It’s Time to Stop Urban Demolition and Construction – Han Xinmin

Hua Xinmin, an urban preservationist and daughter of architect Hua Lanhong, wrote the following piece in Southern Weekend about the problems with the current policies in China which are allowing the historical parts of cities to be destroyed while also ruining large swaths of arable land (original Chinese version here). Thanks to David Kelly of the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore, for the translation:

Hua Xinmin: It’s time to stop urban demolition and construction

Southern Weekend, May 10, 2007

Editor’s note: On April 24, the 27th meeting of the Tenth NPC Standing Committee conducted First Reading of the bill for a Town and Country Planning Law. What is missing from the laws that currently regulate urban and rural planning? What lessons should be drawn by the new Law? As experts note, “Planning involves millions of people’s personal interests; the Law should answer questions as to the legality and rationality of planning by strengthening its statutory, democratic aspects.” In order to stimulate discussion we are exclusively publishing this article by Ms. Hua Xinmin, the civil society urban preservationist.


In the history of mankind, there are only two types of cities, one naturally formed, the other planned in advance. Most cities are of the former type, with only a few falling into the latter, with some ancient cases such as Dadu in Yuan Dynasty China, and newer ones like Brasilia in Brazil. Such large artificial cities were mostly built on sparsely populated land, or on the ruins of cities destroyed by natural disasters or war. Worldwide, urban planning in the general sense mainly meant ongoing partial adjustment within an already formed city (NB: in case of famous historical cities, many countries are very careful about such adjustment), or development of new districts in the metropolitan region.

However, in the mid 20th century, the Soviet Union brought us a “planned economy” model, which included concepts of “overall urban planning.” But apart from partially realizing these plans on a very minor scale, the other ideas were shelved, halted at the blueprint stage. The main reason for this, I would argue, was that the majority of urban land was clearly private property (private home sites), so that large-scale, “flattening everything and starting afresh” was simply impossible. In Beijing from the 1950s to the 1980s, for example, major new residential areas like Baizhifang, Xingfucun, Hepingli, etc., were built in what were then near-urban zones. Only a few projects such as Tiananmen Square and both sides of Chang’an Avenue performed major surgery within the private property-filled old city precincts.

It was the 1982 Constitution that paved the way for subsequent formulation and realization of urban “master plans,” because this constitution proclaimed for the first time that “urban land belongs to the state”, a clause which over a long time would produce misinterpretations in the minds of many, planners included. The misinterpretations came from not knowing that, six years later, “rights to property in land” would be returned to the people, and failing to note that Constitutional amendments made in 1988 would split off and allow transactions in “land usage rights” from the land transactions which had just been prohibited, i.e., return land-related civil rights to the people; and also failing to note that in accordance with the regulations: owners of ancestral residences in the Old City “naturally enjoyed” land use rights from their land ownership (Article 13 of the 1990 National Land Regulations). Here originated a huge misunderstanding, in the minds of policy makers and planners among others: they henceforth treated the bustling city as terra nullius, bereft of private ownership, a blank sheet on which arbitrary designs might be inscribed. Hundreds of urban “master plans” after 1983 and especially in the 1990s were formed on the basis of this misconception. The status surveys that were done only addressed real property (housing), unlike in majorities of countries which did more to address people (property status, etc.) for a full investigation.

Developing up to the present, when property owners have come from owning a only a small proportion of ancestral residences to accounting for a full 60% of the populace, our newly formulated plans remain so arbitrary and random, trampling on private land property rights (bearing in mind that all apartments come with attached land ownership when purchased) and embody the inherited mentality of the planned economy system.

However, misunderstandings are still misunderstandings, concepts are still concepts. After all, there still is a set of related laws and regulations formulated to respect the property rights of citizens and regulate all administrative acts. Hence, once such a massive man-made urban action is performed it will be impossible”even in the planning stage”to be at loggerheads with them. For example, Article 31 of the Urban Planning Law implemented in early 1990 requires that planning be carried out only on land allocated by the Department of Land Administration, and does not state that they can be implemented on land where owners still hold the property rights (the Methods of Planning and Administering Transfers of State-Owned Urban Land for Commercial Use drawn up three years later are in serious conflict with this parent Law). Article 23 of the Urban Real Estate Management Law which came into effect in early 1995 also sets the scope of land allocation, within which for-profit construction projects are not included. In other words, local planning is permissible, while large-scale “urban master planning” covering everything is not. Moreover what is included in partial planning should be strictly limited to such things as hospitals, schools and transport in line with the demand of the public utility projects, and the related land must first be acquired and turned into allocable land according to statutory procedures, before planning can take place. Furthermore, under the above requirements, projects like office buildings, apartments and shopping centres are basically not included in the scope of city planning Their “conformity with the public interest” is not up for discussion because the question does not arise.

If a developer looks at a piece of land, in the preliminary phase he must negotiate one by one with the individual owners, i.e. the currently holders of property rights, and depending on these negotiations and review by government agencies, can proceed with the approval process only if they comply with Urban Planning Law which tests, for example, whether the project “accords with China’s national conditions” and implements “the principle of thrifty national construction”; “the principle of rational and economic use of land.”

Also often included in the “transformation of the ancient city” in the “Urban Plan,” the transformation model and results followed for 10 years are not only inconsistent with the public interest, more seriously, they are contrary to the public interest because the bulldozers that were used destroyed most of the urban center’s soul. They destroyed the unique accumulated culture of the city, destroyed the architectural heritage regarded as national treasures.

The old city is not incapable of being made over, but the agency and direction of transformation right now are wrong. The main agency should not be a consortium of government and developers, but rather of government and home-owners, with the owners taking care of the inside and the government of the outside. And some “legal experts” should be even clearer that all the “run-down houses” they use the “public interest” to support demolishing have owners, and are townsmen’s private property, which outsiders and the especially housing and land management sector have no right to dispose of without public authorization.

In fact, in planning documents newly introduced by some cities, governments have corrected past mistakes. For example, in early 2005 implementation of the “new 2004-2020 regulations” was announced, which clearly stipulates in an article addressing “security mechanisms” for the old town that residents should “autonomously renovate, becoming the main agents of repair and protection.” The problem however is that this requirement has not been implemented. Many owners of private housing who apply for project permits are rejected: relevant departments want them to sit quietly at home waiting for people come to demolish their houses! Nationwide, “urban renewal” in which real estate developers are the implementing agencies or so-called “makeovers of dilapidated houses” under the banner of “public interest” continue to advance into the ancient alleys which have so little left…

There is a deeper level of abuse of the public interest currently found in urban planning and in construction itself, namely the creation of a land crisis, hence today this model of “development” not only is not a “hard principle”, but is indeed the softest of rationales. Here, we must not forget that the ground beneath our feet is not in Canada or the US but China, only one tenth of whose land is arable, but whose population is the highest in the world, the least suitable place to have enclosure and urban construction movements. On this topic, my father Hua Lanhong (former chief architect of the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design), published an article in Journal in 1983 entitled “Development of wasteland and building new towns,” which suggested that new building be carried on on waste and sloping land. But sadly the situation he worried about has today reached catastrophic proportions! There is today a goal of “maximizing the economic return” on each and every piece of land in cities, and redundant construction everywhere, wasteful of both resources and living space, is being carried out: the building of one shopping center after another for which there is no market demand, the blossoming everywhere of office buildings for which there is no need, and the expulsion of original residents on a massive scale (where what actually happens is often a “transfusion” rather an evacuation for the sake of reducing population density). Like a wave, our “development” expels circle after circle of people, driving cityfolk out onto arable land in the countryside. The destinies of urban and rural land are linked, if new urban construction is not stopped immediately, the, how can the violation of arable land be stopped?! And with the building vacancy rate now reaching alarming proportions, what need is there to carry on building them? If every mayor considers only his own performance record and every interest group only knows to clutch their interests. While the value of every inch of our land is measured from a monetary angle, completely ignoring the long-term interests of the nation and the state, and the issue is viewed from no higher vantage point, the situation is likely only to worsen. A saying in the past went, “a man not out for himself will stand condemned by heaven and earth”, but I think now it is “every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.” What could be said to future generations faced with not having any land to farm or food to eat?

In short, whether projects concerned are in the public interest or not, all large scale demolition and rebuilding should be halted at all costs. “Urban plans” that have already been scheduled should also be considered afresh, no matter whether they involve some commercial contracts”commercial interests can be adjusted and replaced. Arable land once lost however is irreplaceable, because even if you completely blew up buildings constructed on arable land, there is no knowing how many years it would take to restore the vitality of soil once it has lost its nutrients. The heritage of architectural culture lost to historical cities is also non-renewable. As to how these non-renewable resources are to be rescued, how the interests are to be regulated and replaced, a think-tank that genuinely cares about the nation’s and people’s fate needs to be set up to do specific planning. It must not be made up of “scholars” and “experts” who are stuck in the quagmire of vested interests.

This essay has analysed the essence of our “urban planning” from different points of view. The “construction halt” called for here applies only to new construction, and other forms of construction are not opposed. For example, architects could give full play to their talents to refurbish those still very solid residential buildings built in the 1950s and 1960s, on the one hand, adapting their internal structure to today’s living needs, on the other hand, seeking to beautify them externally. I believe that the owners residing in them would be very happy to raise the funds to do so, because the expenses would be much lower than what it would cost families to move elsewhere; moreover they would be able to stay in their convenient living environment. Such economic modes of building using existing resources has in fact been strongly advocated in Europe and the US in recent years. As I write, looking at the Urban Land Bureau website on the computer screen in front of me, showing large-scale land sales and publicity information on land reserves, I have a heavy heart …



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