Beijing Demolition for Subway Sprawl Provokes Resistance

By Kevin B. Lee

Demolition Dominates the Residents of Beijing in "Meishi Street"

In China Beat, Jared Hall reports on the spate of public protests that have been prevalent throughout the expansion of the Beijing subway system. Hall focuses on the story of Wang Shibo, whose family shop was slated for demolition to make way for a subway station, at the risk of ruining the family financially:

According to Wang, the family invested practically everything they had to renovate the small clothing shop. But when the subway corporation abruptly presented a notice of eviction, they were reportedly offered just two percent of their investment back in compensation. The very public confrontation with the subway corporation that followed attracted the interest of the international press and a delegation from the National People’s Congress. The shop was torn down two weeks later, but not before an agreement was quietly reached with the family.

Dramatic as the Wang family’s crisis in the face of demolition may be (at one point Wang’s parents doused themselves with gasoline and threatened to burn themselves), it’s a situation that is anything but uncommon in Beijing. In just the past ten years, Hall reports, the Beijing subway system has grown at a staggering pace, from two lines totaling 54 km to 14 lines at 336 km, with another 5 lines on the way. The subway’s expansion has touched nearly every Beijing neighborhood in the process, though it is only one facet of a decade of ubiquitous urban demolition and renewal, transforming Beijing from a city of modest but distinct hutong alley neighborhoods to large blocks shadowed by expensive high-rise apartments, along with a steep rise in commercial value.

The disparity of value between the old and new buildings has transformed not just Beijing’s landscape but its demographics, with hundreds of thousands of longtime residents no longer able to afford to live in their neighborhoods, or even in the city proper. These citizens seemingly have little power to redress their plight, but according to Hall, one remarkable aspect of the situation is that displaced Beijing residents haven’t been completely helpless in facing the impending loss of their homes:

Their tactics included a combination of petitions and visits to government offices, public demonstrations, as well as lawsuits directed against the subway corporation. This particular repertoire of actions aligns exactly with those described by You-tien Hsing in her discussion of urban households resisting demolition more broadly. Even while operating within the political constraints of the capital, residents’ ability to first draw press coverage and then to extract a commitment from the subway corporation to rectify the problem should warn against dismissing localized resistance to expansion as futile.

One of the first films to thoroughly explore the plight of Beijing residents facing eviction is Meishi Street by Ou Ning. Filmed in the city’s buildup to the 2008 Olympics, the film shows residents fighting endless red tape and official indifference to protest the planned destruction of their homes in order to widen the streets of their neighborhood, located near Tiananmen Square. Given video cameras by the filmmakers, the residents shoot breathtakingly candid footage of the eviction process.

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