Old Beijing tries to avoid wrecking ball

Up to 1.5 million residents lost their homes to Olympics-related development, often with little compensation or choice. Defiant homeowners have seen their property trashed.

Peter Ford
Get out: Bricks and steel bearing balls have smashed through the windows of Chen Shufen's restaurant. Many property owners refuse to be evicted by developers face similar harassment.

If Olympic marathon runners take in the scenery as they approach Tiananmen Square in the Games’ closing race, they will see a most unusual sight.

Beside a newly paved road, in the middle of a freshly turfed open space, stands a lone, dilapidated house. It is a relic of another era.

City planners consider the building an eyesore, and have shrouded it in green netting. Sun Ruonan considers it home, and a symbol of the fight against an all-powerful government that most Chinese homeowners lose when they try to defend their property.

There is little, aside from Ms. Sun’s tenacity, to explain why her house is still standing when every other building on her street was torn down months ago as part of Beijing’s Olympic beautification campaign. “We have nothing behind us,” she says of the campaign she has waged with her sister, Ruoyu.

“The government compels us to move. This is illegal. This is robbery,” reads a sign in English on her front door, a rare venture of public protest.

Yet Sun is not opposed to the Games in whose name her neighborhood was destroyed. “The Olympics are a good thing for Beijing,” she says. “But it is also good for people to know that underneath there are ugly things happening.”

From ‘nailhouse’ to Apple store

Sun’s building the ground floor was once a famous restaurant and she lives upstairs with her sister is known in Chinese as a “dingzihu,” or a “nail house.” Such structures have become a familiar sight in construction zones across the country as residents hang on to their homes until the last moment in hope of winning higher compensation from developers cashing in on China’s property boom.

In the end, though, they all fall. “I’ve never heard of any house succeeding in just staying there,” says Su Nan, a legal expert on housing rights. “Sometimes people want to just stay, but normally that is not a choice.”

Sun’s restaurant, a vestige of the bakery founded by her great-great grandfather in the 1840s, stands just south of Tiananmen Square. That puts it at ground zero in Beijing’s drive to recreate itself in an orgy of redevelopment that has made the city almost unrecognizable in less than a decade.

Gone are most of the traditional “hutongs,” narrow alleys lined with single-story houses built around courtyards; and gone – mostly to new high rise apartment homes in the suburbs – are their residents.

Evictions started long before Beijing was awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics and they will continue once the Games are over, says Deanna Fowler, a researcher with the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions.

“But the Olympics have been used generally as a justification to get people out quickly and with cheaper compensation,” she says. The pace of evictions doubled after Beijing was awarded the Games, she adds, throwing 1.5 million people out of their homes in the run-up to the event.

Beijing city authorities say only 6,000 people have been evicted in Olympics-related redevelopment.

Qianmen, Sun’s neighborhood, once a bustling area of traditional shops selling everything imaginable, is a prime example of the way Beijing has changed. The district was razed, and just before the Olympics a sterile shopping precinct opened in its place, less than a minute from Sun’s home, boasting gleaming new Nike and Apple stores, upscale apartments, and smart restaurants.

Former residents of the area scuffled with security guards when they tried to hold a protest demonstration last week. They were hustled away from reporters.

An uphill legal battle

Though it is too late for those who have lost their homes, Sun is still living in hers, caught in bureaucratic limbo, but fighting to stay.

Writing letters to officials and studying law so as to strengthen her arguments, she is hoping to take advantage of legislation passed last year that gives new protection to private property.

It won’t be easy. Officials generally follow administrative rules in demolition cases that do not conform to constitutional property rights, says Ms. Su, the legal expert. “Normally we do not recommend that people go to the courts,” she says, not least because judges are often influenced by the government.

The mere fact that Sun’s house is still standing, however, could be a sign of hope that some officials are prepared to respect the law at least in cases that attract a lot of public attention.

“New laws are definitely making it possible for individuals to fight for their own interests,” says Hu Xinyu, head of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, a government-linked group.

“These nail houses are sad stories,” says Wang Jun, author of a bestselling book on the loss of Beijing’s old neighborhoods. “But on the other hand they show that Chinese people are trying their best to protest and protect their rights. Really, that’s a good thing.”

* * *

Can’t evict a homeowner? Try trashing the place.

Chen Shufen calls her restaurant “Prosperous and Harmonious World.” Not the sort of place where you would expect to find bullet holes in the window.

Ms. Chen, however, is resisting eviction by Beijing property developers who are playing rough, and she is paying the price.

It started with bricks through the window in the middle of the night. At about 3 a.m. on May 21, Chen says, her night watchman was surprised by a group of thugs who broke the restaurant’s picture windows and the glass door before fleeing.

The next morning, residents found that the brick throwers had dealt out the same treatment to all the neighborhood homeowners refusing to make way for an extension to a local hospital until they are paid the market price for their property.

Two nights later Chen’s husband was closing up just after midnight when four shots rang out. A steel ball bearing whizzed past his ear, she says. “He could have been killed.”

Around the corner, Wang Dazhi is having to put up with less violent but nonetheless extremely unpleasant harassment. One of only 11 hold-out homeowners in a traditional hutong that has been almost completely knocked down, she found her sewage pipe had been blocked last April. Municipal repairmen said there was nothing to be done.

Then she woke up one May morning to find that somebody had dumped tons of rubble outside her front door. That has since been augmented by trash of all kinds. “The smell is getting too bad for me to stay,” says Ms. Wang.

Up the lane, a resident too frightened to give his name has been living for three months with his wife and child in a room half open to the elements. When workmen knocked down the next-door house, he says “they destroyed the roof of my house. They deliberately did bad work so that we couldn’t live here and we’d have to leave.”

The families resisting demolition of their homes say they will go if they are properly compensated, but that so far the demolition company contracted by the hospital has offered only 10 percent of what it would cost them to buy an apartment in the neighborhood. A hospital spokeswoman refused to comment on the case.

One family caught two of the brick-throwing thugs in May and turned them in to the police. So far “we’ve had no explanation about who sent them,” says Cui Rujuan, a lawyer who is one of the hold-outs.

“I won’t say it’s the government that is breaking windows and robbing people, but that’s what has been happening since the hospital got the local government got involved last April,” says Ms. Cui. “A lot of ordinary people don’t dare fight the government, so 95 percent of them have left.”

“As individuals we can’t do anything,” laments Mrs. Wang. “We can’t fight against the government and the hospital. We’ll just have to sell our homes and move, or they will make us leave by force.”

Peter Ford

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