Afterlives of Demolished Buildings in Beijing


A review of The City Recycled: The Afterlives of Demolished Buildings in Post-war Beijing, by Shih-yang Kao.

Shih-yang Kao’s dissertation on demolition waste in Beijing provides rich material for scholars interested in the players involved in urban-rural discard commodity chains. While post-demolition waste was considered a resource for both socialist (1949-1978) and reform era (1978-present) governments, The City Recycled: The Afterlives of Demolished Buildings in Post-war Beijing narrates how values of waste shifted for each period, as well as how it continues to shift under different present-day policies, geographical locations, regional and local economies, and stakeholder groups.

In his first chapter, Shih-yang Kao compares how demolition waste was treated in the socialist and reform eras. In the period after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 to the end of the socialist period in 1978, the byproducts of demolition was not considered waste, but was termed “demolition materials” (chaichu cailiao) and “old building materials from demolition” (chaichu jiuliao) (p. 19). Buildings and walls were actively mined for materials by government bodies for industrial and public urban state projects, keeping the “waste” within the city center. Kao uses government municipal documents and news articles to show how demolition waste was re-termed “building garbage” in the 1990s during the reform era and, after the rise of environmentalism, seen through a logic of “over accumulation” in the city as it modernized.

In the balance of the dissertation, Kao focuses on present-day circulations and valuations of demolition waste, or “building garbage,” starting in the second chapter with the circulation of demotion material usually slated for reuse, such as bricks, tiles, windows, and doors. The chapter’s highlight is a description of the poetics of tuji jiangang (construction assault), by which villages on the outskirts of a rapidly expanding Beijing slated for demolition use materials from previously demolished villages to expand their building stock—quickly, temporarily, and often haphazardly—so they are better compensated by the government when their village is torn down. Once the village is demolished, materials are then cycled to other soon-to-be-demolished villages on the new outskirts of the city. Adding to the cyclical poetics, the workers in the “unbuilding” trade who reclaim building materials after demolition are migrant workers, many of whom have lost their villages to the city’s creeping eminent domain. Their lives and social structures, both just before and after their villages are demolished, are organized around reclaimed building materials. Like the socialist era, tuji jiangang and its cannibalistic economy is still the result of state actions of urban modernization, though the players in waste revaluation are now private business and local villagers.

Not all building materials are reused, and Chapter 3 looks at the private recycling industry, where demolition materials are ground up to become the raw material for industrial production. Chapter 4 looks at demolition debris, or the materials that cannot be otherwise used. In both cases, Kao narrates the intersection of site, circulation, and labor. Both recycling stations and debris dumps are sited at the peripheries of the city when rural villages make revenue by renting land to private companies. Kao also mentions that state intervention, whether it is the effort to clean Beijing’s air for the 2008 Olympics by shutting down such industries or mandating dump site locations, continues to shape profit-based waste practices, largely through an ethos of strategic circumvention.

In discard studies more broadly, construction and demolition waste is often overlooked as a significant form of municipal solid waste. In China, it accounts for forty to sixty percent of urban waste (p. 6). Yet, because of the make-up of demolition waste, and because of its intense density within demolition sites, it has a different economy than the rest of municipal solid waste or industrial solid waste. The second, third and forth chapters, each with a different combination of waste materials, sites, laborers, and government policies, are meant to bring entire networks into discussions of scavenging and recycling, and to complicate the division between rural and urban economies. Kao perceives a lack of network analysis in scavenging and recycling literature, and responds by taking the entire city of Beijing and its rural periphery as an interconnected site, bound together by the transformation of waste by profit-driven economies. Methodologically, then, the work keeps company with others who use a commodity chain approach to look at how economies are built through a network of relations. Additionally, the chapters of the dissertation are organized according to different materials within demolition waste, and this categorization results in slightly different economies remerging for each material, highlighting the role materiality can play in commodity chain methods.

There are many scholars who may find The City Recycled: The Afterlives of Demolished Buildings in Post-war Beijing useful, particularly in its provision of a network-based waste case study. First, for those interested in processes of valuation, waste has long been a good case study for researching the structure and assumptions of economies (because it is often assumed to have a zero value), and tracing the practices that extract or imbue value can show the logics of valuation upon which economies are premised. The City Recycled pairs well with Arjun Appadurai’s notion of “regimes of value,” as the commodity phase of demolition waste is determined by not only stakeholder groups, but also geography and government policy (Arjun Appadurai, “Introduction: commodities and the politics of value,” The Social Life of Things. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). The role of geography in determining value in Kao’s work also fits well within Zsuzsa Gille’s “waste regimes,” a concept that “treats waste as a social relationship and assumes that in any economy there is a waste circulation in addition to a value circulation, and that the two are interdependent” (Zsuza Gille, “From Risk to Waste” Global food waste regimes,” The Sociological Review 2013 60, S2: 27).

Scholars invested in political ecology and environmental justice may also find The City Recycled an excellent case study to nuance trends within the field. The nature of Beijing’s inextricable urban-rural waste economics, and the place of waste as both input and output of urban metabolism resonate with new work in human and critical geography about how advanced capitalist systems erode traditional boundaries of inside and outside, city and hinterland. Moreover, political ecologists, human geographers, and environmental justice scholars would find the case of marginalized villagers renting out their land to private corporations for economic survival familiar but challenging in that The City Recycled narrates an uneven distribution of survival, gain and inequity across such groups. Researchers interested in the intersection of valuation and geography, migrant labor and urban waste, or how the materiality of waste affects its economic network, will find nicely complex cases in The City Recycled: The Afterlives of Demolished Buildings in Post-war Beijing.

Max Liboiron
Media, Culture, and Communication
New York University

Primary Sources

Beijing Municipal Archives
Beijing Municipal Government

Dissertation Information

University of California, Berkeley. 2013. 111 pp. Advisors: Richard Walker, You-tien Hsing, Michael Watts, and Thomas B. Gold.

Image: Sorted scrap iron and steel piled up in a recycling station in Changping, Beijing, destined for steel mills in Tangshan to manufacture new steel products (Photograph by Shih-yang Kao – April 28, 2010)

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