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Transcript of FCCC Gulou event

A Q & A with He Shuzhong, founder and chairman of CHP, was held in April about the planned Gulou redevelopment. Read the transcript of the event to learn more about the questions raised and He Shuzhong’s detailed answers. Question: Who are the people really pushing for this development – there’s like a combination of government officials, real estate companies? Or are there other actors involved or is it just real estate developers who want to do it?

Answer: This is a project that’s being spear-headed, led by the government, so those involved will be the leading property developers, especially developers with government backgrounds, state-owned property developers as well as architect’s firms.

Question: So does that make it really hard to stop the project since they have so much guanxi with the local government and they’re so connected and embedded in it?

Answer: In fact, if you’re familiar with matters in China, and in Beijing particular, you would find that a lot of nearly impossible things are in fact possible even though they may look difficult. It all has to do with your timing, it has to do with your approach, your methodology, you need to touch the right pressure points and then you can make things possible. And then there’s also the issue of the measure of success – maybe you’re able to completely stop this project, that would be considered a success, but if you’re not able to completely stop it you might be able to reduce the impact, reduce the damage caused by it. That’s a kind of success as well. Or even, there may not be any changes to the project on the surface, but in the process you might be able to apply pressure on certain people and have an impact on them so that they will do things differently next time. That’s a kind of success as well.

Question: Can Professor He give us some background on the history of this area and the significance of the demolition? If this area is demolished and rebuilt, what will Beijing be losing?

Answer: This is a very special area. If a project like this were taking place outside the second or third ring road it would not be of our concern at all. It concerns us because it’s right inside the second ring road. First of all, it’s an important part of the old city of Beijing. Secondly, it’s one of the very few cultural historical heritage protection areas. This area belongs to the Shichahai Historical and Cultural Protection Area.

Also, these neighbourhoods are special in that they encompass all the important elements of historical heritage in China. The Bell Towers and Drum Towers of China are extremely significant buildings, so this area has a Bell Tower, a Drum Tower, it has the hutongs, it has courtyard houses and residents living there in the traditional lifestyle. So all these elements are present in this area – it is living heritage.

The other heritage areas have old buildings but they don’t have the old lifestyle there. There are places where there’re courtyard houses, but they are not significant historical buildings. And there are places where there are courtyard houses and significant historical buildings but they are not original residents living there, so this area is special in that way too.

Another reason that this project is of particular concern for us is that we do not want to see the model of redevelopment of the Qianmen area being spread to other areas. Given the existence of the Qianmen redevelopment, we still have today officials as well as specialists, experts, who consider it a model of success for protection and redevelopment. If it happens again in this area, it gives rise to this kind of approach to so called ‘protection’.

Question: Is there, among the authorities, a group of people who oppose the programme? Or are all the authorities all together pushing for this kind of thing?

Answer: Because most experts in this area would be working in the government, there would be people within the government who disagree, or who simply oppose the idea, but because they work in the system their expression of dissent would be different.

Question: Can you give us the names of some officials who are behind this project? And when is the earliest that this project could start?

Answer: All our information has come from official media and we have the name of the main backer on our website but I don’t remember his precise name right now.

Since we were expecting all of you I just printed something out from a website. Now on our own website we have lists of all the government authorities and developers who are said to be involved in this project, but I also just printed this off the website of Boston International Design Group and they have quite detailed information on their website. I’m looking at the sheet, it has layouts, artists’ impressions of other projects they have been involved in. You can take a look later if you want.

The day before yesterday when we looked at their website there were drawings of this project and when we looked again today there is the title of the project but the drawings have been removed.

In fact, quite often the Chinese government and real estate developers often like to involve international designers and architects to show that their method of destruction is advanced – to show that they are legitimate.

I can’t say with full confidence that this project we are talking about has been designed or will be designed by this company because I have not seen that information from any official source but this company’s own website refers to this project. It’s not clear whether their design has been adopted.

There’s other misinformation in this country and they change, but according to official media it will launch later this year.

Question: I know a couple of Chinese people who used to live in hutongs and when I asked them weren’t they very sad when they had to move out into the suburbs, they said ‘no, no, we’re very happy to go because now at least I have one toilet per family and not per 10 families.’ Is there a sense of restructuring the city in a good way in all of this or are you just seeing the bad side of it?

Answer: I myself lived in a hutong for many many years and I can totally sympathise with the old ladies who are complaining about living in hutongs. When I lived in a hutong house I could not use my computer printer in the winter because it was so cold.

When we announced that we were going to hold a forum discussing this issue two days ago, many local residents left messages on our website. Some of them complained about various things, some of them cursed us for trying to stop something like this.

So there were people who supported us and there were people who opposed us. Out of the people who opposed us – apart from the rude language – we could identify with everything they said.

Their complaints include: bad living environment, congested traffic, chaotic living environment and being looked at by tourists like animals in a zoo. And I know they are sincere in expressing their opinions and like I say I have lived in a hutong house and I do identify with them.

But how did this situation come about? Let me use an analogy. Let’s say there’s a Ming dynasty chair and it’s beautiful and generation after generation everyone’s sat on it, stepped on it, used it and no-one looked after it, no-one cleaned it, no-one fixed it, no-one maintained it. Of course it’s going to degenerate. The reason the hutongs have degenerated is not the fault of these houses themselves and not mainly the fault of the residents. The main fault is with the administrators, the supervisors who have not maintained, not looked after them, have not taken measure to look after them.

As I said, this is a very famous and important area of cultural heritage. What needs to be done is to assure people that it will not be demolished so that people will have the confidence that it will not be demolished. Then, when they have that assurance, improvements can be made to them, to the environment, and everything that needs to be repaired needs to be repaired. It’s going to take a process. Just like an old city was not built over a few years, it cannot be improved in a few years, it needs some time.

When that has been achieved, there needs to be rezoning of the area. We need to reallocate the commercial areas, the retail areas and the activities of tourism because the residents do need some peace. At the moment commercial activities are everywhere, and tourism is done everywhere and that does cause frustration on the part of the residents.

What’s also important is that there will be residents who no longer want to live there, and if they don’t want to, they need to have the opportunity and the right to be able to choose. They might not want to live in a courtyard house, they might want to live in a high-rise. They need the right and the opportunity and the government needs to make it possible for them to make that choice and to guarantee that choice. At the moment they do not have that right.

As an NGO, what we do is raise public awareness about the history, about the value of this area, telling the residents that they have the right and they need to have the opportunities to decide for themselves, and to help them to get that right and to seek those opportunities. After all, we’re an organisation that helps communities to protect their own heritage.

Looking at this Bell and Drum Tower area possible redevelopment area, I think allowing it to happen in such an important neighbourhood would be a great waste. That would be akin to building hotels inside the Forbidden City.

Question: What is the official explanation for why they want to focus on Gulou? With Qianmen being a commercial centre, what’s expected to come out of the Gulou area? And also can you think of any examples of where hutongs have been restored in a correct manner in order to have an example for how they want the area to be built?

Answer: To your first question, I wonder if you haven’t spent a lot of time in China. The thing about China is that when a lot of things are done they don’t give you reasons. And the public are not very good at asking for reasons.

If everything is done with proper explanations and when that is missing if the public were to get to the bottom of it then China would be a bad society.

There’s a lot of talk about public participation, a lot of big shots like talking about it. But the thing is, is there room for public participation? Is the public willing to participate? If the public is not willing to participate then there’s not public participation to be talked of.

I think this awareness, this public participation is the most important thing. It’s more important than repairing the Forbidden City.

Question: What about the compensation? It is better than usual? I came to the building sites, I saw some beautifully renovated buildings that are being destroyed now.

Answer: I don’t know how much money one might get, I will be different for everybody. They will offer different amounts to different people and it probably also depends on how long you can hold out for. So I don’t know how much people eventually will get.

But, in reality, any amount of compensation will be extremely low in relation to the real value of the properties.

Question: How many households will be evicted?

Answer: Each block in this area has proper planning done for it and the planning was done years ago and it has legal effect. There are two national level laws that protect these areas. There’s one Beijing Municipal level law protecting it and there are many detailed urban plans. The interesting thing is that too many people, when they discuss the area, when they talk about the fate of the area, they overlook all these things that really determine the fate of the area. They intentionally, or unintentionally, just ignore these.

So part of our work is reminding the government, reminding the legislature, reminding the police and the experts that the legal framework of this area is important, the planning is important. Let’s not forget these.

We once asked the designer of the National Performance Centre, the national opera house as we call it, how he came to the idea of building something like that so close to the Forbidden City right there. He said ‘If they don’t care about it, why should we?’

I couldn’t say anything to that because he had his logic in saying it. But if I had of said anything, I would’ve said ‘what can I do?’ You can see that is the same mentality probably with the Boston International Design Group. If I asked them the same question they would probably say that too. Then what can I say? If they are happy to lower themselves to the level of those trash in this country, what can I say about them?

I really do hope I have the opportunity to ask the Boston International Design Group what they think about it.

[re: number of residents to be evicted]: I don’t know. No-one knows.

Question: There is a lot of speculation about corruption in some of these cases. Between the police, between the authorities and the developers perhaps. Have you ever been able to establish that corruption, the fubai, connection between local authority, developers, police, in connection to any of the cases your NGO has been working on?

Answer: We would like to see everything done with openness, transparency, and legitimacy. Whenever something is done without transparency, without legitimacy, it definitely means that in that part of the process there is corruption.

The kind of corruption we’re talking about here might be different to certain western concepts of corruption. In this area in fact, the laws that protect physical cultural heritage in the cities are very good and the implementation is extremely poor. And when that happens there has to be corruption or just laziness, and when laziness takes place it’s not criticised against, it’s not sanctioned, and corruption arises.

Question: Last Saturday the public meeting was cancelled. Why was it cancelled? Is it because the topic is sensitive?

Answer: I don’t think there’s really any sensitivity in this. If you are an old hand here, if you hear something’s cancelled for certain reasons then it’s cancelled for certain reasons. It’s not sensitive at all because the government, our premier, is talking all the time about protecting the rights and interests of residents and we are doing this with a patriotic heart, and propagating what the Communist Party is propagating every day. So there’s nothing to be sensitive about.

I think everything we do we should be rewarded by the government.

Question: There’s an airforce compound to the east of Gulou and there’s a lot of development going on around there. Could you tell us what kind of development that is and whether that has anything to do with this project?

Answer: Those developments are not related to those project we’re talking of today, but this is an issue. The government is too flush with money and they’ve got these 4 trillion rights and they’re stimulating the domestic economy and that brings a lot of construction, including many projects that had been killed off before. I know that some of them are being revived in the inner city. So this building you’re talking about is probably related to that.

Question: I’m the proud, but a bit anxious, owner of a courtyard in this area. I heard recently that the city planning for Dong Cheng, this area, will be worked with these Boston Design Group – which is partly owned by the Chinese, the main shareholder is Chinese – and their project would be very limited to the tops of the two routeways north of the two Towers, and the enlargement of two roads. That would be the project for this Boston Design Group, or it might be only one of the projects. The museum, the underground museum they are speaking about, would be on the other side of Gulou, on the south of Gulou where there is an empty parking lot where they can place [indecipherable].

Answer: What you’re describing is in line with the publicity I have read a few days ago and also with the drawings I have seen on the website of the Boston International a couple of days ago, which is no longer there. They refer to a long strip from the north to the south of the Towers. But, looking at the drawings, or the artists’ impressions, I can see that all the courtyard houses or the hutongs surrounding this area are different. So my understanding is that they are just going to flatten this whole area and rebuild. So as far as concerned, we are not going to have genuine courtyard houses anymore. There will be a gentrified area of luxurious living: they might have hotels, they might have brand name boutiques, and then we will just have still-standing Bell and Drum Towers as a backdrop for this luxurious area.

So like I was saying, this is an area boasting the Drum and the Bell Towers, courtyard houses, real residents living their daily lives there – that is the essence of the cultural heritage we are talking about. But if we are going to have a luxurious neighbourhood with the Drum and Bell Towers sticking out of it, then people would have turned these into their private decoration.

If it carries on like this, eventually this whole area will have nothing to do with the ordinary people of Beijing.

Question: What is the government saying about that? What are the official comments of the gui hua ju (planning bureau)?

Answer: Like I was just saying, a lot of government agencies, a lot of authorities, consider the Qianmen development a great success. And in fact we think the Qianmen project was an extremely bad example, a very bad start of this trend.

So just like the Ming dynasty chair I was talking about, they are just interested in using it, sitting on it, stepping on it, they never do anything to look after it and eventually one day it’s going to look too run-down and they think about, they think it’s going to be too costly to repair it, to restore, and they just throw it out and buy a plastic one instead.

So, for decades they just completely neglect this whole area and then all of a sudden they want to overhaul it overnight. They probably just have too much money to squander away and there’s probably too much embedded interest as well.

Question: [indistinct] last year. A great percentage of the houses in that very area. The housing bureau. In this very area a lot of houses have been rebuilt by the housing group, the management group, already. Electricity has been brought to replace the coal in this very area. So it would be a complete [indistinct] of planning because they spent money to do that and then they would destroy everything to do another development.

Answer: Isn’t it the kind of thing that’s done every day?

Question: I’m curious. In the traditional organisation of the hutongs and siheyuan (courtyard houses), it was always organised around the family unit. During the Cultural Revolution and the period before that, multiple families moved into these hutongs in an ad hoc fashion, so I’m curious to what extent the sort of entanglement produced within the siheyuans and whether you think that is an impediment to the sort of sensitive development you’re interested in and if there are any solutions if there is an impediment. [clarifying] Overcrowding and the fact that the boundaries of ownership have been broken down and become entangled with one another and so perhaps it’s easier for the government, rather than just solving that entanglement, to just knock everything down and start from scratch.

Answer: It is certainly one of the issues. And indeed the entanglement of various rights connected to the siheyuan and hutong houses are so complex that even the best legal experts would have trouble resolving them. But, like I was saying, that is not the fault of the houses, that is not merely the fault of the residents. It’s the fault of the administrators and it does not form sufficient reason to tear them down.

Well, if we do have a lot of such heritage remaining, then for the most difficult, challenging areas we have to demolish and start afresh, it might be possible as an approach. The thing is we have so little remaining. Beijing has the nation’s best preserved cultural heritage, the inner city of Beijing has the best preserved areas of the city Beijing and Dong Cheng is probably the best of out of the inner city Beijing. Even the best of the best, we can say what the situation is. If you go out of Dong Cheng, go out of Beijing, you will just see nothing. With so little remaining, we really can’t afford to say ‘there’s some difficulty and we’re not going to do it.’

If I were the mayor of Dong Cheng District, I would be very frustrated too. Just look at my neighbour Chao Yang and my colleague at Chao Yang running Chao Yang District. They’re producing such high GDP and they’re boasting such high tax revenues. I would be frustrated too if I were the mayor of Dong Cheng District. Look at Chao Yang. We have a common boss. And the boss has the same expectations from me, the mayor of Dong Cheng, and the mayor of Chao Yang, and they want the same things from us. My boss is going to say ‘look at Chao Yang, they produce such high GDP. They’re returning so much tax revenue, what are you doing?’ And then I probably would be done for, just after that. So I would need to find a way out of that. So as well as expecting a mayor to have an awareness of heritage protection, we also need to change the way officials are assessed for their performance. That is something that the whole society needs to push for.

Not to mention Chao Yang District, as the mayor of Deng Cheng District you would compare yourself to other inner-city districts; the Xi Cheng, the Xuan Wu. Xi Cheng has got a financial street and Xuan Wu has got a media boulevard. As mayor of Dong Cheng I would have to think of something to do in my district. Let’s do something different. Let’s do something. So I think the important thing is that to regard inner Beijing as a holistic area it needs to be under one administration that has different tasks than the other areas. The task is not to produce high GDP but to preserve the old Beijing and preserve its culture. As the inner city of Beijing you cannot go and compete on GDP with new development areas. That’s when we can see some change.

So we need to tackle these issues, but who is going to raise proposals to the government? Not from the inside of the government because inside the government they want as many districts so that there would be as many posts as possible for mayors. So they’re not going to raise it. It’s going to be forces in society that will push for this.

We have presented many different proposals to the government, including areas that need to be protected, things that should not be demolished. Out of these proposals, the one that’s worst received is the proposal to merge the four inner districts because once they are merged there’ll be only one mayor. The other three mayors want to kill you, so what are you going to do about that?

So, having to cancel the Saturday gathering for certain issues is not a big issue; there are much bigger issues at stake.

Question: What’s your first plan to stop this project happening?

Answer: Well, first of all there’s pressure. Pressure from the general public, from the media. When it comes to what media, the minor officials are more worried about domestic media and the big officials are worried about international media.

Another thing is how you look at such a development. This particular area may look chaotic, but the area surrounding the Forbidden City was just like that 10 or 20 years ago. So the environment can be improved with particular approaches. Now, to use this area to develop such a project is a terrible waste. This area is valuable. A project like this can be better done elsewhere, outside the former city wall of Beijing. Even without this project, this area can be very well utilised for the so-called cultural and creative industry.

They need some pressure, they need some pressure from the media. At the same time, they need to hear from experts, from certain institutions. We don’t seem trusted or important enough for them. They need to be able to hear from people who they believe in that this area is valuable, it needs to be protected, and it can generate value for both the residents and the government.

For example, they should be told that if this area is well preserved and well managed, tourists will come. If it’s all flattened and rebuilt, tourists will not come. All these things need to be told to the authorities.

Question: Are there any specific actions your group is going to take in the next few days or weeks to try and stop this project or change it? And the other question is: because the public forum was cancelled, that seemed like a significant setback and that you were going to use that meeting to bring awareness to the people. So can you say more about why that was cancelled and if it will be rescheduled in the future?

Answer: It’s not so much a setback because as an NGO, our task, our mission, is to raise awareness amongst people, especially residents. We were going to do that through this forum we were going to hold, but it seems that it’s cancellation has had the same effect.

What we’re going to do is write an article to present detailed views of ours on this issue. We’re going to circulate that article and we’re going to try to do our best to have it published in official media so it becomes an official view. Then, we’ll circulate that official view in the form of clicking of that published article. So that it would have an impact, we will send this article to people like the Boston International Design Group so that they realise if they go ahead they’ll be breaking the law. And the reality in China is that minor officials are scared of the big officials and the big officials are scared of the people. That’s how the circle works.

As journalists for major media outlets, you may not actually go all the way down to reading local community bulletin boards on the internet and things like that. We spend a lot of our time following a lot of these local residents’ bulletin boards, and we can see a lot of discussion around topics like this. We are very pleased to see that we have caused discussions and debates. Through this process, there will develop understanding, concepts, mindsets and gain concepts like human rights etc. I think that’s a great success.

If there is no participation by the public, by the local residents, then we would not be able to successfully protect the cultural heritage. And there would be no meaning to it, even if we did it.

We are not archaeologists. We are not heritage building renovators and that’s not our specialty. We don’t restore buildings and I think these things are not our realm of specialty. We’d rather leave that to the specialists.

CHP would like to thank our volunteer, Elliott Gibbons, for his outstanding transcription of the FCCC event.

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