The large-scale urban renewal that China has been undergoing in recent decades is accompanied by the wholesale demolition of old buildings. According to PhD researcher Taozhi Zhuang, this is not always necessary. It is high time for clearer guidelines and a more efficient decision-making process.

In Mao Zedong’s China, ‘replace the old with the new’ was a much-heard saying, but its effects were not felt in urban renewal until the recent decades of explosive economic expansion and urbanisation. No less than 85 percent of urban renewal in large cities is now carried out through demolition and new building. Often there is very little left of the older, traditional buildings from the early decades of the twentieth century. “Renovation is relatively expensive, so it is unpopular,” explains Taozhi Zhuang. “In consequence, both raw materials and social networks are lost unnecessarily.”

In his PhD research, Zhuang closely examined the decision-making process underlying this policy of demolition and renewal. He is not against urban renewal in principle, because many cities still contain small, ramshackle houses with no toilet and no outdoor space. But there are also neighbourhoods with relative good houses that also ruthlessly fall prey to the demolition ball. The Chinese PhD researcher asks himself who decides this, and what the decision is based on.

For his research, he concentrated on urban renewal in Chongqing, a city in south-western China with a population of around 30 million and around 100 different urban renewal projects every year. The larger projects can involve replacing upwards of 20,000 dwellings at one time. Zhuang searched for the guidelines in publicly accessible sources and spoke to various stakeholders: what are the objectives of government bodies, residents and advisers in urban renewal projects, and how do they fulfil their role?

Compensation scheme

As it turned out, it wasn't easy to find clear guidelines for tackling urban renewal operations. “It has been established that demolition is permitted if it is in the public interest, but there is no clear definition of what ‘public interest’ is,” says Zhuang, “so people in key positions are free to decide for themselves.”

What are the motives of the various interested parties? The priority of government bodies here is to maintain social stability and drive the local economy. Residents want to get better houses as well as better compensation for the house they have been forced out of. And advisers do see that things go wrong, but they are not listened to. Often they only get paid if their advice is agreeable to the government.

Does that mean the government is not to be trusted? No, according to Zhuang, there is no such thing as 'the government' as a single unit. At a local level there may be ten departments that play a role in the urban renewal, each with their own agenda. Moreover, the objectives and interests of central government often conflict with those of local government. For this reason he feels that China should follow the example given by Hong Kong and Singapore where urban renewal is in the hands of an independent department which makes plans based on evidence-based facts, so the capricious whims of an individual civil servant are not the decisive factor.

He also advocates an independent information platform that all parties – including residents – can access. Because such solid decision-making is impossible without well-substantiated facts.

In addition to this, he notes that the decision-making process is too fragmented. Only once the blueprint for large-scale urban renewal is already on the table do the government bodies talk to the residents about compensation schemes. “These two processes should run simultaneously,” says Zhuang. “If residents are not involved from an early stage, all they can say is yes or no. This costs unnecessary time and money and is detrimental to social stability, and that is the last thing we want in China.”