QIJIAWAN, NANJING, MARCH 2013. We spot two giant characters “搬迁” (“BanQian” – “remove”) on Mr. Yang Guoshun’s house. These characters, like everywhere else in China, indicate that the house has been designated for demolition; most likely to make way for a new real-estate development project.
Next to the door, on a wall made of wooden planks, we see sentences written with chalk in the traditional top-down direction:
“It is easy to deprive the public for the sake of the government’s own interests. It is hard to serve the public for the sake of the people’s inviolable rights. (Lao Xuan, Republic of China)”
“Despite its shabbiness, our house is the sanctuary protecting us from bitter winds and rains. Despite its smallness, our house is the relic weathering political changes from Nationalist to Communist. (Yang Guoshun)”
“If the ruler himself is upright, nobody goes against his will even though he does not give orders. If he himself is not upright, nobody follows his leadership even though he forces his orders. (The Analects)”
Since he was born, Yang Guoshun, a 68-year-old Hui (a predominantly Muslim ethnic group in China), has lived in his one-story house in Ganyu Alley. As he once worked in the department of city constructions in his working place, he appears to be better educated than other residents here. The brick-concrete structured house has a history of more than 100 years. Mr. Yang tells us that before the government’s removal plans, the three generations of his family all lived here. His children and grandchildren lived in the small attic built on top of the house.
When the removal started 3 years ago, they moved out, leaving Mr. Yang in this house alone. Even though the officials have ordered him to move out for 5 times, he never followed the order. He insists that his house is a cultural relic, which should be protected rather than removed by the government. Mr. Yang shows us a document to the Department of Cultural Relics Preservation, complaining about the damage caused by the removal activity to his house.
According to Mr. Yang, the neighborhood is the gathering place of Hui people in Nanjing. The number of households has declined from 4,200 three years ago to 1,300 today. Without an effective leadership and a united organization, he says, they are taking the pains to prevent the unjustifiable removal activity all in their own manner. They hope the government will show concern for the real interests of the residents here, rather than merely expelling them from their living place.
Mr. Yang provides some materials he has collected in order to support his complaint. The government’s removal plan is not only for the improvement of the city’s image, but also serves the goal to establish a tourist spot in this area. Named “Jiangnan 72 Workshops”, the planned tourist spot will be built in an antique style based on the ancient “Ming 18 Workshops”. With this program, the government wishes to reconstruct the image of the old Nanjing and display the time-honored Jiangnan cultures. One of the documents Mr. Yang shows contains a promise of the government that they will provide 3000 apartments for the remaining 1350 households.
Yang Guoshun believes the so-called “Jiangnan 72 Workshops” is merely an excuse of the government. He questions the justifiability of the program: “Why does the government enlarge the number of workshops from 18 to today’s 72? Because it is a lie! Because the government wants to auction more land for money!” Also, he insists that the process of removal is unwarranted, because the removal began before the approval of the “Jiangnan 72 Workshops” plan. He says that he, and the other remaining residents, crave for being listened to and respected, rather than being taking advantage of in the interest of increasing profits for the government.
“My job was closely related to city construction, so I may know more about this area,” Mr. Yang tells us. “The usual measures to settle residents who lost their properties are to allocate new apartments to them or to give a certain amount of money for compensation. The standard of compensation, which hasn’t changed the last 3 years, is 7,000 RMB per m2.” The residents have been informed that in the upcoming new round of the removal activity, they still will be compensated based on this old standard. Most of the residents who accepted the house allocation measure are suffering from poor living conditions. The apartments provided by the government are all located in the remote suburb areas. What is worse, many of those who accepted the money compensation are still homeless today.
At this time, Mr. Zhao, a middle-aged man joins our talk. Mr. Yang introduces him to us: “This is my neighbor. He has a lot to tell you.” Mr. Zhao tells that he used to belong to the Hui people, but later changed into Han (i.e. he is not a Muslim anymore).
“I slept on the side of the road during 1970s,” Mr. Zhao says, “There were six people in my family. We all slept without a shelter. The government expelled me to the countryside and then deprived my property. When I came back to my living place, I had no right to step into my own house any more. Therefore, I had to sleep by the road every night for 10 years.” According to him, all his family could afford was a piece of uncomfortable matting.
He continues to recall the living conditions then: “Even in the coldest winter, my parents, my younger brothers and sisters had to sleep by the road, right here in the prosperous Baixia District. At that time, nobody ever asked us to leave. Nobody ever showed little concern about our living conditions. Do you have any idea about what we ate then? We ate the scraps from the garbage and the unfinished dishes from the restaurants. The government seemed to be blind for our conditions.” He tells us that in Nanjing, about 170, 000 people were living in the same conditions at the time.
Mr. Zhao explains why they had no place to live: “In the city, our house was bought by the government. They forced us to receive the so-called re-education for the poor and peasants. In order to comply with the appeal of the government, we gave up the life in the city and went to the countryside. When we arrived there, we realized that we still could not have our own house. The properties were possessed by the rural government, not by us. They had all kinds of dishes on their dinners, while we could only have wheat every meal.”
According to Mr. Zhao, he was poorly educated. He dropped out in his fourth grade in primary school. He says: “I did not have the right to go to school. When we were expelled to the countryside, I was at the age of ten. Over one decade of my life was wasted in the countryside.” He is almost unable to read and write. He sighs: “People like me, who are almost illiterate, have been abandoned and forgotten by this society. We are thought to be inferior. Without a decent education background, we are now thought to be the most humble class. We are thought to be nothing.” He smiles bitterly: “Everyone has to grow, isn’t it? I have been forcing myself to be tougher.”
Mr. Zhao does not have a stable job. He earns money by picking and selling garbage and doing a small business called “danbang”. According to Mr. Yang, the so-called “danbang” is to sell goods from Nanjing to people in other cities and make money on the price difference. Mr. Zhao complains: “Most people here, who are not intellectually and physically competent, can hardly find a job in today’s society. You must think it is a shame that I haven’t had a job for over 30 years. I spend my days outside all day long to find some minor jobs. I feel myself like seaweed without a root. I feel my life is even more wretched than that of a cow or a horse.” However, Mr. Zhao manages to pay money for his social security account, and hence will be able to receive a pension every month after he turns 60 years old.
Mr. Zhao is married and has a daughter who is 21 years old. She is a sophomore student majoring in graphic and 3D animation design. He says: “The only thing that can give me joy and hope is to see my little girl grow up day by day. Yet when I walk out of the door into the hopeless society, I become depressed again.” He does not know what his daughter will do in the future. Neither does he know how to help her. He worries that she may not be as tough as he is, and may not be able to survive all the bleak conditions.
“In the past, we could not stuff ourselves and possess our own houses, whereas now nothing has changed. The government has begun to destroy our houses and force us to go back to the countryside again. It seems that the history is repeating itself,” Mr. Zhao says, “This house was taken by my family from the government in 1981. I love it. However, the government wants me to leave. Honestly, I myself don’t know what I have to think and what I am going to do. Should I leave or stay? I don’t know. I just love it here.”
Mr. Zhao is rather angry that the government is going to force them again far away from the city. He sighs: “If we agree to move there, we will lose the only ways of supporting ourselves. We’ve already been living in the hell of the society, but life there will be even more wretched.” Mr. Zhao and the other residents are so clear about it, because their old neighbors who have moved out are struggling in miserable conditions. Many of them haven’t found a shelter yet.
In spite of the possible trouble this interview will bring to them, they all allow us to put it on the Internet. Mr. Zhao says: “I’ m not afraid of death. To me, death will bring me to the heaven, where I can enjoy my life eventually.” The other residents agree with him. Mr. Yang states: “We show our patriotism to this country by virtue of defending our own rights. Imagine a country where the ordinary people dare not to challenge the privilege and supervision of the government. Without any control, the public power in this country will turn into a monster, trampling on the dignity and pride of the people. Consequently, the monster will exhaust people’s faith in this country and jeopardize the stability of this regime. “
The residents concertedly believe that if the public power and interrelations continue to override legislation, the lower class will never be treated equally in this society, let alone realize the ideal of a harmonious society. “To enjoy the sunshine, we have to remove the dark clouds.”
Mr. Zhao now invites us to his home. Before we leave we notice some interesting small works of art and several animals like turtles and a cricket in Mr. Yang’s house. Mr. Yang smiles and says: “We Chinese know to pursue the beauty of ordinary life, however tough life itself is.”
Mr. Zhao then guides us to his home. His house, which is located in another alley near Pingshi Street, is officially as big as 14.4 m2. Apart from the legally registered area, he has built another three illegal rooms. At the time everybody did this and the government did not mind. Now however, the area of the rooms that are not registered is excluded from the removal compensation.
Pingshi Street was called Pishi Street in the ancient times, which means the market of animal leather trade. The majority of houses here enjoy a history of more than 100 years. A middle aged woman tells us: “Pingshi Street used to be the golden section in Nanjing, even more prosperous than today’s downtown Xinjiekou. However, four years of removal has ruined all the landscape here. Hundreds of thugs walk around every day, in an effort to “convince” the families to move out!” The woman denies that the government will offer reasonable compensation programs. She along with her neighbors refuses to leave their home to the outskirts, where they can find no job at all. “We won’t give up. We have filed our petition last year to Premier Wen Jiabao, and we will continue this effort until the final victory.”
When we leave the Qijiawan area, we pass the front gate of a former campus on Dingxin Road. “The Command Center of Removal” is written on the gate. A passer-by gives us his opinion on the removal activity: “Houses here are too old, shabby and dangerous for people to live; I see no reason for preservation.”
Another post on the Qijiawan area can be found here.