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From the Field

The Politics of Urban Heritage-Making in the Yongqingfang Redevelopment Project in Guangzhou, China

Yimeng Yang uses the case of a redevelopment project in Guangzhou, China, to interrogate heritage-led urban development, pointing to the conflicts such development strategies provoke among local residents, government actors, and developers.

China has been experiencing a dramatic “heritage boom” in recent years. As China’s global aspirations grow, the government has become increasingly adept at using heritage to consolidate political legitimacy, construct national identity, and demonstrate soft power (Maags and Svensson 2018, pp. 17–19; Nakano and Zhu 2020). Additionally, the cultural capital embedded in urban heritage contributes to economic growth, as rising urban business elites work with the Chinese government to promote profit-making through the development of a heritage economy (He 2019; Su 2015).

The growing importance of heritage in China’s political–economic development has also led to a more diverse range of actors involved in heritage-making. In turn, individual citizens and local communities also embrace heritage discourses to legitimize their identities and practices (Maags and Svensson 2018, pp. 21–22; Oakes 2014, p. 394). Thus, heritage-making is often accompanied by debates and conflicts, embedded in the politics of conservation and history (Harrison 2008, pp. 185–186).
Using the Yongqingfang (永庆坊) redevelopment project in Guangzhou as an example and focusing on the time period 2007-2016, I examine the dynamic power relations between the government, developers, and local communities in China’s heritage-led urban development. The following discussion is based on text and policy analysis and participant observation and semi-structured interviews with local residents, planners, creative workers, and grassroots cultural practitioners. [1]

Heritage-making for cultural soft power: government-led urban heritage preservation

In 2004, Guangzhou, the third biggest city in China, was awarded the right to host the Asian Games in 2010. The city government introduced a series of heritage policies to display the cultural characteristics of Guangzhou to the international community. In 2005, the government planning department published Guangzhou Urban Development for the 2010 Asian Games, which claimed, “Guangzhou will develop into a national historical and cultural city, creating a multi-cultural atmosphere with both international standards and local characteristics” (Guangzhou Planning Bureau 2005). In 2006, the government proposed an urban development strategy, “zhongtiao” (中调), emphasizing the importance of accelerating the modernization of the old town on the one hand, and promoting cultural heritage preservation on the other (New Express 2006). It was in this context that the redevelopment of Guangzhou’s old town, including Yongqingfang, was put on the government’s agenda.

The Yongqingfang project is part of the Enning Road redevelopment plan. Enning Road was built in 1931 and is 1,115 meters (3,660 feet) in length, and is one of the best-preserved arcade streets in Guangzhou today (Figure 1). The neighborhood along the road has maintained its historical fabric from the late Qing Dynasty and early Republic of China. The government therefore regarded Enning Road and the nearby neighborhoods, including Yongqingfang, as important heritage resources and was eager to complete their redevelopment before Asian Games.

First, the government intended to relocate all the local residents on-site, and began the relocation project in 2007. The complete Enning Road redevelopment plan was not announced by the government until 2009. In the plan, the government designated most of the buildings in the neighborhood as “dilapidated and dangerous buildings” (危破房) to be demolished, and claimed that they would be rebuilt based on their historical style (New Express, 2009). In this case, the heritage-making envisioned by the government was more concerned with the cultural display of tangible heritage sites, such as the buildings and the landscape during the international games, but it excluded the local residents and community life.

Figure 1. Enning Road, Arcade Street

© Yimeng Yang.

Heritage-making for local life: cultural preservation initiatives in urban movements

While the government began demolition and relocation work in 2007, various social groups, including heritage preservationists, grassroots cultural practitioners, and citizens raised objections and even protested. They argued that the authentic culture is not the historical buildings, but rather the local residents and their way of life that the government intends to exclude. In 2009, the government-led redevelopment plan culminated in protests. An even larger cultural preservation movement then began. A number of NGOs began to emerge and were actively involved in the local communities, doing field research and proposing alternative discourses of urban culture. As one NGO member put it, “The idea was to preserve some of the local stories. Because if the residents left, the authentic memory and culture would be lost.” [2]

More importantly, local residents also began to join in the resistance (Figure 2). Many residents took to the streets and hung banners criticizing the government for “demolishing authentic heritage sites and building fake ones.” In February 2010, some 183 residents petitioned (上访) [3] the higher authority: “We strongly demand that the Xiguan culture be truly preserved. [4] Building ‘fake heritage’ is not passing on Xiguan culture, but rather eradicating its roots” (New Express 2010a), which also brought political pressure to the local government.

Figure 2. Residents take to the streets to pull up banners in urban protest

© Xulu Chen.

As a result of the growing urban protests, in August 2010, the government planning department held a press conference in which officials admitted for the first time that “the Enning Road redevelopment took a detour due to lacking acknowledgment of old town preservation” (Tan and Altrock 2016, p. 255). In 2011, the government revised the plan and highlighted the importance of preserving the “traditional living atmosphere,” and in 2012, the government designated Enning Road and the nearby neighborhoods, including Yongqingfang, as the 23rd “historical and cultural district” in Guangzhou and permitted residents to remain in the local community without being forced to move out (Lin et al. 2012).

Citizen proposals ultimately influenced the heritage discourse of the government and forced the government to revise its heritage policy. In 2015, the Guangzhou Urban Renewal Bureau issued the Guangzhou Urban Renewal Measures, which proposed an urban renewal model incorporating “resident participation” (People’s Government of Guangzhou Municipality 2015).

Heritage-making for cultural industries: developer-led heritage economies and social exclusion

Although the local residents and communities were finally preserved after the civil resistance, the deteriorating living environment in the traditional neighborhoods remained a reality. The next consideration for the government was how to enhance the quality of life of the local residents, which involved building renovation, infrastructure maintenance, and public service improvement. The government partnered with a real estate company in the form of “Build–Operate–Transfer” (BOT) to address the issue of financing public investment. The government gives the developer the right to operate and manage the Yongqingfang neighborhood for 15 years. During this period, the developer can do commercial development in this neighborhood, but also needs to be responsible for the property management and public services for the local residents.

In April 2016, the government launched an open tender process to attract investment for the Yongqingfang project, which was won by Vanke, a leading Chinese real estate company. The Yongqingfang project was an attempt by Vanke to develop cultural industries, as emphasized by their new corporate slogan “culture for the city, industries for the future” (Xinhua News 2019). Investing in the Yongqingfang project also helped to build the corporate brand and demonstrate Vanke’s sense of social responsibility in protecting urban culture and heritage (Vanke Weekly 2018; Daily Economic News 2017). However, heritage-making with the goal of industrial development and brand building brings new social issues.

In order to create a cultural atmosphere that would attract creative workers to move in and tourists to visit, the developer decorated the Yongqingfang neighborhood with objects that symbolize “local life” (Figure 3), such as oil-paper umbrellas, lanterns and traditional furniture. At the same time, the new development regime strictly controlled the real, local life of residents in the name of property management. One resident who runs a snack business in the Enninglu said, “Maybe they think our shop doesn’t look good. When someone comes to check, they ask us to close our stall.” [5] A resident also mentioned that their clothes are generally not allowed to be hung out to dry (Figure 3) (New Express 2017). Furthermore, commercial activities and the increased number of tourists visiting Yongqingfang caused problems for local residents in terms of noise, pollution, and vandalism. The developers would offer financial compensation as an incentive for residents to move out in order to convert more residential spaces into commercial spaces (New Express 2017). Many residents eventually left as their daily lives were greatly disrupted.

Figure 3. Oil-paper umbrellas and clothes “illegally” hung outside by residents

© Sohu; Yimeng Yang.

Although the new heritage policy permitted residents to choose to stay, most of them had actually moved out since the developer-led redevelopment of Yongqingfang began. According to a survey of 12 of these households by the local paper New Express, even the residents who remain believed, “If the compensation is reasonable, I still want to move out as soon as possible” (New Express 2016).

Whose urban heritage?

In the Yongqingfang redevelopment project, there are three different models of heritage-making. First was the government-led approach to heritage-making, focused on demonstrating cultural soft power in the context of international games. This model focused on cultural display while excluding local life. In turn, the citizens argued that local life is the essence of heritage. They launched a cultural preservation movement, which led to a reorientation of the government’s heritage policy and to the preservation of living heritage. Third, and paradoxically, this “living atmosphere” was then used by developers as a brand-building symbol for commercial marketing and cultural industries development, leading local life to be excluded again.

In other words, the residents have never been given their rightful place in the heritage-making of Yongqingfang. They were initially ignored by the government’s heritage policy, and although they pushed for a policy revision through protest, they have since been excluded again by the commercialization promoted by the developers. While both the government and the developers claim to respect local culture, they select certain cultural imagery (e.g. reconstructed historical buildings and symbolic living atmospheres) as a tool to realize specific political and economic agendas (e.g. political display and commercial atmosphere). In this process of heritage-making, the residents, who actually practice the local culture, are marginalized, or even excluded. In today’s heritage-led urban development in China, perhaps the most important question to ask is whose heritage we are trying to make, and how do we promote sustainable development of heritage communities? This may involve the establishment of negotiation platforms in heritage-making and institutionalized mechanisms for public participation.

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To cite this article:

Yimeng Yang, “The Politics of Urban Heritage-Making in the Yongqingfang Redevelopment Project in Guangzhou, China”, Metropolitics, 29 March 2022. URL : https://metropolitics.org/The-Politics-of-Urban-Heritage-Making-in-the-Yongqingfang-Redevelopment-Project.html

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