China’s last quarter century is characterized by a massive wave of rural-to-urban migration and currently over 250 million new urbanites have been absorbed into the urban cores. While the eye-popping scale and pace of urban expansion is dramatically changing the country’s spatial and economic structure, it is also directly affecting the ones living on China’s shifting grounds. This is the first contribution in a series that looks at how China’s current wave urbanization is touching the inner-city, the rural-urban fringe and the remote rural areas.
GUANGZHOU’S CAPITAL OF MANY
The journey starts in Guangzhou, China’s third largest city situated in South China’s Guangdong province. Serving as an important transportation hub and trading port, the city has been at the front row of China’s explosive growth. The city got a new impulse when it was one of the cities that Deng Xiaoping visited during his famous southern tour in 1992, and saw its population size doubling up to 14 million in the twenty years thereafter. Continued growth rates in both population and economic activity motivated local authorities to toss a grand renewal project in 2010. Within ten years an area covering the old downtown, urban villages and aging factories are planned to make space for over 500 square kilometers of new building land. While the project is about “boosting the local economy by creating more land and improving the efficiency of land allocation”, the project is part of Guangzhou’s larger vision where Richard Florida would lick his fingers off: Guangzhou 2020 is primed to be China’s ‘millennium-old capital of commerce, ‘capital of creative ideas’ and the ‘capital of culture’. Indeed, urbanization and modernization have become the new buzzwords in the local development agenda, and the local leader has presented himself as a true urban promoter.
DESTRUCTION FOR DEVELOPMENT
Yangji, a small village with historical roots aging over 900 years and located in East-Guangzhou, was one of the nine villages targeted for the reconstruction plans. The approximate 4000 villagers were told that their land was ‘collectively’ owned, which means that they only had the right to use it and that they were now facing eviction. On a fundamental basis, China’s land policies have been shaped by a complex amalgam of historical and cultural factors, making it difficult to tell who really owns China’s land. The territorial jurisdictions change frequently, local state power is under-defined, a systematic land registration is lacking and a cadaster is absent. In sum, it has laid the foundation for housing conflicts that culminated in protests for property and residents rights. When the villagers were told to leave their house – in return for a financial compensation or relocation guarantee that was calculated without the value of land – some refused, denied the offer and decided to stay. While the rising land values in the urban core continued to increase, the pressure to build and sell land faster also significantly increased. The ‘tigers blocking the road’ were answered by local authorities with an increase in violence, brutality and pace of destruction. In extreme cases, residents were blindfolded and taken from their homes by force. When the blindfolds were removed, the only thing the residents saw was the rubble of their former homes.
THE MENU OF RESISTANCE
As the brutality of the local government increased, so did the protestors’ resilience. Protestors have become skillful in their protests and developed different strategies to avoid expropriation and to claim a fair compensation. Some started to use legal channels as a means for their protests, aiming to seek support at higher levels of state authority. They started to study law themselves or consulted the help of weiquan lawyers. Besides the costs and disappointing outcomes of their ‘lawful resistance’, this approach is barely used as few people actually have the will and intention to directly contend the state. Different media offer an attractive alternative tool for resistance. While traditional media channels remain closely monitored by the authorities, the Internet – including the popular microblogging website Sina Weibo – has offered new opportunities that have been widely adopted by the protestors. ‘Cyberprotest’ is used to document the evictions and struggles with local authorities and developers with the aim to gain public attention. Perhaps the most successful story is the one of Wu Ping, a story that was first covered by activist bloggers as Zola and later got picked up by the Economist and New York Times, eventually resulting in an agreement with the local authorities.
The last dish on the menu of protest are direct, individualized modes of confrontation with the authorities. As the ultimate form of localized social activism, protest is framed in the practice of physically occupying homes that are planned to be demolished, the so-called ‘nail households’. While over 99 percent of Yangji’s residents did abandon their homes in the first three years after the reconstruction project started, at least six families refused to move. Cut off from water and energy supplies, the nail households in Yangji and elsewhere in China have led to bizarre situations. While China’s ongoing battle between the protestors and local authorities can perhaps be won in a videogame (!), the reality presents a different story. The case of Guangzhou clearly reflects that the aspirations of the Chinese city today, in becoming a China ‘capital’ in whatever it may concern, are too important. The urban monster that is tamed by the local authorities simply won’t stop for a few nail-households in the inner-city.