This is an entry chronicling the background story of a book I am currently working on about China’s new cites. This is a new series of posts so regular readers can follow along with what happens as this book comes together, and to share anecdotes, travel stories, and notes that probably won’t make it into the final product.
I was writing up a section on forced evictions and demolitions for the ghost city book, and typed up a story about the Zhang family resisting relocation in Taizhou. As the story was going up on the screen it struck me that I didn’t know how it ended. Mrs. Zhang stopped returning my emails, texts, and calls soon after I visited and interviewed her and her family. I would need to return to Taizhou to find out what happened.
So I took a train out of Xiamen and rode up to the Yangtze Delta. I had other another project to finish up in that area, and I also knew of an old church there full of severely geriatric Christians who would surely be celebrating Christmas. This city is also just a few hours from Shanghai — a place that I seriously could have written this entire book without ever leaving. So I made a list of objectives, set up the necessary meetings, and rode up to Jiangsu province.
I had a meeting set up at China Medical City (CMC) — or an “official” tour, as I suppose it could be called. CMC a completely new city being built for 100,000 people themed solely around pharmaceutical research and production. I’d been to this place around a dozen times before, it always gives me the creeps. This was the first time I’ve ever visited in any official capacity.
I was greeted by the giant European clock tower by a perky young women in a bright purple coat who announced that she would be my guide.
“I know that your book will be very interesting and a big success,” she said.
“Do you know what my book is about?” I asked, understanding that anybody involved with the topic though unfamiliar with my angle may be a little squeamish about talking to me.
“No, but Mrs. XXXXX told me that I should help you in any way that I can, so I know that your book must be good.”
We got into a van and the tour began. It was the standard, verbatim catchphrase and brochure scripted tour talk that I knew I would receive. “China Medical City is the only national level biomedical facility in China. It was founded in . . . ” I wasn’t really interested in what I would be told during this endeavor, but in what I could see. I hadn’t been able to get into the labs and factories here yet, and coming attached to my own personal liaison was pretty much my only way in. I am still unsure if this visit had anything to do with my book or if it was just to satiate a burning curiosity. There is just something about entire cities being built for singular industries that is oddly fascinating, and an entire city of medical labs and pharmaceutical plants is rather startling.
“This area is almost fully occupied,” my liaison spoke as we drove by an overtly abandoned factory.
“So that building is occupied,” I asked, pointing at it.
“No, not that one.”
I was then taken into a vaccination research facility. We went into a lobby that was decked out as a touch and go visitor reception center, and I was shown maps of the new city, photos of it being built, and photos of what they hope will be built here. We hovered near a big render of a Nestle nutraceutical plant. I had never seen anything that looked like that there before.
“Is Nestle really here?” I asked.
“No,” she admitted, “but they will be soon.”
We then stood before an entire wall of photos of Hu Jintao, the former president of China who grew up near here.
“President Hu came here right around this time one year ago,” she spoke.
I remembered that. I was there. Right before Brother Hu showed up Taizhou gave itself a big makeover — the bicycle rickshaw drivers had their old vehicles disposed of and were given new green ones, and a 100 year old neighborhood was razed to the ground and a tacky new anachronism of it was erected in his honor. Of course, the president also visited CMC, which was one of his pet projects.
“Did you see him?” I asked.
“Yes, I saw him,” she spoke excitedly.
“Did you talk to him?”
“No, we just stood in a line and waved our hands as he walked by. Some lucky ones got handshakes.”
We then got back into the van and I asked to be taken to the boundaries of the development. I was driven past some half built buildings that looked remarkably similar to fictional spaceships and another that looked like an upturned porcelain bowl chopped in half. What they were building here was intentionally sci-fi and would look out of place in any landscape, but framed by horizons of empty fields and farms they seemed unreal, like holograms.
“Before, all of this was just rice fields,” the young woman spoke.
Yes, rice fields and people’s homes, I muttered to myself. We continued driving for around a mile out into the distance to the edge of the project area, and then turned around. CMC is only a third built, and much of the site is cleared lots or yet to be dismantled villages. On the way back we rode past an old village that was on the brink of the development zone.
“Is the land here part of CMC?”
“It’s all CMC.”
“What is going to happen to that village?”
“We will tear down the buildings and build pharmaceutical plants.”
“How is CMC going to get the people to leave?”
“They are already gone, those houses are empty.”
“How did they do that?”
“They take very good control and persuade them to leave.”
“Did everybody there want to leave?”
“Some people yes and some people no. Some people don’t want to go, they are attached to the land.”
“Did any of them protest against being moved?”
“I don’t know much about that.”
I later went to the village and found it virtually untouched by the new city that was rapidly flanking them on two sides. It was full of historic homes — some I was told were over 150 years old — and people who were going to hold out as long as they could before the bulldozers arrived at their doorsteps.
But for now my tour of CMC was continuing. We pulled into a parking lot and I was taken into a laboratory. I’d only ever seen these places from the outside, and I found myself constructing daydreams of what they were like inside. These thoughts always contained white clean rooms, bright florescent lights, and sinister drones in lab coats, goggles, and masks with clipboards, eye droppers, and vials, splicing genes, making glow in the dark pigs.
The truth was too realistic. I met up with another young woman who gave me a tour of the labs. I looked through a large, thick blue-tinted window at two lab techs in green tyvec suits. One was standing over a large wave, it slowly rocked back and forth. The other tech was looking at a meter taking notes.
“They are making E. coli antibody.”
We then went over to the lab’s factory, which was in another part of the development. When China makes single-industry cities they are stocked with everything which the industry needs to function — which is a pretty good idea — and at CMC pharmaceuticals are not only developed but produced.
We walked into the factory and I was lead into a room to suit up to go into the clean area. I was given a lab coat, disposable booties to put over my boots, and cap for my head. I dressed up, removed my hat, and put on the cap. The girl looked at me awkwardly.
“Humf,” she made that little noise that Chinese women do when they are about to object to something. “You don’t really need to wear that on your head.”
“Because you don’t have any hair!” Giggle, giggle, giggle.
The tour continued, I watched some lab techs make some kind of E. coli medicine.
I then requested to be taken to the new CBD (central business district) that was being built. I could not imagine how or why this somewhat small medical city floating like an island in a sea of isolation would need its own business district — though I suppose these now come standard with new cities here.
Back in Taizhou I set about trying to find out how the Zhang family saga ended. Their house was demolished. Where the house they were incredibly proud of once stood was a pit in the earth. A crew of construction workers were putting a foundation into it. I couldn’t stave off feeling emotional as I looked into the gaping hole. As I stood there a middle aged man approached and picked a Chinese flag off the ground that had been knocked over by the construction workers. This flag once stood as a part of the neighborhood’s protest booth that they had set up on the street near where their homes once stood. The booth was gone now, and nobody bothered coming around anymore to protest. The Zhang’s had the last nail house, and now that it was gone there was really nothing to hope for. The site would be turned into another Wanda Plaze thicket of high rises — owned and operated by the Dalian Group, which is headed by China’s richest man.
Read more about is eviction at Demolition of Ancient Communities Still Going Strong in China.
As the old guy picked up the flag and set it upright again, I asked him if he knew what happened to the Zhang family. He said he did, and told me that they were evicted. He didn’t know where they were now. He was sort of lingering around, looking out at the cleared and graded lot like it was a graveyard.
“Did you used to live here?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied.
“Where was your house?”
“Right here,” he said, and pointed at the dirt clump we were standing on.
He then took out a packet of worn and dirty papers from his bag and showed me photos of his home. As he turned the pages the story of what happened was told in a sequence of pictures: goon squad comes, family removed from house, house bulldozed.
“Where you given any money for your home?”
“Were you given a new home?”
“No, they gave me nothing.”
As I previously found, most of the residents in this community did not have documents for their homes, and they were therefore deemed illegal by the local government — which pretty much means they can be demolished at will without compensation.
This is not uncommon. A study by Tsinghua University found that more than 64 million families in China, roughly 16% of the total population, had their homes demolished or land requisitioned since the beginning of the economic boom period. 20% of these property seizures were uncompensated, leaving 13 million families without homes, land, and, all too often, the means to acquire a fresh start somewhere else.
I continued looking for the Zhang family. In such a high-profile eviction I didn’t think it would be too difficult to find them. I underestimated the task. It was as if they vanished along with their home. I kept at it. A day went by. I met someone who had witnessed the eviction, and he told me the story of what happened.
The Zhang family apparently went out in blazes, as they told me they would. This is how it was described to me: “It was around three in the morning. They closed off the street and 100 cops in riot gear charged in. The family was on the roof yelling things through a blow horn. They said they didn’t want to leave. Something about wanting more money. I heard windows breaking.”
The family was removed, their house dismantled and cleared away.
Another day went by, I still couldn’t find anybody who knew where the family was. Eventually I tracked down Mrs. Zhang. She said that she, “got the kids out of the house” and went to stay with her parents before the eviction. Basically, she split, leaving behind her husband and his elderly parents to face the goon squad. It’s not like it would have mattered much if Mrs. Zhang was there or not to be beaten up and kicked out, but she had talked a big game in my previous interview, saying that she was prepared to die for her house . . . Her husband and 80 year old in laws did stand their ground, but Mrs. Zhang was the heroine of the story, and this squeamish ending makes for a slightly awkward retelling of this tale.