Out with the old and in with the new

Davey Meelker

When we were visiting the Chinese metropolis GuangZhou, we were impressed by the modernity of this city in the southeast of China. It doesn’t look like anything like it looked a few decades ago. Everywhere there are skyscrapers, there is a convenient trilingual subway system and it has wide roads. It is clean and much more modern than all European cities. Our friend took us to one of the only remaining old neighbourhoods one day. On our way we passed large blocks of houses surrounded by a wall with the military guarding it. Our friend explained that this was a nice old neighbourhood, but the government decided to build more flats and skyscrapers.  When they decide something, they take drastic measurements.

It is amazing how fast whole neighbourhoods can disappear. Like the hutongs in Beijing they are still declining fast in GuangZhou. At first sight we were impressed of the modernity of GuangZhou, but we soon learned that this comes at a high price. Our friend told us that he used to play chess with the elderly people in the old neighbourhood that will be torn down, but it is now difficult to enter the place. What will happen with those people living there? And what about the Chinese heritage?

Maybe more creepy than the army and the wall were the red propaganda banners attached to the buildings. It explains that it is for the best of the people and that they should be happy with what the government is doing for them. One signs said: “These apartments are going to be torn down, with the compensation you will benefit.” With compensation they mean that they will get a new apartment. That is the least the government can do, but we should not forget that those are often poor people. They have nothing to put into the apartment and what about future rent? And what about this: maybe they lived all their lives in the neighbourhood and simply don’t want to life in a modern flat. Unfortunately, it is not up to them to decide.

As a former local politician in Amsterdam I cannot help feel a bit jealous about the Chinese implementation of policy. When they want something done they will do it. In a few years complete subway systems were built in different cities, while in Amsterdam every initiative can be blocked for years by lobbies and court cases. It can sometimes be frustrating that initiatives where you strongly believe in almost seem impossible this way. But on the other hand, the Chinese situation described above is far from being fair and perfect. If it goes on like this the Chinese cities will be only concrete jungles, without the zigzagging small streets with small Chinese shops, restaurants and houses. Then the cities will have no soul and a part of the heritage will be destroyed. I honestly hope that everything turns out fine with the inhabitants of the neighbourhood in GuangZhou.

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