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Hutong Dilemma

By: Hao Ying, Global Times  March 14, 2011

Two western journalists, annoyed by what they saw as sensational and sloppy reporting about the destruction of Beijing’s old neighborhoods, have shot a series three short videos intended to add nuance to the issue.

The resulting project, A Vanishing World, portrays the dilemmas faced by residents who are reluctant to leave their old single-story courtyard homes, but at the same time crave conveniences such as modern heating, hot water, and indoor toilets.

The filmmakers find:

1. Despite regulations in place to protect the historic neighborhoods, known locally as hutong, the destruction continues.

2. Although people being relocated have a right to complain, there is no board to complain to.

3. Residents don’t have enough money to renovate the overcrowded homes, even though the government is funneling hundreds of millions of yuan into these old neighborhoods.

“The problem is this money is not going to the right places,” said Jonah Kessel, who made the videos along with Kit Gillet.

The measures in place are “kind of for show,” Kessel said. “Make something to appease a public demand, but the reality is not there.”

Better life

Despite these findings, Kessel said that reports characterizing the government’s actions as a simple land-grab are missing an important point: The residents want and deserve a better quality of life. “These people are not feeling the benefits of modernization,” he explains. “They are dealing with problems that are very basic, Heat, Toilets, Emergency vehicle access.”

These problems are complicated by the crowded conditions in the old neighborhoods. For example, building an indoor toilet means someone needs to move out to make room for it.

Kessel said the project started with him complaining to the Asia Society In New York about media coverage in particular of the redevelopment issue.

“I read things in Western newspapers that said things like, “The Chinese government wants to Disney-fy Gulou,” he explains.

“That type of editorializing doesn’t help tell people what’s going on,” Much of the reporting, particularly video and photo slideshows on the web, seemed to leave out the most important part of the story—the residents, he said.

“I wanted to give them a voice—but I also wanted to give the voice of their reality. The area has tremendous cultural value; however, the living conditions of the area are not that of a modern society. The real question is: How can you modernize at such a rapid pace and preserve your culture.” The Asia Society funded the project, and Kessel and Gillet spoke to current and former residents, city planners, professors, activists and lawyers who deal with displacement cases. They found several competing agendas at work.

“You have the developers and the officials who seem to be holding hands down the aisle—they have a clear agenda to create revenue—quickly.” On the other hand, the government invests millions of renminbi every year into the old city. “But how that money is spent is an elusive and questionable topic,” Kessel said.

Wang Youyin, lawyer from Beijing Shengyan law Firm said, “Currently a large portion of China’s GDP comes from revenues raised in land sales. The government earns income by selling the land, and the construction companies earn money by investing in the Land and developing it.”

A hutong resident Zhang Wei expressed his doubt, “They (the government) told us that the hutongs had to be torn down due to road construction but they just really wanted more commercial expansion.”

Beijing’s model

Kessel supports the work of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center(CHP), which is screening the films on Saturday. However, preservation group did not give any money to his project. “CHP is not trying to stand up to the government, saying we have to stop this.” Instead, they are trying to educate people about the value of preserving Beijing’s old neighborhoods.

We hope more people can pay attention to the heritage protection in Beijing. And people can express their own views after watching the film,” said Zhang Pei, a media coordinator from CHP.

Founder and chairman He Shuzhong of CHP, where the film will be showing, told some officials’ attitude. “Before most government officials of a lower rank took pride in taking and displaying photographs of them with bureaucrats ranked higher than them. Now the trend is for the bureaucrats to pose with important businessmen and developers, and to display those group shots in the most prominent position.”

Kessel said the government faces three main choices: gentrifying, redeveloping or renovating.

The videos will also be posted on the Asia Society’s website, along with two slideshows and a digital hutong tour, created by mounting a steadicam on a rickshaw.

“We found almost all Beijingers were against gentrification,” he said.  ”Person after person told us how much they disliked fake hutong, and particularly the Wanfujing area.”

Residents were also against redevelopment, but at the same time did not have money to renovate. Many felt economically trapped.

“They want better living conditions but are powerless unless the government relocates and compensates them,” he said. “Then you have conservationists, whose agenda is to keep old Beijing real.”

“Compensation was another big issue. With rising real estate prices, the compensation isn’t enough and residents are often forced to move Io areas far outside the city center. Ten years ago, the money was enough, but now residents feel cheated.” he said.

Apart from the compensation issue, residents find it can be hard to get their views heard. “Within the timeframe, according to the current laws, there is a hearing allowance process, where the individuals directly affected by the demolition retain tire power to express their opinions or opposition to the construction plans. But since there are no committees to sit on the hearings, the reality is that the opportunity to protest is lost, and those affected rarely have an actual venue to express their opposition towards the destruction of their homes,” said lawyer Wang Youyin.

The filmmakers feel the issue’s relevance goes far beyond Beijing and China. “How Beijing deals with redeveloping its old neighborhoods will be a model for other cities in China. This problem exists throughout the country and the developing world,” said Kessel.

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