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In Beijing, residents resist the wrecker's ball


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BEIJING — At first, it looked like an earthquake had struck Laogucheng.

Piles of rubble from collapsed buildings, exposed rebar, shattered tiles and bricks, debris everywhere in Beijing’s far western district of Shijingshan.

But this was no quake zone.

Scrawled on the remaining walls was the Chinese character for demolish, “cai.” Government slogans printed in neat red characters ran along half-standing buildings: “The earlier you tear down your home, the sooner you will benefit” or “Communist Party members should take the lead to demolish first.”

Photo by Adrienne Mong/NBC News

The Chinese character for demolish, "cai," is scrawled on the remains of buildings throughout Laogucheng.

Laogucheng is now better known as a demolition area only a handful of miles from Chang’an Jie, or the Avenue of Perpetual Peace, which cuts through the heart of Beijing.

The majority of the community’s homes and most of its shops have been knocked down since last summer to make way for a new development.

“This place had bad infrastructure, a very dense population and a lot of illegal buildings,” said Li Guo Chen, Chief Demolition Director of the Shijingshan District Government. “Security was also a big problem. Therefore, the district government considers it a very important project to rebuild and improve the whole area.”

The plan is to construct high-rise apartment buildings – some of which will be allocated to the current residents – with commercial and retail space for lease.

“About 70 percent of the residents have moved out,” continued Li. “Which proves our plan is recognized by the community.”

Not so fast.


Resisting resettlement
Not with holdouts like Liang Shenli, a 61-year-old retired businessman who lives in Laogucheng with his wife and son.

“I’m not leaving, because they are unwilling to negotiate the terms on a fair basis,” said Liang, referring to local officials. Like many of his neighbours, the homeowner said the compensation package he’s been offered is based on an inaccurate calculation of the land he says he owns. The original terms don’t include the garden extension he built years ago and shortchanges him on the market value of the property.

Moreover, Liang and others say they’ve come under pressure to accept the initial terms and to move as quickly as possible. “Look at this neighbourhood,” he said, his arm sweeping across two city blocks’ equivalent of rubble. “The roads are unpassable. No one comes to pick up the garbage. They might not have applied pressure, but they’re making it uncomfortable for us to continue living here.”

Some residents also mentioned rocks thrown at the windows of their homes “It is a little scary,” said Liang. “You don’t feel safe.”

“It’s not true,” said Li, the Shijingshan official interviewed by NBC News. Without addressing the question about interrupted power, he said the main road was blocked, which prevented trucks from entering the area to remove garbage and debris.

Li also said no one would be forced to move, but he maintained confidence that the stragglers would soon come around. “Some may not agree and need time to understand,” he said. “We believe with our careful and patient work, they will eventually agree.”

Across Beijing, just north of the Forbidden City, yet another neighbourhood risks being demolished, but this one has attracted widespread attention because of its historic value.

Save the hutongs
Old Beijing, as it’s commonly known, encompasses dozens of hutongs, or alleyways, that date back to the Yuan Dynasty more than 700 years ago. It’s also home to the Drum and Bell Towers, two imposing but elegant edifices that loom over the one-story buildings in the area. Built in 1272, they were used to tell time in the ancient capital during China’s final three dynasties (Yuan, Ming, Qing).

“It’s one of the few areas that’s still left in Old Beijing with great cultural and historical value,” says He Shuzhong, a conservationist who founded the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre. “Their cultural value is as high as the Forbidden City.”

Photo by Adrienne Mong/NBC News

Traditional hutongs, which could be razed, line the streets of Old Beijing below the Drum and Bell Towers.

The area also has great commercial value.

Local newspapers have reported plans to raze many of the hutongs surrounding the towers to make way for a new development. The $73 million facelift would include a massive underground complex composed of parking lots, shops and a museum. Above ground, a public square would replace the hutongs and ancient courtyard homes.

“Of course, there are many problems there, like hygiene, the dense population, unreasonable transport system, bad tourism routes [that cut through the hutongs] and poor commercial facilities,” said He. “But these problems should be solved through management and gradual planning” and, especially, discussion with the local residents.

But none of the people we interviewed in hutongs around the Bell Tower had been informed of any municipal re-development plans. What little they knew, several of them said, came from the newspaper reports.

“We haven’t been told anything by anyone,” said one woman who was washing clothes in a plastic tub on the sidewalk (one of the charms of the neighborhood is that life in the hutong is lived out in the hutong). “Everyone is talking about it, but nobody knows the exact date for the demolition.”

The absence of information has only served to create anxiety and suspicion among the hutong dwellers – many whose families have lived here for several generations. Although some said they would consider moving given fair compensation for their property, many still refuse to consider the idea on principle.

Take 48-year-old Liu Hongqian, who was smoking a cigarette outside the courtyard he’s lived in all his life.

“I definitely won’t move if they want us out as far as the Sixth Ring Road,” he said, referring to one of the suburbs farthest out of central Beijing. “If you live that far, you have to buy a car, how much gas do you have to use every day? We make so little money.”

Liu also dismissed the notion of having a modern new apartment with amenities. “I feel more comfortable here even if I only have a 100-square-foot room.”

Another resident, who would only give his surname, put it succinctly. “City dwellers are being moved out to the countryside while migrant workers from the countryside are moving into the city,” said Mr. Sha, referring to the mass migration of people from rural areas looking for jobs in urban centers.

But, overwhelmingly, there was the sense of distrust – that whatever the government or developers promised, there was no guarantee of being treated fairly.

The great land grab
After all, land grabs have become widespread across China for years now, stoked by soaring property prices, especially in growing urban centers. Developers, often backed by local authorities, seize or buy old homes at extremely low prices for redevelopment and, in the process, enrich municipal governments or local officials. (See this nifty Explainer.)

Occupants refusing to resettle have resorted to a wide variety of forms of resistance. One of the more creative tactics was deployed — literally — by a 56-year-old farmer living on the outskirts of Wuhan city in Hubei Province.

After chasing off an earlier eviction attempt with the help of rockets, Yang Youde built a cannon out of a wheelbarrow and pipes, which uses ammunition made from fireworks, to wage war with a group of 100-something men who tried to toss him off his farmland late last month.

A local government official was quoted in the China Daily as saying authorities have offered Yang just over $19,000 for his fields, but the farmer reckons it’s worth at least five times as much. Yang said he’s been forced to protect himself because demolition workers hired by the developer had threatened to use force on him after compensation negotiations with the local authorities had faltered in March.