Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Society for East Asian Anthropology
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Teachers of Anthropology in Community Colleges, Students
Primary Theme: Immigration/Migration/Citizenship
Secondary Theme: The Political
In late November 2017, a tragic fire in suburban Beijing was used to justify a vast campaign to demolish illegal constructions and evict low-income migrant workers. Despite widespread public outrage at the campaign, few discussions have focused on the commonalities between demolition campaigns across Chinese cities. What can investigations into the resemblances among demolitions tell us about the sociocultural transformations in contemporary China? What new forms of building or place-making emerge under conditions of massive migration, land expropriation, and urban expansions? This panel takes up the theme of chai (demolition), a Chinese character that has come to epitomize China’s rapid urbanization—often written in red, enclosed with a big circle, and painted on buildings about to be destroyed. We attend to the significance of chai as both the processes of destruction and the possibilities of reconstruction. We each ask questions about the politics of class, the value of housing and land, and the attempts to survive or defy. Together we explore the everyday life of landlords and tenants on the periphery of cities, and how their stories shed light on the economic and political forces that trigger the nationwide demolition.
Drawing on our fieldwork in Nanjing, Zhengzhou, Beijing, and Shanghai, our papers engage with the topics of settlement, resettlement, and unsettlement. First, how do the forces of real-estate development and state-led urbanization transform the settlements of both peasant landlords and migrant tenants? How has the low-cost housing for menial workers—container housing and apartment houses—emerged from constant demolition? Second, what forms of value have derived from the politics and economy of resettlement? What actions or discourses do peasant landlords employ to defy the state power? Lastly, how does the campaign of demolition unsettle members of different classes? For instance, why do chaiqian-hu (demolition-relocation households) or chai’erdai (second generation demolition) landlords reject demolition and resettlement deals? How have migrant tenants understood their lived experiences of demolition and building as conditioned by a state of “disposability” in which they can be easily dismissed from the cities? Why was the anxious middle class enraged by the recent mass demolitions? In what ways do each class’s perceptions and affects reflect the transformations of the society?
In the context of the recent tragic fire in the Beijing urban village, our work reexamines chai as a concept and phenomenon by connecting it to studies of migration, inequality, and urban governance in contemporary China. We engage with demolition as the crux of urbanization that invites new ways of theorizing China’s urban fringes.