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posted August 11, 2019
by Tomonori Sugimoto
Anzhi (安置) refers to processes of relocating communities and people displaced due to infrastructural projects like gaotie (高铁/高鐵, high speed rail) as well as aggressive urban re/development seen in China and other Chinese-speaking societies like Taiwan. Old communities are demolished (chai 拆), and in turn moved elsewhere. In Mainland China, the word is also used to refer to massive relocation projects that the government has been engaging in over the last several decades for poverty alleviation and environmental protection (these projects are variously called shengtai yimin 生态移民, “ecological migration,” yidi fupin banqian 异地扶贫搬迁, “poverty alleviation migration,” and jingzhun fupin 精准扶贫, “precise poverty alleviation”). Hence, groups of people who have been subjected to anzhi are extremely diverse, ranging from Mongolian herders in Inner Mongolia and Hui Muslim farmers in Ningxia to indigenous people in Taiwan and Han urbanites in Beijing. As resettlement schemes have taken shape in various locales, anzhi has spawned new related words such as anzhifang (安置房, “housing complexes for the resettled”), anzhihu (安置户, “relocated households”), anzhiqu (安置区 “relocation areas”) and anzhicun (安置村, “relocation villages”). Anzhi is often used interchangeably with chaiqian (拆迁) – chai meaning demolition, while qian refers to relocation.
The first character in anzhi is a familiar one to Mandarin speakers, with many associated words like anquan (安全, “safety”), anxin (安心, “feel at ease”), anwei (安慰, “to comfort”), ping’an (平安, “peace”), gongan (公安, “public safety,” which often connotes the police in Mainland China) and zhi’an (治安, “public safety”), all commonly used in everyday speech. Drawing on this connotation of an, the government frames anzhi projects as positive ones that bring safety and security to those who are affected by them: squatters are resettled into government-built housing; rural farmers are lifted out of poverty, receiving free modern housing and urban household registration (hukou, 户口). Government discourse often praises its generous benevolence toward its citizens. In one “relocation village” I visited in the city of Yinchuan, Ningxia, the local cadre took me to its “village history museum” (cunshiguan, 村史馆). Displayed inside were photographs comparing the pre-relocation community in southern Ningxia and the post-relocation community where we were standing. This particular community was relocated from a small village in Guyuan in southern Ningxia; the photographs explained that prior to the 2017 relocation villagers had to start a fire for cooking; that they did not have access to gas-generated heat despite the cold winter; and that they had to acquire water from wells, walking with heavy water buckets. In contrast, in the “relocation village,” villagers could access drinking water, gas, electricity, and heat at any time of the day, roads were paved, and houses were not crumbling. The village museum hence presented this anzhi process as a shift from complete infrastructural lack to infrastructural abundance. The new community and the anzhi project symbolized the PRC state’s fulfillment of its “infrastructural responsibility” (Appel 2012) toward marginalized, poor citizens.
When Louisa Schein, another participant in our workshop, was in Yunnan in May 2019, a friend took her to visit a cluster of Miao minority villages just north of the city. A local leader met her at the government office and proudly took her to see a relocation of two entire villages that had recently been completed. The image was striking – the houses were a uniform style and painted a uniform reddish rust color. Each featured a small solar panel on top, attached to a water tank so that, it was explained, all villagers could have hot water. On the side of every house, the same round symbol – one that evoked Miao handicraft patterns – was decoratively imprinted. What stood out – indeed was something she had never seen before in her rural travels – was a large stately white Christian church, two stories high, built at the top of the hill and towering over the residences such that it was visible from almost every point in the new village. Her hosts told her that the meili xiangcun 美丽乡村 (“village beautification”) and the xinnongcun 新农村 (“new countryside”) programs had funded the relocation and the building of the church. The new amalgamated Christian village, in which residents were almost all church members, was a combined effort of the shengtai yimin cun生态移民村 (“ecological migration village”) program to relocate people to places with better resources and the general fupin 扶贫 (“poverty alleviation”) program, which had a goal of building toilets in every household. Most striking was that these efforts, in minority areas, included a kind of “cultural revitalization” (文化复兴 wenhua fuxing) that accompanied the infrastructural and environmental improvements. Also around the village were parks adorned with murals depicting Miao customs, a plaza for bullfighting and festival processions, and a small exhibition of local artifacts.
While state discourses about anzhi mostly focuses on its positive benefits, many of us found through our individual fieldwork experiences in China and Taiwan that there are multiple valences of the term. Anzhi can connote something highly unsettling for those affected by it. One China Central Television (CCTV) report from 2015 features a group of people who were promised to be relocated to a new high-rise in the city of Hohhot, Inner Mongolia as the city government embarked on urban beautification projects. Since 2011, the completion of their relocation site kept being delayed, and those who have already moved out of their old homes complain that they are forced to rent housing while waiting for the new housing’s completion. After 2014, however, the “transition payments” (guodufei 过渡费) from the government meant to cover the housing costs dried up. The report asks: “When will this anzhi project really let people feel at ease (anxin)?” Rather than a “comforting” process, then, many relocatees often don’t feel “at ease” in the process of being relocated. In the Ningxia village I visited, while villagers I spoke to were generally happy with this arrangement, some of them, especially elderly males, complained that it was extremely hard for them to find jobs in their new city because of their old age. One man explained: “Nobody needs us! Once they look at our ID cards (shenfenzheng), they say they can’t take responsibility for folks like us!” He is hence forced to rely on the little pension that he receives every month from the government to make ends meet. In Guizhou, Tim Oakes, one of the workshop conveners, visited a number of relocation housing complexes built to rehouse people affected by the construction of high-speed rail infrastructure. Despite their newness, many such complexes were already in varying states of ruination and disrepair, and a number of units remained empty—either already sold by those who received them from the government or awaiting new residents to be relocated there in the future.
According to Alessandro Rippa and Darren Byler, both of whom conducted research in cities located in Xinjiang province, people relocated due to urban redevelopment often complained about spiritual, and not just physical, dislocation because they were displaced from their original mosque communities. Their interviewees understood anzhi as costly because in relocation sites they were now responsible for rent and utilities. They characterized some relocation sites as “manta” neighborhoods—manta means “prostitute” in the Uyghur language—suggesting that some women have had to resort to prostitution in order to earn money for their new expenses (also see Steenberg and Rippa 2019).
Anzhi projects have disconcerted many people in Taiwan as well. In my doctoral research, I examined the experience of indigenous Austronesian people (yuanzhumin, 原住民) living in Taipei and how they negotiate with the Han-dominated state. Over the last several decades, squatter communities built by urbanized native people have been subject to multiple anzhi projects, mostly relocations to public housing. The state justified some of these anzhi moves as necessary to advancing infrastructural projects like the high-speed rail (also called gaotie 高鐵 on the island); other projects have highlighted the government’s infrastructural responsibility, asserting that indigenous people deserve access to running water and electricity, which many of their squatter communities lacked. To justify relocation, the state has also invoked the need for “safety” (安全 anquan)—note the an in this word—characterizing native squatter communities, especially those built on riverbanks, as unsafe.
One of my field sites in Taipei was relocated in 2000 from a hillside into a nondescript public housing complex because the state wanted to build the high speed rail on its land. This 2000 relocation was hardly comforting for my interviewees and friends. The relocation site was named linshi anzhi zhusuo 臨時安置住所 (“temporary resettlement residence”)—meaning that this resettlement arrangement, with an extremely affordable rental rate of approximately 3,000 Taiwan Dollars per month (about 100 USD), was temporary and would only last several years. The government expected the relocatees to find housing in the regular market eventually and not rely on state assistance for too long. Like those relocated to “manta” neighborhoods in Xinjiang, some residents of Icep have struggled with the new regime of rent and utilities payment, and many faced eviction after accruing debt from months or in some cases years of failed payments. Now that they have to live in predominantly Han neighborhoods rather than in relative isolation, inter-ethnic conflicts over how native people can use public space have arisen as well (see Sugimoto 2019).
Precisely because anzhi has a reputation for being so unsettling, many people targeted for relocation simply refuse to move, despite the character chai 拆 (“demolish”) written on their houses. In recent years, dingzihu 钉子户, literally meaning “nail households,” or those who have nailed themselves down despite development around them, have received significant attention in Mainland China. Finding compensation inadequate or the whole relocation process unfair, corrupt and forced, even after everyone else has agreed to relocate, they remain in the rubble of demolition (see Chu 2014; Erie 2012). A quick Internet search generates striking photographs of freeway infrastructure built around a dingzihu house as well as houses awkwardly standing in the middle of brand-new roads.
Controversies over anzhi, then, help shed light on different aspects of Chinese-speaking societies today, but especially on infrastructural politics. How can infrastructural constructions (high-speed rial, urban high-rises, freeways) be used to justify government violence? How do citizens—often marginalized, vulnerable ones—accede to but also challenge infrastructural violence? Despite this violence, how does infrastructure remain as a site of hope and affective investment?
Appel, Hannah. 2012. “Walls and White Elephants: Oil Extraction, Responsibility, and Infrastructural Violence in Equatorial Guinea.” Ethnography 13:439–65.
Chu, Julie. 2014. “When Infrastructures Attack: The Workings of Disrepair in China.” American Ethnologist 41(2):351-367.
Erie, Matthew. 2012. “Property Rights, Legal Consciousness, and the New Media in China: The Hard Case of the “Toughest Nail-House in History.” China Information 26(1):34–58.
Steenberg, Rune, and Alessandro Rippa. 2019. “Development for All? State Schemes, Security, and Marginalization in Kashgar, Xinjiang.” Critical Asian Studies.
Sugimoto, Tomonori. 2019. “Urban
Settler Colonialism: Policing and Displacing Indigeneity in Taipei, Taiwan.” City & Society 31(2): 227-250.