Old Beijing tries to avoid wrecking ball
Up to 1.5 million residents lost their homes to Olympics-related development, often with little compensation or choice. Defiant homeowners have seen their property trashed.
If Olympic marathon runners take in the scenery as they approach Tiananmen Square in the Games’ closing race, they will see a most unusual sight.Skip to next paragraph
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Beside a newly paved road, in the middle of a freshly turfed open space, stands a lone, dilapidated house. It is a relic of another era.
City planners consider the building an eyesore, and have shrouded it in green netting. Sun Ruonan considers it home, and a symbol of the fight against an all-powerful government that most Chinese homeowners lose when they try to defend their property.
There is little, aside from Ms. Sun’s tenacity, to explain why her house is still standing when every other building on her street was torn down months ago as part of Beijing’s Olympic beautification campaign. “We have nothing behind us,” she says of the campaign she has waged with her sister, Ruoyu.
“The government compels us to move. This is illegal. This is robbery,” reads a sign in English on her front door, a rare venture of public protest.
Yet Sun is not opposed to the Games in whose name her neighborhood was destroyed. “The Olympics are a good thing for Beijing,” she says. “But it is also good for people to know that underneath there are ugly things happening.”
From ‘nailhouse’ to Apple store
Sun’s building the ground floor was once a famous restaurant and she lives upstairs with her sister is known in Chinese as a “dingzihu,” or a “nail house.” Such structures have become a familiar sight in construction zones across the country as residents hang on to their homes until the last moment in hope of winning higher compensation from developers cashing in on China’s property boom.
In the end, though, they all fall. “I’ve never heard of any house succeeding in just staying there,” says Su Nan, a legal expert on housing rights. “Sometimes people want to just stay, but normally that is not a choice.”
Sun’s restaurant, a vestige of the bakery founded by her great-great grandfather in the 1840s, stands just south of Tiananmen Square. That puts it at ground zero in Beijing’s drive to recreate itself in an orgy of redevelopment that has made the city almost unrecognizable in less than a decade.
Gone are most of the traditional “hutongs,” narrow alleys lined with single-story houses built around courtyards; and gone – mostly to new high rise apartment homes in the suburbs – are their residents.
Evictions started long before Beijing was awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics and they will continue once the Games are over, says Deanna Fowler, a researcher with the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions.
“But the Olympics have been used generally as a justification to get people out quickly and with cheaper compensation,” she says. The pace of evictions doubled after Beijing was awarded the Games, she adds, throwing 1.5 million people out of their homes in the run-up to the event.
Beijing city authorities say only 6,000 people have been evicted in Olympics-related redevelopment.
Qianmen, Sun’s neighborhood, once a bustling area of traditional shops selling everything imaginable, is a prime example of the way Beijing has changed. The district was razed, and just before the Olympics a sterile shopping precinct opened in its place, less than a minute from Sun’s home, boasting gleaming new Nike and Apple stores, upscale apartments, and smart restaurants.
Former residents of the area scuffled with security guards when they tried to hold a protest demonstration last week. They were hustled away from reporters.
An uphill legal battle
Though it is too late for those who have lost their homes, Sun is still living in hers, caught in bureaucratic limbo, but fighting to stay.