The tale of the peasant village within the prosperous city
The tale of Xiancun, Guangzhou
In a nearby sister peasant village along 石牌东路 Shipaidong Road, the masses of buildings (or rather constructions) are so entangled around each other that daylight is almost immediately sucked from your vision as you venture deeper into the urban jungle. Electric scooters carrying plastic takeaway boxes with slushy noodles flash their headlights at you, zooming past at breakneck speed along the 2-meter-wide pathways. The stench of sweat, raw meat, earthy vegetables, open gas fires and faeces hang in the heavy summer air.
As for Xiancun itself, just two blocks away, it’s almost impossible to enter. Xiancun has been occupied since the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279AD) but is now surrounded by intimidating squeaky clean skyscrapers and is at the forefront of Guangzhou’s battle to modernize the entire city center. Hence … “with the development and construction of Zhujiang New Town, the future jurisdiction of the village will become the financial, trade, cultural center and noble residential area of Guangzhou, becoming … the new axis of the city”. It’s a Chinese property developer’s wet dream, but the villagers are refusing to move.
Red propaganda barriers have sealed off the village, which is paroled by sleepy police officers prohibiting anyone, let alone inquisitive foreigners who probably shouldn’t be there, from entering. “It’s too dangerous to enter this village, you cannot come in. Go to the nice shopping centers over there!” the police officers barked at me. Covered by an area of 184,100 square meters, Xiancun is central to Zhujiang New Town, home to Guangzhou’s Central Business District in which lies the Guangzhou Opera House, the second Children’s Palace, the new Guangzhou Library and Guangdong Museum. It’s quite the contrast to the peasant villages just a few roads away.
After ten short minute walk of distancing yourself from the claustrophobic peasant villages in which you can get a meal for 10RMB, you find yourself transported in an air-conditioned shopping center selling tiny boxes of special coconut juice for 60RMB. Whilst preserving China’s illustrious history and culture is important, these peasant villages that lie at the heart of prosperous cities are holding China back from fill-scale modernization … but they are holding steady nonetheless. Many have planted Chinese flags on their roof in protest, stating it is illegal to tear down a building with the flag of the CPP perched on top.
Having lived in cosmopolitan Shanghai for just short of a year, I’m no stranger to China’s urban development – from my former apartment in Zhongshan park, Shanghai, after 5 minutes of walking east towards JingAn, you’d have passed a $500/night hotel and a hole-in-the wall food stop selling baozi for 2RMB. I knew two only Chinas – the rich one and the poor one. The stark, daily inequalities were so blatant it infuriated me, yet one way many people have catapulted themselves into China’s swelling affluent middle-class is by through property development and real estate.
The case for democratic development
A dīngzihù 钉子户is, by definition, a homeowner who refuses to vacate his or her home despite pressure from property developers. As China strives to redevelop its cities in order to achieve a more ‘cosmopolitan’ feel, the case of many a poor dingzihu, whether in Beijing, Chongqing or Guangzhou, is a relentless annoyance for those hoping to make their millions from China’s real estate boom. In “Ghost Cities of China” by Wade Shepard, one family in Beijing was offered 2.2 million RMB for their 800 metre square apartment but refused the money stating it was too low. Instead, they didn’t leave their home in 3 months, awaiting impending demolition of their home. Further, since 2009, 53 people have resorted to self-immolation to protest the unfair demolition of their home.
Luckily for the dingzihu in Xiancun, Guangzhou has a unique stance on democracy. Whilst working as a tutor in Shanghai (and to make my life more entertaining), I occasionally taught an introduction lesson to politics, in which I asked my Chinese students the political framework of their country … “中国是民主国家 – China is a democracy!” was the answer I received each and every time.
China is not a democracy … but Guangzhou exhibits democratic tendencies. The 广东现象Guangdong Phenomenon has surfaced, exerting more control over the financial sector and enforcing measures to facilitate transparency. A friend from Guangzhou told me that the university students in this city actually vote on various policies, that being geographically close to Hong Kong has a psychological effect on people’s expectations of their rights, and that people actually AA – a term used to say ‘equally split the bill’.
The Xiancun villagers have successfully maintained their protest for almost a decade years now, which is no doubt to be commended … but, as previously stated, China is not a democracy. Ironically, Chinese media claimed “the local government implements the demolitions on (the grounds of) “compliance with public opinion” because “democracy” should not interfere with private property”. Take from that what you will. The villagers in Xiancun could seemingly hold out forever, but I can’t envisage the regard for democracy surpassing that of China’s economic development – even in Guangzhou.
Property in China – hard, cold, gold.
Late last year, the SCMP reported “Chinese citizens devote as much as 74 per cent of their savings toward housing, more than double the 35 per cent in the US”. Owning a home is associated with success. Often parents with the financial means will buy their child their own home, establishing adulthood and the readiness to start one’s own family.
It may come as no surprise (especially for those that have personally witnessed the magnitude of Chinese cities) that China is at the forefront of the world’s housing market. According to Stansberry Churchouse Research, China made US$1.7 trillion worth of new home sales last year ( 7 times that of the USA). Notable property development billionaires include Evergrande’s Chairman Xu Jiayin and Garden’s Vice-Chairman Yang Huiyan.
Whilst “there is no private ownership of land in China … one can only obtain rights to use land” this is not stopping China’s many self-made businessmen and women from seizing (or purchasing through force) apt land such as Xiancun for rife property development – even at the expense of their fellow countrymen and women’s family homes.