Children, propaganda and death in Xiancun (Behind the Wall – Xiancun Village Today Part 2)

This is a continuation of a post based on my final trip to Xiancun village. Some of what you read may make little sense unless you take a quick look at some of the background in this post.

As I was walking inside Xiancun towards the public meeting and undercover officers that I would soon have to evade (refer to Part 1), the local resident I was walking with casually told me “Oh, and this building here used to be the kindergarten. A child was killed when they demolished the building”. Just twenty metres ahead lay the meeting place, and he told me in the same breath that he would not talk to me from this point on, and he increased the distance between us and disappeared. He knew I would draw attention to myself by being the only foreigner inside the community, and he didn’t want to be involved with any repercussions that might follow. So I wasn’t able to get any more details about this child who had reportedly been killed.

I started wondering if he had made it up to make the plight of Xiancun residents more dramatic, or if I had really happened as he said. There was no denying there were a lot of children still living in the community – most of which were the children of migrant workers still renting from the householders who were locked in battle with the government-supported developers.

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The child pictured above is one such child. His parents were from Xinjiang, which is in the far north-western corner of the country, and had come to Guangzhou for the abundant work.

Others, like the child below, are children or grandchildren of “rusty nail” homeowners who refuse to sign their properties over to the developers. They’re called nail householders (钉子户 – dingzi hu) because they are difficult for the government to pull out of the community (and their homes).

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The girl’s grandmother, who had been living in the village for over twenty years – made her do the peace symbol as all Chinese parents do when they see me taking pictures of their kids. They don’t understand that it’s really natural, unposed images I’m looking to create, and that their interference usually ruins the shot… but I’m going off on a tangent now… let me get back to the story…

As an Australian who has become accustomed to overprotective parents and even more overprotective legislators wrapping children in cotton wool and then doing the same to their playgrounds, it was quite confronting seeing children playing amongst the rubble of demolished buildings.

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The little girl can be seen playing with her sister amidst the rubble in the photo above. They live in the building to the far right of the photo, in the one household that has not yet vacated the building.

It’s easy to see how a child could wander into danger, when buildings are falling left, right and centre.

It’s quite strange the way life continues in the midst of the dramatic struggle between local residents and developers, and with the community crumbling around them. I even noticed red paper from firecrackers that had been let off the day I visited for a wedding in the community. Couples are starting their new lives while the village’s nears its end.

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The market is still running, despite a dramatic drop in customers (below).

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In an attempt to get remaining residents – particularly householders – out, the government turned to a new series of propaganda posters. It was hard to find any that hadn’t been defaced or torn down by the residents, but I did find some like the ones below…

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Most of them play on Chinese values, particularly filial piety, depicting such things as noble young people leading their elderly parents out of a dark, decrepit village and handing them the keys to a brand spanking new apartment and a message saying something along the lines of “Show your filial piety early, move out early, give them a good environment to live out their late years in safety”. Another (not displayed above) showed children in a dark alley trembling with fear, and a shady-looking man obviously out to take advantage of the shadows the alleys provide to get up to no good. The message is that life in the alleys is fraught with hazard and that you can show your love for family members by getting them out of such a situation.

In my view, the posters will never be effective as one of the reasons people tend to stay in these urban villages is the sense of community. People are aware the conditions in the alleys are not ideal, but they feel their children are safe from danger as long as they have other members of the tight-knit community looking out for them. Of course if the story my acquaintance told me is true, sometimes that’s not enough.

Then again, the incident only fuels the residents’ indignation against the developers. In any case, this battle will continue for some time. Unfortunately, the final victor is already sure, it’s just a matter of time. In China, Goliath always wins.

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