Ma Xiuming, a retired university physics professor, is not accustomed to wielding a sledgehammer. But as she smashed it repeatedly into a wall the other day, she soon got the hang of it.
The wall – a solidly constructed gray brick structure more than six feet high, surrounding a stretch of wasteland a few blocks north of the Forbidden City – did not yield.
It was only the latest in an 18-year-long series of obstacles, ranging from security guards to judicial inaction, that have prevented Professor Ma from rebuilding her family home, in a story familiar to tens of thousands of Beijingers.
"There is no justice," Ma fumed, as she prepared her assault. "All we want is the justice that is in the Constitution."
Ma's traditional courtyard house was demolished in 1992, with no warning, as the Beijing city "fathers" began their drive to modernize China's capital. The land once occupied by Ma's family and a dozen neighbors, however, has remained unoccupied ever since. It is now heaped with builders' rubble and protected by a wall while she and her family have been forced to find a roof elsewhere.
The fact that the land is still vacant is enough to give Ma and those of her former neighbors who are still alive some hope that they might be able to reconstruct their homes there. Tens of thousands of other residents of hutongs, the traditional Beijing courtyard districts that are still being razed, have not been so lucky; they have been evicted with petty amounts of compensation and their homes have been swallowed up by commercial property developments.
"I'm going to knock a hole in that wall and build a door because they are keeping us off our land," said Zhou Qinghua. "And if we get our land back I want to rebuild my forebears' house."
Bravado was about all that Mr. Zhou could muster though, along with his property ownership papers. Zhou leaned heavily on his cane as he whacked ineffectively at the wall with a hammer.
That such normally law-abiding members of society as Ma and Zhou should resort to the deliberate destruction of property – even if the damage extended only to smashing some tiles that decorated the offending wall – is a measure of their frustration.
"It is a long road that we have traveled," sighed Zhou, as he recounted the efforts that he and his neighbors have made for nearly two decades to save their property.
Ma was not actually living in her family home when it was knocked down, and she only found out about its destruction from a neighbor. The government had confiscated the house from her in 1966 as the Cultural Revolution got under way, when Red Guards evicted her and installed seven families from elsewhere in her 14- room home, she recalls.
She still keeps the receipt that the Red Guards gave her for her house on Aug. 24, 1966 – a precious piece of the dossier she has compiled to assert her rights.
Also in the dossier is the notice the government sent Ma in 1984 restoring the house to her ownership. But she could not retake possession because the seven families who had been living in her home for nearly 20 years were still there.
They scattered to the winds when the house was torn down, and the district housing agency offered Ma compensation (equivalent to about $3,800 at the time). She turned it down, like many of her neighbors, as a paltry offer for a spacious home.
That set Ma and Zhou on a long, and so far fruitless, journey that many other victims of Beijing's redevelopment have taken. It began with petitions to all the government departments concerned with housing, property rights, and demolition orders. Those petitions got them nowhere.
Then they explored administrative appeal avenues, which turned out to be a dead end. So they went to court – to district court, to the city court, eventually to the Supreme Court. Not a single judge anywhere would hear their case.
"The sixth time we had a meeting at the Supreme Court," Zhou recalled. "It ended with six strong men picking me up and dropping me outside the gate."
It is rarely easy for evicted families to penetrate the wall of silence that they meet when they seek to complain, or to seek proper compensation, says Wang Zhenyu, a housing-rights lawyer in Beijing.
"The whole procedure of the government taking over land and selling it to a developer is often illegal," says Mr. Wang. "But local governments and developers have a common interest in making a profit."
Half a dozen policemen stood by as Ma, Zhou, and another dispossessed neighbor gathered to bash some tiles off the wall the other day. They filmed the incident, but did not intervene. Neither did Cui Xinhua, who works for Donghua, the real estate developer that owns the rights to the walled-in wasteland and who arrived with the police.
"Our company has its development plans but I cannot say anything," Mr. Cui told a reporter before hurrying away, refusing to explain why the land has lain unused for 18 years.
None of the officials who answered telephone calls to the district housing bureau over the course of a week said they were authorized to speak to the press.
That left Ma not much closer to her goal, but with a sense of satisfaction that at least she had done something, even symbolically, to advance her cause.
"It is a very thick wall," she acknowledged as she inspected it, hammer and chisel in hand. "We will just do what we can about it."