Xiancun village – A brave fight and sad loss

Today, the village of Xiancun in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou is surrounded by a wall with police and military guards at the gates, and the community is preparing for its inevitably tragic fate. ID is required to enter the village, and at this point, nobody but the local residents who stay and fight to keep their homes and the government forces that try to pry these “rusty nails” out will know what transpires inside the walls – outsiders (especially nosy foreign photographers) have no chance of gaining entry.

Xiancun Facade

This is Xiancun the last time I saw it. A wall had been built around it (vaguely visible here just below the trees). All buildings on the edge of the community had been covered with government propaganda consisting of slogans urging people to help the community by signing over their properties and promises that they’ll be justly rewarded for doing so

But it wasn’t always this way…

I’m going to give my account and personal experiences of this case of David vs Goliath. Sadly in China, Goliath always wins.

Battle weary

One of the Xiancun residents fighting for the right to stay in their home while buildings around them fall one by one to make way for office buildings and apartments for the wealthy in Guangzhou

Let’s start by heading back to the day I first visited Xiancun. I often look for urban villages by checking out aerial views of Guangzhou in Google Earth. The communities I am interested in are always easily spotted due to the high building density and small roof sizes, as opposed to the usual high rise complexes with their courtyards and gardens. I was surprised to spot an urban community right next what has become the CBD of Guangzhou – Pearl River New Town (珠江新城). I was amazed that one of these villages had survived the rapid development push that took place before Guangzhou hosted the Asian Olympic Games in 2010.

Not sure if the place would still be there when I arrived, I rushed out to find Xiancun, half expecting to find a pile of rubble or a gargantuan construction site when I got there. I was partly correct…

Rubble

Demolition had begun at the edges of the community, but as I ventured in I discovered the village was still fighting tooth and nail against the government-supported developers. The locals had set up an organised resistance movement to fight for their right to stay in the community many had been in for up to ten generations. According to law, there must be a certain degree of consensus within the community before demolition can take place, and local homeowners were sure they would win by not backing down to government pressure. They expected that that law would protect their rights.

Crossing the line

A mother carries her child over the rubble of demolished homes that marks the border between the newly developed CBD of Guangzhou and the cluster of historic homes that are fighting for survival as the city scrambles to clear away the past and transform itself into a modern international city

Still smiling

Some of the local residents in the makeshift community centre set up in one of the stores already signed over to the government and gutted after the ancestral hall they previously used was demolished by the city council

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A local rides past a local noticeboard plastered with announcements including a petition comprising the names of homeowners who refuse to sign their properties over to the government

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Each name is accompanied by the home owner’s fingerprint

The government had tried to make life in the community as difficult as possible to force residents to give up the fight and move elsewhere. Firstly they destroyed the local community centre, then they bulldozed the local market and rounded up anyone who tried to sell fruit and vegetables by the community thoroughfares once the market was gone. They reduced garbage collection services, so rotting piles of rubbish began to collect in the alleyways. Tensions grew, and some gave up and signed their properties over to the government.

Xiancun Merchant

After the destruction of their market, many of the merchants like this woman moved into stores that had already been vacated – some kind of commercial squatting.

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The woman to the left in this picture was caught selling vegetables in the area that has been set up as a temporary market since the village’s offical market was demolished in 2010. When word comes that the council inspectors are coming, merchants pack up and run. This woman wasn’t fast enough. The man in the blue and purple striped top is the government official in charge of the village. Accused by the locals of being highly corrupt (using village funds to send his child overseas to study is one accusation made by many), I wonder if the fact that he discovered a foreign photographer was snooping into village affairs had anything to do with the construction of the wall around the village…

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Some of the younger residents of Xiancun pose for a photo in front of homes already vacated and stripped of anything of value (door and window frames included) awaiting demolition

The 40% or so of locals that stayed to fight posted messages throughout the villages urging others to join the resistance, and also expressed frustration at the illegal demolition of some buildings already.

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Some posters placed by members of the local resistance. The big red one says over 530 home owners with over 780 buildings refuse to sign demolition contracts. The one below it says that the government starting the demolition process when only 60% of the community have agreed is illegal. Others urge residents to unite and fight the destruction of their community. There is also an article from a paper challenging the legality of the city council’s actions

Shortly before the wall went up around the village, the government started placing banners on walls throughout the village with slogans urging home owners to sign their properties over.

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A sign of the government’s desperation to get people out of the community – this banner offers an extra 30,000RMB for homeowners who sign their properties over to the government before a deadline. These banners went up just before they blockaded the community – a sinister turn of events which makes it look like they are planning to turn to more forceful means of vacating the village

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This one says “You and I resist (those who are going against the laws), everybody resists (those going against the laws), then those who fight the law will have no place to hide. The (government) policies are transparent, reimbursement is uniform, fair and just, reasonable reimbursement.” The government is trying to allay fears that homeowners will not be compensated appropriately for their homes. In other similar villages, many homeowners were not compensated the full value of their homes, and it’s not uncommon for the council to find loopholes or ways to discredit documents relating to the dimensions of the building in order to offer reduced compensation.

Some important information:

It’s important to try to have a balanced view of the situation here. Firstly, as mentioned in this post, the conditions in Guangzhou’s urban villages are generally quite unsanitary, with poor drainage and little light reaching the bottom of the artificial ravines created by the towering residences that in some places are only millimetres apart on higher levels.

Xiancun Folk

This is one of the wider arterial thoroughfares in Xiancun village, but even still, only a small shaft of light makes it to the pavement. The majority of walkways in Xiancun are at most a quarter the width of this one, so most of the community is shrouded in darkness for all but a brief period when the sun is directly overhead.

Sliver

A local resident walks past boarded-up residences that have already been signed over to the government for demolition. Homes are first stripped of anything of value and then boarded up to prevent squatting. So while some homeowners resist the inevitable demolition, hundreds of homes sit empty while low income migrant workers have fewer and fewer affordable residential options in the city.

Rays

Only in the middle of the day do rays of light reach the bottom of this alley in Xiancun.

Xiancun

This image gives a sense of what the environment is like in the urban villages of Guangzhou. Certainly not ideal.

So with an environment like this, many may be keen to trade in their homes in a dark, dirty community for a brand new apartment in a bright and clean highrise complex. The thing is, a large proportion of the residents in these communities are migrant workers – poor labourers from rural communities who have made their way to the city in search of work opportunities. They merely rent from the homeowners. So while the homeowners get a great deal out of this – new for old replacement – it’s really those on very low incomes who suffer. As these sources of low-cost accommodation disappear, they are not being replaced by affordable accommodation anywhere else, so having a roof over one’s head is becoming more and more elusive for the very people whose labour helps drive the cities’ booming economies.

There are, however, still homeowners who also refuse to hand their properties over to the government, who persist living in their properties and are not taking advantage of the government’s new for old offer. For many, the land their home sits on holds significant value for them. It is the place their ancestors tilled as farmers, where many generations grew up, lived, and passed into the next life. It is about more than a house – after all, most have rebuilt and renovated many times over the centuries – there is a spirtual bond with the very land they live on.

Offering

A Xiancun resident burns paper outside her home as an offering to a deceased family member. Traditions such as this are part of what makes moving home out of the question for many older village citizens – their home is more than a place for them to live, it’s also a place that has a connection to those that have already passed into the next world.

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Many buildings such as this one are also quite historic, so locals are outraged at the buildings’ planned demolition.

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Inside the building.

In the meantime, while around 40% of homeowners stay and fight, the other 60% who have already left their homes must wait in temporary accommodation while the government and remaining residents fight it out. Not until the whole community is demolished, cleared and the new residences built can they move into their new homes, so there is also tension between the two groups of homeowners. It’s not the case of a united group of residents versus the government.

This is certainly not a simple case of good versus evil, and there are pros and cons of demolishing the village and building new apartment complexes in its place. There are tales of council offices refusing to recognise home renovations – particularly the addition of extra floors – in order to avoid recompensing a larger amount of floor space in the new development (or cash balance for any extra square metres above new apartment sizes). But there are also stories of locals frantically adding additional floors without approval in order to cash in on the deal. I do know of one resident in another village called Yangji who tried to do things by the book, but the council found a problem with the paperwork a year or so later (ie once they knew the plan to demolish the village) and try as she may, the homeowner could not ammend the issue with the paperwork (a simple date change which she had evidence for, but the person in charge conveniently was “away” until the day after the opportunity to ammend expired.

This is not an issue of who is right and who is wrong, but I do feel sad that the people who are already largely overlooked by Chinese policy – the blue-collar workers – are once again to lose out. Homeowners get a sizeable growth in their assets’ value, but the residents lose their opportunity to live in the area. Any new developments will certainly be out of their price range. It is also sad to see the fact that once those in power make up their mind, there is nothing to do but accept it as inevitability.

Family

This young family lives in one of the buildings right next to the first to be torn down. They are not sure where they will go when they eventually have to leave.

Bike kid

Another of Xiancun’s younger residents

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This kindergarten was one of the first buildings to be torn down in the village.

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Most of the buildings around this large pond are merely shells awaiting demolition. The sign warns against fishing.

Rubble

This man is sitting on the rubble of what used to be the local kindergarten in Xiancun. When the government wants to develop an area here in Guangzhou, the first step is to demolish schools, kindergartens, the local market, ancestral temples and anything else that is not owned by private individuals. Key targets are the things that are important in the locals’ daily lives – this is intended to “encourage” locals to move out. But they’re a defiant lot here…

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Children play in the rubble shortly before Xiancun is sealed off from the outside world

Old woman

This woman is likely to outsurvive the village that has been her home since birth

Demolished

Traces of families’ rapid exit from the village lie scattered throughout the rubble

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