Behind the wall – Xiancun village today (Part 1)

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Vacant shells of half-demolished buildings rise from piles of concrete rubble. This scene of utter destruction, despite appearances, is not the remains of a bombed city in a war-torn nation. It is a suburb smack-bang in the middle of one of the fastest developing Chinese cities – Guangzhou.

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Those that have been following this blog may recall posts in the past about Guangzhou’s urban villages – clusters of high-density, low-cost housing that provide affordable accommodation for hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who flock the the city every year. The city government is systematically razing these villages to build modern high rises to cater to the increasingly wealthy middle class, and a classic case is the village of Xiancun.

My last visit to Xiancun was in 2011, and I had been unable to get inside due to a wall that had been built around the community with police at the gates and Chinese thugs hired to hassle the local residents and any reporters that managed to make their way inside (some details in here).

Well, on a visit to Yangji Village in late 2012, I had a very fortuitous meeting…

On getting a call that another householder was to be forcefully evicted in Yangji Village, I got dressed and made my way over there (that story will have to wait for another post). It wasn’t long before the residents got a phone call from the authorities saying “get that foreigner with a camera out of there”. I’m not sure how they knew I was there, but it wasn’t worth the risk to hang around, so I left the village and joined the people who had showed up to watch what was happening from the outside. Among the crowd I spotted three men who looked interesting to me. I squatted down in front of them to take a picture, but one put his hand up to indicate this wasn’t something he was keen on being a part of. Normally, that would be that, I’d tell them it’s no problem and delete the photo once I got home.

But this time was special. I sat down next to them and explained what I was doing and why I was there. That was when the man who had tried to hide his identity started talking to me…

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It was like something from a spy movie…

He talked to me in short sentences, each time looking in the opposite direction so as not to be seen by others as communicating to me, being sure to keep his voice at a barely audible volume.

Then I understood why. He told me he was from Xian Cun and that he’d come to watch what unfolded here, as he felt a connection to the folk at Yangji who were resisting eviction, just as he and his peers were doing in Xian Cun. He went on to say that the situation in Xian Cun was growing darker and darker. The leader of the village (these villages work like cooperatives where any proceeds from ventures conducted within or land sold are distributed evenly to homeowners in the community) had run off with an exorbitant amount of the villagers’ money, and the government officials and developers had turned to mafia thugs to intimidate residents in an attempt to “encourage” them to sign their properties over to the government. There were also reports of these thugs giving any reporters who managed to get into the community (after the government put a wall up around it) a bit of roughing up.

He went on to tell me that if I wanted to go to Xiancun to understand the situation, he could guide me (at a distance so as to not be connected and bring trouble to himself). This sounded too good to be true, as I had been trying to think of a way to get past the guards and into the community for months.

Anyway, I became busy with other things (planning my trip to Australia with my girl), work (if only I could do THIS full-time!) and life in general, and it wasn’t until I was about to leave the country that I managed to call the guy and arrange a time.

Thankfully, by that time, the guards at the entrances had relaxed their control of entry and exit from the village, and I walked right on in (not sure if my acquaintance had slipped them some cash to facilitate it or what), but it has since come to my knowledge that the situation overall has become somewhat less tense in many ways.

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The first thing that struck me was just how many of the buildings had already been demolished. It seemed that for every ten buildings, eight had already been demolished or at least already vacated. One resident I spoke with told me there were still about 500 buildings whose owners were digging in their heels, and that altogether there were about 10000 residents living in the village. I did find that figure a little hard to believe, but it’s certainly possible.

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There was actually a significant event planned for the morning I arrived. The government had set up a meeting for the local residents to negotiate a little with them. I thought this would be a great opportunity to do some great photojournalistic work, but it wasn’t to be – for my own safety…

As I approached the open area that was formerly the local market (bulldozed by city council in the first attempt to “encourage” the locals to pack up and get out), I noticed a man at the entrance that had the same air about him as my last “tail” who had followed me and reported back to who knows whom when I was attending the anti-Japanese protests last year (not in support, mind you). I saw him staring at me, and he then made a call, using an iPad he was holding to cover his mouth so as to not give away the content of his conversation. He may have been taking a picture of me with the iPad, I’m not sure, but I did know that to pull out my camera and try to capture whatever transpired inside would be a great way to A. lose my camera and quite possibly, B. have my visa cancelled. As I was just a week away from leaving China with the savings my wife and I had accumulated over the last year or more, I was not keen to be kicked out immediately without being able to make arrangements to take my things with me! So I kept my camera in my backpack and dissolved into the crowd. I did not attempt to return to the same part of the village until things had concluded and all spies/thugs/officials/whoever had gone home, choosing rather to listen around the corner in a small alley that could hide me safely.

From what I heard of the “meeting”, the locals were not impressed at all by anything the officials said, and the whole thing did little to achieve its goal of convincing them to sign their homes over to the developers.

So I tried to keep a low profile and continue to explore what was left of Xian Cun village.

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There are some parts of the village that have not yet been touched by demolition, but they are only small pockets, and it appears to be only a matter of time before Xian Cun looks just as Yangji village does now (there are still 8 buildings left standing in Yangji)

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