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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.