Meishi Street documents Chinese displacement

Strolling into narrow alleys between fancy skyscrapers in China, it is not hard to notice the reddish character “Chai” painted on the old houses, which means “pull down.” The destiny these buildings will face, as “Chai” suggests, is demolition. This might not sound special, but it means a lot to those residents who are moved forcibly by the Chinese government and real estate companies.

The story of the documentary Meishi Street, screened in Margaret Morrison 203 last week in conjunction with the “Global Cities, Model Worlds” lecture, involves the protest of a “nail household,” a Chinese phrase for a house whose owner refuses to let it be demolished for the sake of modernization. As a part of Beijing’s modernization plan, Meishi Street, an old street in Beijing where Zhang Jinli lives, is under threat of being turned into a business area.

While most of the residents choose to compromise, Zhang refuses the displacement because he doesn’t want to leave the place he called home and because the government’s compensation offer is unfair. In protest, Zhang hangs banners and national flags on his house, writes petition letters (but never gets responses) and even sings aloud to attract public attention. However, the saddest point in the documentary comes when security guards request that Zhang to stop all of his protests. Not only is Zhang going to lose his home, he is deprived of the right to even protest about it.

In the movie, there are three parties involved: the government (represented by security guards and officials), the real estate companies (removal companies), and the residents. One might think that the government would speak for the people, or at the very least remain neutral, but the reality in China is almost the opposite. Residents have nowhere to seek help. So the banners hung on the street by the Chinese government saying “Demolition and removal in strict accordance with laws” seem exceptionally unnecessary — after all, residents have no other choice.

Despite frustrating results after all of Zhang’s efforts, the positive side we can gather from the movie is that Chinese people have begun to gain awareness of rights which they have been deprived in the past. They now know they can protest and, most importantly, should protest in a legal way, as Zhang did.

The movie winds up with a sad but thought-provoking ending. According to Mahatma Gandhi, “Housing is a right.” The movie rouses the audience to think about how we can popularize this right and resolve the conflict between modernization and citizens’ right to a home.