Hundreds in Shanghai feel steamrolled by city's urban redevelopment plans

April 30, 1995|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Sun Staff Correspondent

SHANGHAI -- In an unusual vote of no confidence in China's leaders, hundreds of Shanghaiese have been protesting the city's breakneck program of urban redevelopment.

The protests were triggered by the city's plans to tear down huge chunks of central Shanghai and relocate thousands of residents to the edge of town. In place of the old European-style rowhouses will be shopping centers, luxury apartments and offices.

Last month, more than 300 residents staged a sit-in at a vegetable market. Since then, protest organizers have been passing out leaflets and collecting signatures for a petition opposing the forced relocations.

The dispute is more than a local issue. The relocation plans were approved by a series of Shanghai politicians who have gone on to top positions in China's central government.

Among those responsible are former Shanghai Mayors Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji -- who are now China's president and economic czar -- and the head of the Communist Party's Shanghai branch, who has become vice premier.

In interviews, Shanghaiese say the leaders' goals were basically correct: The old housing is appallingly overcrowded, and the city needs new office space if it is to regain its economic glory.

Indeed, many people are proud that their city is one of Asia's most dynamic, with a new subway line that opened earlier this month and a large museum nearing completion.

But local pride is marred by the methods used to determine which buildings would be demolished and where residents would be relocated. Several spoke of a feeling of helpless anger when they came home to find that their homes -- which they had rented for generations but had never been allowed to purchase -- were condemned.

People are also bitter over the way Shanghai is being rebuilt to suit foreigners and the local elite -- a mirror of the old Shanghai, where ordinary Chinese were consigned to the bottom rung.

"Take a look at our home," said Wang Meilin, an owner of a small store in an alley north of Shanghai's Golden Mile shopping district along Huaihai Street. "Take a good look, because the wrecking team was by this morning to tell us that we have to move out. It's the last you'll see of it."

Ms. Wang isn't sentimental about her old apartment. Five people share 75 square feet overlooking an alley choked with clotheslines and garbage pails.

She's eager to move away, but the choice offered by the city government would mean disaster.

"They want us to move out beyond the Fifth Circle," she said, alluding to the city districts that radiate out from the downtown. The Fifth Circle is almost countryside; beyond it is nothing.

"Who can live out there and still commute to work? What are we supposed to do out there?"

Ms. Wang and her family have been told to vacate their apartment this summer and move to Meilong, a dusty cluster of apartment blocks. Their living space will nearly double, but her husband will have to commute more than two hours each way to his job at a Shanghai hotel. Ms. Wang will be unemployed, because her shop will be torn down.

Her in-laws are also upset. Mr. Lin, her father-in-law, said he loves to spend his mornings at nearby Huaihai Park gossiping with friends. Few of them will be going with him to Meilong, he said, meaning he will lose contact with most friends.

Mr. Lin and his wife got so angry about the turn of events that they participated in the recent sit-in. They are demanding better bus service, the construction of community facilities and consultation with residents.

"We old people have nothing to lose, so we're willing to confront the government," Mr. Lin said. "The rest of our family shouldn't participate in the protests or else they can lose their jobs. But everyone is angry about this."

Especially galling is that the houses in what used to be Shanghai's French concession will be torn down to make way for a large Hong Kong property development that people believe was approved only after bribes were paid. This lends a hollow ring to city officials' claims that they are acting in the residents' best interests.

Housing officials declined to comment on the resettlement program, but the government-controlled press has kept up a steady barrage of reports praising the new housing projects and explaining that the redevelopment will ultimately benefit all Shanghaiese.

Many, however, resent the government's high-handed planning methods as much as their new location.

"In America, I hear that you have plans and rules, so if something is torn down you know why it is and because of what reasons," said a 65-year-old retired government official strolling around Huaihai Park.

"But here in China we don't know why things happen. The government orders us to move, and we have to move. The leaders order, the people follow."

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