Wrecking of a society

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 April, 2011, 12:00am


When the developers and government officials knocked on his door in Sichuan last year, artist Zhou Jinhua knew the time had come.

'My house was forcibly demolished. The compensation was pathetic. It was a farmhouse with a courtyard,' he says of the house he grew up in. 'I knew this was unreasonable, but what could I do? Where could I sue?'

It was this encounter that inspired him to call his exhibition Destiny, with the theme of forced demolitions on the mainland.

The exhibition runs until May 9 at the Schoeni Art Gallery in Central.

Zhou, 33, graduated from the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in 2002 and was a finalist in the Sovereign Asian Art Prize in 2007.

Forced demolitions are common in many provinces due to rapid economic development.

In Zhou's case, the family was compensated under an old formula and received 'just a few hundred thousand'.

Zhou says that while his workroom in the famous 798 Art Zone in Beijing is still safe from the wrecking ball, many of his friends' workrooms have already been knocked down.

Many artists unite to fight the demolition but some are afraid to stand up for their rights, he says.

'Some people will make a lot of money out of it,' he says. 'Some people just have too much power. They do not respect human rights.'

One of his paintings shows a huge machine demolishing a house, the owner just a small dot on the sidelines watching his life being wrecked.

Another painting shows miniature people standing next to gigantic piles of garbage and ants, implying that human rights on the mainland are more insignificant than garbage and ants.

'It's a very sombre feeling. This is tragic. Some people were dragged out of their houses when they were sleeping. When they came back, their houses were already demolished,' Zhou says.

One large-scale demolition project involved thousands of people being forced from their homes to make way for the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai.

Zhou says forced demolitions are happening in many provinces.

In the face of rich developers and government officials, it seems there is little people can do.

On September 10 last year, three people in Jiangxi province set themselves ablaze on the roof of their house in protest against its forced demolition. One of them died and the other two were severely injured.

Four government officials were dismissed over the incident.

About a month after the tragedy, a Jiangxi government official uploaded a controversial article on the internet saying there could be no new China without forced demolitions.

It says that while many people slam the demolitions, they ignore the fact that there would be no modernisation without them.

But Zhou believes economic development should be based on respect for human rights. A lack of respect will lead to instability, which will be harmful for development in the long run, he says.

'There should be respect and regulations in a good society,' Zhou says.

He says that not only are forced demolitions an abuse of human rights but also a waste of resources. The site where his family home stood in Sichuan has been vacant ever since.

He believes most people whose homes are knocked down are reasonable, as long as developers negotiate with them and pay fair compensation. It is the use of force that makes people want to rebel.

Earlier this month, the central government issued a notice saying that developers cannot force farmers out of their homes to make way for other development projects.

However, Zhou is not optimistic about the effectiveness of this notice.

'The situation may be just a little bit better but there will not be much effect,' he says. 'Not many people will take notice of the decree.

Zhou does not believe the arts have much influence on society. But he does hope that his work can provide a different take on what society is like now.

He does not expect his efforts to change the world but will be glad if they influence even a few people.