Tag Archives: Beijing

Breaking Down Beijing


Walking through a neighborhood of East Beijing that is on the fast path towards modernization, and it’s hard to tell whether that’s a good thing or not. Mark walked carefully between the bricks, picking out points where he used to live and eat that have since been demolished. It’s hard for him to even assemble a map of the past. As he photographs the crumbled remains of the houses, a chubby teenage boy stumbles up behind him. “Hey shushu! (Uncle) Take photographs over there! There are more things to photograph over there!” He gestures wildly at a halfway demolished building on the opposite side of the lot.

The boy goes on to tell his story, of how he had once lived on that lot. The government had recently torn down all of the old houses in favor of high-rise apartment buildings that will bring more money and greater status to the neighborhood.

This is a forward step for the capital, a backwards leap for the communist at heart.

The boy returns to the wide expanse of rubble and brick each day after class, though he hesitated to digress into what it is he actually intends to achieve by incorporating such visitations into his daily routine. When Mark inquired as to whether the government had given his family money to move — compensation for being thrown out of their home, it seemed that luck had been in his favor. The boy’s family had been given compensation, though he again held back on expressing exactly how much they had recieved.

Other buildings in the area don’t seem to share the same good fortune as the young boy. One after another, storefronts are littered with graffiti that screams of built-up personal and communal frustration with the local government. Black ink burns the passing eye with handwritten slogans speaking out against the demolition of the community housing: “We will protect the shops with our lives!”, “If there is no compensation, it will be blood for blood!” The material goods and restaurant tables which once cluttered the window displays have been replaced with funeral wreathes. The sympathetic tributes satirically mark the death of the community, though on closer inspection, one can almost smell the suffocating desire within many to put an end to the local government that is to blame for this public ruination.

How can these people be blamed or looked down upon for their anger? In a country that routinely pushes people out of their homes in an effort to ‘modernize’, it seems there is little those people can actually do about it

It’s important to refer back to the building of the Three Gorges Dam for a moment when considering the issue of community demolition in China. The Three Gorges Dam began project planning in the early 1990’s. Spanning the length of the Yangtze River across the central province of Hubei, the dam currently holds 26 generators. By 2011, it will hold 32 generators and will be able to distribute 22,500 MW of electricity across China. In its entirety, the project has cost the Chinese government 180 billion RMB — though that’s pleasing to the political ear, as it was once expected to cost 203.9 billion RMB.

With it’s infrastructure completion in 2006, the damn is now the largest electricity generating plant in the world. That comes at a social cost, however. The Three Gorges Dam has created a massive reservoir that measures around 375 miles long, and sunk at the bottom of this reservoir lies nearly 1300 cultural relics that could not be saved. Along with these artifacts, it has been estimated that around 1.4 million local citizens have been displaced, forced to move to higher ground in order to avoid the flooding of their homes. 13 major cities, 140 smaller towns, and 1352 small villages were submerged by the Three Gorges project. Government compensation, in the sum of 10 billion RMB (40% of the total of the entire project), was unequally provided. Indeed, some families were able to receive close to $4000 USD from the government, and this money provided them new houses, even new city lives. On the other hand, many migrant workers who held no residency permits, and those citizens who were unable to obtain work units were exempt from receiving such compensation. (Further information on the Three Gorges Project

In 1998, 2 million people were displaced by local governments throughout Beijing, as the communist capital bulldozed homes to make room for athletic facilities and grandiose parks. These people were left voiceless in the streets. (See Amnesty International’s 2009 report) This, of course, does not separate China from the rest of the world. The Olympic Games are tied up with a legacy of bringing countries to their knees, forcing them to commit absurd, oppressive acts in order to make their cities look cleaner, richer, happier than they really are. But it is one more example of how common the practice of displacement has become in this country.

These are angry times, and it seems that the former residents of these now crumbled and broken down houses have nothing left to lose (unless they get caught). Shout out, but not too loud. Make your voice heard, and then hide in the alley so that the government doesn’t catch you. If nothing else, make it be known that you will give all you got to get something back for the ultimately unnecessary destruction of your home.

It’s hard to argue with them when there’s nothing but rubble as far as the eye can see….


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Mother Nature Blows Back

I have a habit of waking up quite early now in China. It has become a habit without my own recognition. Morning comes early, around 7:30 am, and unable to fall back into the world of dreams, I am forced to begin my day here in Sihui Dong. It’s not the worst habit a person could pick up, I suppose.

This morning I awoke early, as usual, then, around 7:30. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I felt more in a dream than usual, as out my window was a veritable sandstorm. 

While living in Korea, we had all talked up the phenomenon of ‘Yellow Dust’, making it into a much bigger deal than it really was. In reality, the city felt a bit dirtier than usual, but the daily routine of most Seoul citizens was hardly disrupted.

However, here in Beijing, I woke today only to have a previous spring’s worth of hyperbole blown into my face – or rather swept across my already littered backyard. It frightened me, to see such a Crayola color produced by a seemingly angry Mother Nature in the city that I am living in.

The pictures we looked over later that afternoon held hints of an apocalyptic fantasy in them. Young women’s beauty hidden by starch white medical masks flashing peace signs in front of Tiananmen Square. All I could think was – why did they choose to go there in the midst of an obviously vicious sandstorm? Why weren’t they curled up in bed watching the world erupt behind the glass like me?

The sand rolls over to Beijing as a little present from the Gobi Desert in Southern Mongolia, amongst other areas that choose to share their precious ground materials with us. Cyclones roll the dust into high altitudes, and then strong cold waves produce high winds that blow the sand East and South. (Or so they say) Meterologists here report that as it’s been so cold here lately, the city will receive another six to nine sandstorms through the days to come in April and May.

I can understand why people don’t take time to understand these things, what with these giant scientific words that often don’t amount to much explanation when employed in local media (desertification: The rapid depletion of plant life and the loss of topsoil because of drought, etc, that inevitably leads to the creation of desert land.) But these are the things that could explain so much more, particularly about the ever-changing, ever aggressive environments of China…

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