Building Beijing

An opportunity has been lost with the selection of para-historian Tristram Hunt as Labour PPC for the revolting safe seat of Stoke-on-Trent Central. Now he will be unable to apply his academic area of expertise in urban history – as seen in his 2004 book, Building Jerusalem – to current events in China.

The Daily Telegraph reports on the latest phase in the ongoing mass urban development in Beijing achievable only in an authoritarian, One Party state (more here). After two decades of bulldozing individual hutongs (alleyways), plans have been announced to demolish Gulou or Old Beijing. Classified in 2002 as a Historical and Cultural Protected Area by the Beijing municipal government, this 13 hectare area is situated around the historic Drum and Bell Towers, and parts date back to the Yuan Era.

Just as Hunt’s Building Jerusalem opened with the Ivanhoe-like Eglington Tournament of 1839, the urban planners of Beijing intend to turn the district into a historical-themed tourist centre. Yet, Eglington was a monstrous folly, rained-out on the first day.

The inhabitants of Gulou should no more be required to sit in the pickle jar of ‘unspoiled’ tourist experience as they should be turfed out to re-create Walter Scottified ‘authentic’ tourist experience.  The cramping conditions of the hutongs, including communal toilets could be compared to the pre-1960s tenements of inner-city Glasgow, but the Soviet-style replacements have not necessarily brought civic pride to the area. Gulou appears to be a functioning community with that ‘lived-in feeling’, now lost in the nearby Qianmen Dajie thoroughfare which has been denounced as “killing business” even by the Beijing municipal government website.

In many ways contemporary China can be compared to the Britain or British Empire following the Industrial Revolution. Rapid industrialization has occurred, and large-scale population movements from rural to urban areas are still taking place. Clearly whilst there are state policies and glaring examples of gross inequity and skin-crawling brutality, there has also been considerable social improvement and state assistance for victims of industrialization (e.g. 1842 Mines Act compared to the fruitful mass-effort to rescue trapped miners in Wang Jialing).

In China, the individual definitely serves the state, and there is the presumption that residents will leave targeted property/land. Yet, popular protest against such actions has led to a neologism of “dingzihu” (“nail houses”): coined by state officials who assumed residents will be as easy to hammer down as nails on a block of wood (or as rolling a bulldozer over Arthur Dent).

Citizen pressure groups have emerged, such as the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (sic.) which is protesting the plans for Gulou.

In Shanghai, the land-seizures and urban development ahead of World Expo 2010 which commences on 1 May are almost at an end, but some families remain as hard as nails: such as Hu Yan, who traveled to New York in February to publicize her family’s lack of compensation.

Distinct situations such as Gulou aside, reasonable compensation appears to be the main concern of inhabitants of such nail houses: as long ago as 2006, the Premier, Wen Jiabao was acknowledging the threat of political instability from the many hundreds of daily protests.  In January 2010 it was reported that the Chinese State Council was to restrict the use of violent coercion as well as increasing recourse for appeal or fulsome compensation by the residents.  Yet, dissatisfaction remains, seen in the grisly case of Tao Xuihi, who immolated himself and his father in the face of an impending seizure of his pig-farm in Jianghu.

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One Response to “Building Beijing”

  1. Destruction or Facelift for Beijing’s Gulou? French Press Reports, Photos « Sinologistical Violoncellist Says:

    [...] Days, a UK-based blog, carries an essential report/opinion piece on this issue, rich with links, on the coming holocaust of historical architecture and rise of historical kitsch [...]

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