Modernization and beautification pushes some residents to Beijing’s outskirts, while others resist and claim their right to the city
09 / 2009
The 2008 summer Olympic Games signified great changes for the city of Beijing and its residents. The city needed to be fit for an international mega-event, thus implying modernization, beautification, and construction throughout, all aspects that would make Beijing “attractive” to the world. This article will focus on the historical Qianmen district in Beijing, a commercial and residential area located in the city center since the 1600s, and on the effects the Olympics had not only on the physical aspects of this area, but also on its resident. This case is relevant for the perspective of the « Right to the City » because of how it was viewed and represented by the citizens themselves, and also due to the many abuses by developers and city and government officials during the re-development of Qianmen.
In 2002, the Beijing Municipal Planning Commission enacted a conservation plan to protect 25 historic areas in Beijing’s Old City, one of these being Qianmen. The conservation plan outlined five main principles:
1) To preserve the traditional cityscape and hutongs (small alleyways lined by traditional courtyard homes);
2) To ensure the authenticity of the preserved heritage;
3) To implement preservation using a gradual and measured method;
4) To improve the infrastructure and living conditions of the local residents;
5) To encourage public participation.
The conservation plan also stated that renovations should not result in large scale demolition, that special attention should be paid to historic continuity and valuable historic architecture, and that hutongs and old trees be preserved. These guidelines integrate some of the key principles of the right to the city, by valuing local participation and prioritising the improvement of resident’s living conditions. As David Harvey notes, the right to the city involves citizens having an active right to make the city different and being able to shape it in a way that meets their needs (see Sources for reference). However, with the Olympics on the way, the Beijing government was faced with a deadline, and following these guidelines would have set limits to developers’ plans to remake Qianmen into a modern version of the old, appealing to tourists, spacious enough for Olympic marathon runners to pass through, and attractive to people who could afford Qianmen’s new and elegant homes.
In 2005, the Beijing government began offering residents of Qianmen’s residential neighbourhoods compensation for the houses it planned to demolish. However, compensation rates did not account for additions or specific aspects of each particular home that would have naturally added value to it, and therefore compensation rates were much less than the real value of homes (COHRE, 2008). If residents refused compensation, they underwent a mediation process with the government in which houses were valued individually. Often, compensation rates did increase after mediation but they were still insufficient to provide residents the same quality of life they enjoyed in Qianmen elsewhere in the city. Constant harassment from developers and constructors attempting to push residents out did eventually lead to many of them accepting low rates and leaving the neighbourhood. Resistance became too much of an inconvenience for the daily life of many families, also prompting them to unwillingly accept inadequate compensation.
Others, however, remained with hopes of claiming their right to the city and to the urban space of Qianmen they had lived in for decades. In the spring of 2006, Sun Ruoyu, whose family business had been situated in Qianmen since the 1840s, began receiving eviction notices from the government stating the family would have to leave their house in the name of slum clearance and that the city had the right to begin demolishing after a certain date. The city offered the family 1.6 million Yuan for the house (approximately $200,000 USD), much too little for what was to become one of the city’s most expensive districts and not even enough to give the family the opportunity to remain in Qianmen by purchasing one of the newly renovated or constructed houses. The family refused the compensation offered because they wanted to partake in the re-development of Qianmen and not be pushed to the outskirts of the city. Despite the family’s resistance, the city did not willingly accept their presence. It was more important to make space for Qianmen’s new multinational “residents”, which included Rolex, Prada, Starbucks, Nike, Adidas, and Apple computers, than to respect Beijing’s own citizens and their right to remain in the place they had lived in for years. However, by July 2008, a month before the start of the Olympics, Ms. Sun was still there. Her restaurant was still standing, although somewhat dilapidated, but was covered with a green plastic netting in order to keep it out of sight and out of mind for the thousands of Olympic spectators that would be passing by throughout the month of August.
The many residents of Qianmen that were evicted faced very limited choices when deciding where to settle next. The little money they received in compensation was not enough to allow them to stay in the city centre. Many residents thus moved to the outskirts of the city past the Fifth Ring Road, an expressway that encircles the city about 10 kilometers from downtown. In one family’s case, it now takes both adults a total of four hours to get to and from work each day using public transportation. Before, when living in Qianmen it would only take them five minutes by bicycle. The quality of education obtained outside of the city is much less compared to what this family’s child once received downtown. Therefore their daughter has remained at the same school in downtown Beijing, implying that one parent must accompany her to and from school each day, having to leave the house at 5am to make it in time for the start of the school-day at 7am. This is a daily reality for many of the families evicted from Qianmen. For the elderly that were evicted, it has also implied a struggle to maintain easy access to the doctors and healthcare facilities they have attended for years in the city centre. This once again means long distances to travel whenever they have a medical concern.
The outcomes of the eviction notices varied for the residents of Qianmen. Some experienced harassment, others accepted compensation after some time, and a minority managed to resist and remain. In their struggles to remain in their place of residence, the people of Qianmen who either faced, accepted, and/or resisted eviction all attempted to secure their right to the city. The right to the city is about citizen’s being involved in the decisions that affect where they reside and having the opportunity to participate in the transformation of the urban spaces they live in. When it came to the re-development of Qianmen, the guidelines that had been outlined to protect this area as a heritage site (mentioned above) were almost entirely ignored by the municipal government and developers. These guidelines, which valued aspects of the right to the city such as improving the living conditions of local residents and enabling them to participate in the decisions affecting their neighbourhood, were disregarded and unenforced while modernization and beautification took precedence prior to the Olympics.
Furthermore, if the right to the city is respected, citizens should be allowed to remain in the city and not be pushed to its outskirts. The Qianmen evictions violated the right of citizen’s to remain in the city when it was not their choice to leave. The inconveniences faced by the residents now living past Beijing’s Fifth Ring Road are many. Their access to health services, high quality education, and commercial and shopping areas has been reduced, as well as their overall quality of life since they must now invest a lot of time commuting to and from work, valuable time they could be using to spend with their families or for their own personal activities.
As much as we saw the right to the city violated by Beijing city officials and developers, we also saw it promoted and upheld through citizen’s struggles to remain in Qianmen and claim their right to housing and urban space. Many residents did not accept the compensation rates that were first offered to them and only left after being harassed in both their workplaces and homes. Ms. Sun and her family managed to resist the city’s efforts to remove their restaurant from Qianmen and though their house was physically concealed from the view of others by green netting, their house was still standing and present in the middle of the modernized Qianmen. This demonstrates that citizens do have the capacity to stand up for what they want and demand that their rights be recognized and that they cannot be disregarded to give priority to an international mega-event like the Olympics. If a city such as Beijing wants to impress the world, it must value the local, be inclusive, and treat all of its people, especially the poor, as citizens with rights, rather than solely as objects that can be mistreated, pushed away, and forgotten.
Articles and files
Chen, Beatrice B. 2003. « Preserving Beijing’s Old City: The Vision and Reality of Historic Conservation Planning ». Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Website: dspace.mit.edu/bitstream/handle/1721.1/30027/55082878.pdf?sequence=1
COHRE, 2008. « One World, Whose Dream? Housing Rights Violations and the Beijing Olympic Games ». Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions. Pages: 1-35.
Harvey, David. 2003. « The Right to the City ». International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 27.4: 939-41.
Sanderson, Henry. 2008. « Despite Promises, Old Beijing Neighborhood Falls ». Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP). Website: en.bjchp.org/english/mzpl_view.asp?NewsID=127.
Yardley, Jim. 2006. « Olympics Imperil Historic Beijing Neighborhood ». New York Times. Website: www.nytimes.com/2006/07/12/world/asia/12beijing.html
Hooker, Jay. 2008. « Before Guests Arrive, Beijing Hides Some Messes ». New York Times. Website: www.nytimes.com/2008/07/29/sports/olympics/29beijing.html