the start of its economic boom period that it is virtually impossible to recognize the country for what it once was.
“I don’t know this place anymore,” said an elderly doctor from Taizhou, a small city in the Yangtze River Delta. His hometown was bulldozed and a new one built from the ruins in barely a decade. He doesn’t go out of his home much anymore; the place where he’d spent his life has become foreign terrain. For eighty years he lived near an ancient canal in a small traditional town that was a melange of grey brick, one-story houses with tile roofs aligned along narrow, winding alleyways. This is all gone now. An array of new luxury high-rises have taken the place of what was once his home.
China’s ancient cities are now staging grounds for sparkling new shopping malls, bright neon lights, luxury housing complexes, KTV lounges, and large boulevards packed with expensive cars. The traditional, artistically decorated houses with intricately carved wooden latticework and ornate tile roofs have been replaced with rows of monotonous architectural cubes; winding, narrow residential streets full of character and life have been upgraded to wide, straight boulevards that come together in neat grids; buildings that once hugged the street, creating a lively public sphere, have now been set back dozens of metres from the roadside and tucked behind towering gates. The modern Chinese city looks as if it were formed by stamping the landscape with a giant ice cube tray, leaving evenly spaced, almost identical block-shaped buildings in its wake. Most have become what architects call “generic cities,” places—like American strip malls—that lack stand-out features or architectural character that makes them uniquely recognizable.
Since the early 1980s China has been at war with its own architecture. Even cities renowned for their beauty and antiquity have been “generic-ified,” leaving behind only reconstructed tourist zones and dilapidated hutongs that the local authorities haven’t yet got around to demolishing. In some cities, like Hangzhou and Taizhou, genuinely historic neighbourhoods have been evacuated and demolished, and anachronistic replicas put up in their place—rebranded as tourist sites.
Clearing the land
Land is cleared systematically in China, but public input is not part of the system. The people who live within the path of development are evicted whether they want to be or not and relocated to places that are not of their choosing. While some end up better off for the move, many millions of others claim otherwise.
Abuse of power, corruption and the misappropriation of funds ripple through China’s urbanization movement. Governmental authorities in cahoots with developers regularly sell land from under rural collectives and entire neighbourhoods in existing cities to make a profit, which all too often doesn’t trickle down to the people who are losing their homes, land and livelihoods. A much-noted example is Wukan, in Guangdong province, whose villagers say the local chief had been selling off hundreds of hectares of the collective’s property for over thirty years, kicking farmers out of their homes, leaving them without land and work, all without compensation. This incident came to a head in September 2011 in what came to be called “The Siege of Wukan.”
After organizing and petitioning the national government twice without receiving a response, the residents of Wukan began protesting the land seizures publicly, eventually attacking the local government office, a police station and an industrial park. As part of the mediation process, the villagers were given the right to select thirteen delegates to negotiate with the government on the issue. When five of them were abducted by security forces, which resulted in one being beaten to death, the villagers rose up and ran the Communist Party and police out of town. A siege then occurred where a thousand riot police encircled the village, preventing any food or supplies from getting in. Eventually, the provincial government stepped in and allowed the villagers to vote for their own officials democratically by secret ballot. This was the first election of its kind in the history of Communist rule in China. The first election was held in March 2012: Lin Zulian, the leader of the protests, was elected to the position of village chief.
This incident was eventually dubbed the “Wukan Spring,” and a pro-democracy murmur could be heard resonating through the country. Could this spread? Could it be the start of a broader democracy mobilization? The answer was an unequivocal No. Finding himself and the rest of the democratically elected village government politically and economically hamstrung, unable to make real change or reacquire the misappropriated land, Lin Zulian voluntarily relinquished his position as village chief. His replacement faced the same challenge: How do we fund this village? Where is the money going to come from without selling land? The Wukan Spring ended up being a democratic dead end.
What was unique about the Wukan incident was the outcome, not the cause. Forced evictions and demolitions have become epidemic in China. In an ongoing survey, which had been conducted five times since 1999 through a partnership between the Landesa Rural Development Institute, Renmin University and Michigan State University, it was found that 43 percent of the villages across China had land taken from them within the past decade and upwards of 4 million rural Chinese were being relocated each year. Of the relocated, only 20 percent received an urban hukou (household registration that allows access to public services like schools and health care), scarcely 14 percent were provided with social security, less than 10 percent received health insurance, and just over 20 percent were provided with schooling for their children. Another investigation by Tsinghua University found that more than 64 million families, roughly 16 percent of the total population, had their homes demolished and/or land requisitioned since the beginning of China’s economic boom period. Some 20 percent of these property seizures were reported to have been uncompensated, leaving 13 million families without a home, land or, all too often, the means to acquire a fresh start somewhere else.
Large-scale demolitions and relocations are happening through every province and in almost every city of China. This isn’t something that’s restricted to the rapidly growing eastern cities or the boom towns of the interior; it’s everywhere. Shanghai as well as Sanya is being refaced, Guangzhou as well as Guiyang is being expanded, Beijing as well as Baotou is eating up its rural suburbs. The mayor of Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi province, earned the nickname “Point the finger” Geng, because it’s said that wherever he points his finger someone’s house is demolished. Even far-flung Hailar, a small nowhere city in the extreme north of Inner Mongolia, is surrounded by rolling seas of new high-rises and has its own horizon of cranes. More often than not, where there’s a story of construction in China there’s a story of eviction.
This is so ubiquitous that stories like these hardly even qualify as news:
Houses Demolished without Warning in Beijing
Two houses in Bagou village in the Haidian District of Beijing were destroyed by bulldozers on 22 October without advance notice to residents. An official warned the remaining residents that their houses will be demolished by 26 November 2013.
Over 200 people including from Haidian District law enforcement, Haidian District Court and public security officials participated in the demolition at Bagou village on 22 October. Some of them were wearing bullet-proof vests and helmets and some were carrying handguns.
At 9 a.m., the demolition team cordoned off the village and began to demolish houses. The court officials said that they were “implement[ing] the decision of the Haidian District Court to demolish illegal housing.” Two of the remaining six houses have been torn down. The homeowners, He Fengting and Zhao Xiuming, who tried to protect their homes from the demolition, were barred from entering their houses. They witnessed their homes being torn down by a bulldozer. Totally unprepared for the sudden demolition, they could not take any personal belongings with them and are now homeless.
Violent Forced Demolition in Nanchang, with Residents Holding Gas Tanks and Threatening to Jump off the Building
March 28, in Jiangxi province Nanchang City, at the intersection between Beijing East Road and Shanghai North Road, a confrontation happened between the forced demolition crew and city residents, during which a man confronted forced demolition crew sitting on window sill with a compressed gas cylinder in his arms, and a female house owner clashed with forced demolition crew on the rooftop, threatening to jump off after being surrounded. The forced demolition crew charged up to the rooftops, driving off all the residents, and seized all the gas tanks and the national flags hung up by the homeowners. Because they were outmatched in force, some of the homeowners could only powerlessly and helplessly look on as the bulldozers downstairs demolished their houses.
In most cases, the Chinese media won’t cover stories about forced demolitions unless there is a major public disturbance or someone is killed. “There’s so much demolition. If all the demolitions were reported, maybe there wouldn’t be enough space in all the newspapers, television and radio stations in China,” said Yan Lianke, a well-known Chinese author who recently had his home demolished in Beijing.
Forced eviction and property requisition without adequate cause and fair compensation are technically illegal in China. The country even ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which says “the Committee observed that all persons should possess a degree of security of tenure which guarantees legal protection against forced eviction, harassment and other threats.” By decree of the Chinese constitution and property law, areas zoned as urban can only be requisitioned for initiatives that support the public interest, though what “public interest” is remains undefined. As a general rule, when the Chinese government uses terms like “public” or “the people” what it really means is “the Chinese government.”
Forcing so many people out of their homes and off their land is generating waves of discontent over the country. Recent official figures state that 20,000 people throughout China file formal complaints each day with the various levels of government; 80 percent of these have to do with issues resulting from forced eviction and property requisition. It has also been estimated that 65 percent of the 180,000 mass social disruptions that occur throughout the country each year are sparked by land and property disputes. It is clear that the physical refacing of China is cutting some very deep social scars, especially as these numerous protests and appeals more often than not go without adequate reconciliation.
As China’s urbanization push breaches the rural frontier more and more, large swathes of farmland are being re-zoned as urban and the peasants who once lived there are losing their claims to the land in exchange for an urban hukou and a modern apartment. According to Tianjin University, China had 3.7 million villages in 2000, but ten years later that number had dropped to 2.6 million. In a single decade, China lost over a million villages—nearly 300 per day—as the country spirals down towards the agricultural “red line” of 120 million hectares of arable land that must be left available for farming, the only real limit to urbanization.
This orgy of demolition and construction produces massive amounts of waste. On average, constructing a 10,000 square metre building produces 500 to 600 tons of waste and 7,000 to 12,000 tons when demolished. Construction refuse amounts to 30 to 40 percent of all waste from China’s cities. In 2011, Wilson W.S. Lu, from the University of Hong Kong, estimated that over 2 billion tons of construction waste was produced across China. Only 5 percent of this is recycled. For the rest, “there’s no measure to deal with it,” according to Lu, and it often ends up stockpiled on the outskirts of cities. For each kilometre of Beijing’s Fifth Ring Road, there is half a ton of waste piled up, most of which comes from the city’s myriad construction sites. A well-known case of this was in Beijing’s Chaoyang district, where a mound of construction waste rose into the sky eight storeys high, showering local residents with dust whenever the wind blew.