Chinese confront wrecking ball in property war
Lu Daren might lose out in the end to the police and hired thugs who have executed a wave of forcible evictions across China in recent weeks. But he's not going down without a fight.Beijing--"If they resort to violence, I will get violent myself. I'll do it if I must," said Lu, 46, standing defiantly in a green military-style overcoat outside the Beijing restaurant he has been hired to protect 24 hours a day.
The fact that there is a market for his services underscores the severity of a problem that has leapt atop the national agenda and ripped opened a debate over soaring property prices, land use laws and the predations of the powerful.
Land seizures, often involving corrupt officials eyeing real estate profits, have been a problem for years and given rise to the term "nail house" to describe a holdout tenant or occupant -- a nail refusing to be hammered down.
But the problem has created an uproar recently as economic stimulus measures and an urban development push have fuelled a property boom and resulting rash of mass evictions in the rush to cash in.
In a case that shocked the nation, Tang Fuzhen, 47, set herself on fire last month in Sichuan province over the planned demolition of her husband's garment-processing business. She died 16 days later.
Violent resistance has been reported in numerous other cases as ordinary people take matters into their own hands.
Lu, a former demolition man from northern Shanxi province who boasts of his "experience" in the issue, was hired by Zhong Boxin and his girlfriend Qin Rong to protect their Fish Castle restaurant.
The small eatery sits in sight of the "Bird's Nest" National Stadium in a spreading field of rubble from other businesses felled by the wrecking ball.
The couple, both 28, were halfway through a three-year rental contract after spending about CNY 500,000 (USD 73,200 dollars) to open the restaurant when their landlord ordered them out last month to make way for redevelopment, Zhong said.
Water and electricity were cut off in early December and demolition crews inch closer daily.
"We invested a huge sum in this restaurant and there is no compensation being offered," said Zhong, an employee at a local publishing company.
"No matter what methods they use -- intimidation, armed force -- we won't leave. It's a silent protest."
The issue has prompted a rare retreat by the government, which views such social unrest as a serious threat to its rule and already sees tens of thousands of often violent protests each year, many over land issues.
Earlier this month, five prominent Peking University law scholars called for the abolition of a statute that allows local officials to seize land if a different use for it is deemed in the public interest.
The government initially defended the statute. But last week state media quoted an official in the Cabinet's Legislative Affairs Office saying it would be changed to "better safeguard citizens' rights."
The law professors called the statute unconstitutional and contrary to a 2007 law that, for the first time, stressed private property rights.
"It needs to be revised or totally overhauled," said Wang Xixin, one of the five legal scholars.
"It leads to collusion between local governments and property developers, and huge corruption in real estate," he said.
Whether its abolition will cool the situation remains to be seen.
Property prices in 70 major cities rose in November at the fastest rate in 16 months thanks to easy credit, tax breaks and other policies aimed at shielding the Chinese economy from the world slowdown.
The government said last week it would curb the boom amid fears of a bubble, but announced few policy specifics.
The issue has exposed the still-murky status of private ownership in China, decades after Mao Zedong's collectivist schemes. Officially, the government still owns all land or influences ownership through rural collectives.
"Current laws all protect private property. But there are not enough checks on local government power," Wang said.
He added that property rights end up being trampled while compensation over such land seizures and evictions is often far below market rates.
That situation could leave more people flying the banner of defiance like Lu, who waved a makeshift flag with the Chinese characters for "nail house" in front of Fish Castle last week.
"This is a problem in our society," he said.
"People are supposed to be civil and the government should look out for citizens. This is not right!"
AFP/ Dan Martin / Expatica