As the Beijing city government tore down historic districts to build a bright and shiny Olympic capital for 2008, Ni Yulan became famous for helping her neighbors to defend their homes or claim compensation.
She paid a heavy price for standing up to developers and local officials; her life became a cautionary tale of the risks a Chinese citizen takes if she stands up for her rights. The authorities jailed her, beat her badly, and stripped her of her lawyer’s license. And now, ironically, the disabled former lawyer finds herself without a home.
But not alone. Since her release from prison 10 weeks ago, hundreds of supporters and sympathizers have rallied round Ms. Ni and her husband Dong Jiqin, offering them money, food, and clothes.
“Without their help we could not have survived,” says Mr. Dong.
“Nothing we have is really ours,” adds Ni. “Everything has been donated by other people.”
“Everything” comprises a couple of bags of clothes, a cellphone, and some books, stacked in the cheap hotel room where police dropped them off three weeks ago, apparently to keep them out of the public eye.
Before that, the couple had been camped in a public park where they had attracted the attention of a documentary filmmaker and hundreds of people who saw his film on the Web.
It is not clear if anyone is paying for the hotel room. Ni and her husband do not dare go out together for fear they might return to find their few belongings on the street. But Ni says she is “OK here, it's not too bad,” while she ponders her uncertain future.
‘Obstructing public business’
Ni first got into trouble as the Beijing government began the city’s Olympic makeover. She was detained by the police in 2002 for filming the forced demolition of a client’s home, and was beaten so badly on the back and legs she has not been able to walk without crutches since.
A few months after her release, she petitioned the Beijing city government, seeking redress for her injuries. Instead she was arrested, charged with “obstructing public business,” and sentenced to one year in jail.
The conviction meant that she was disbarred from ever working as a lawyer again. But when she was released, she returned to her work as a housing rights activist.
Four months before the Olympic Games opened in August 2008, a demolition crew showed up at Ni’s house and knocked down a surrounding wall. She protested, and was again arrested on a charge of “obstructing public business.”
In prison and without a home
This time she got two years. She was behind bars when her home was demolished entirely in November 2008. “Nobody from the district government or from the developers came to talk to us about demolition, not even once,” says Dong. “Nobody offered us any compensation.”
Nor could Dong rescue any belongings from his home before the bulldozers moved in, he complains. “The police dragged me away.” He began sleeping in the streets.
His wife meanwhile, in the Beijing women’s jail, refused to admit her guilt. “So they took away my crutches and forced me to crawl on the ground,” Ni says. “I was not allowed to hold onto anything to support myself as I moved around.”
Only the intercession of foreign diplomats with prison authorities, says Ni, won her the right to use her crutches again after a year.
Released in April, Ni found herself with no home, no income save her husband’s teacher’s pension, no job, and no immediate likelihood of finding one, given her political notoriety. So she and her husband set up a tent in a central Beijing park.
“I’m not surprised” by the number of people who rallied round the couple, says Ni. “They are people whose own homes were demolished. And the help was also a protest against the officials who tortured me in jail.”
Activists gathering strength
Ni draws hope from the unusual show of public solidarity. “People nowadays have a much stronger sense of law,” she says.
She also draws succor from Article 41 of the Chinese Constitution, not that it has done her much good. All citizens, the article reads, have “the right to criticize … any state organ or functionary. No one may suppress such complaints … or retaliate against the citizens making them.”
Ni counsels everyone who comes to her for help to commit the promise to memory.
“More and more people are speaking up for fairness and justice,” Ni believes. “One day they will stop allowing others to decide their fate.”