China: Eviction Resisters Test Property Rights

A house belonging to a Chinese family who refused to accept a compensation deal by a property developer is surrounded by the ongoing building site excavation in Chongqing. (Photo: Mark Ralston / AFP-Getty Images)

Greedy property developers and corrupt government officials have forcibly driven tens of thousands of people across China from their homes. Most of these homeowners weren't in a position to resist the developers' strong-arm tactics.

The approval on March 16 by the National People's Congress (N.P.C.), China's rubber-stamp legislature, of a law protecting private property raised hopes that those resisting eviction from their homes would have their legal rights enhanced.

Attention particularly centered on the case of husband and wife, Yang Wu and Wu Ping, who had been resisting eviction from their two-story brick home in the central China city of Chongqing since 1993.

In 2004, the developer of the site on which the couple's house was located—the Chongqing Zhengsheng Real Estate Company—cut water, power and other supplies to the couple's property forcing them to vacate the house.

Still, the couple refused to relinquish legal title to the house, even though 200 other affected homeowners had already given their consent, willingly or otherwise, to the demolition of their homes.

The developer was able to excavate, 10-20 meters deep, around the house's immediate vicinity, leaving it standing precariously on a narrow perch of land.

Attention on the two Chongqing resisters and their "protruding nail household" surged in the Chinese media in March, in view of the impending passage by the N.P.C. of the new property law. An indication of the widespread media attention was that their case drew more than 10 million Web page-viewers on the Chinese internet, according to the March 31 Asia Times Online.

During March, more than 100 Chinese and international media outlets reported on the case, according to the March 29 Guangzhou Southern Weekend magazine.

There is widespread sympathy across China for homeowners resisting eviction by profiteering developers and their cronies in China's municipal governments. These sympathies soared when Yang Wu, breaching a security cordon, "broke" into his house on March 21, climbed onto its roof and waved the Chinese national flag and a banner appealing for respect for his human rights. He remained in the house for another two weeks before a deal was finally struck with the developer, after a local court approved his eviction.

The London-based China media Web site, Jong News, reported on April 3 that the deal had been reached the previous day and the house was demolished that evening.

The settlement agreement was a big improvement on earlier offers from the developer giving the couple a replacement unit in the redeveloped site. But it failed to have any consequences for the other 200 homeowners.

Earlier in the so-called redevelopment spree in China, many eviction resisters' homes were simply bulldozed, with little or no compensation. The emergence of more "protruding nail households" indicated that local governments and their developer associates are under pressure not to rush to strong-arm tactics.

This phenomenon might be related to the rising readiness of homeowners resisting eviction to stage public protest actions. Of the 74,000 mass protests in China in 2004, a significant portion were related to forced evictions. In the first half of 2004 alone, China's construction ministry received more than 18,600 complaints regarding forced evictions and demolitions, compared with 18,000 during 2003.

The July 5, 2004, China Daily reported that vice minister of construction Fu Wenjuan conceded that local governments were a driving force behind the big push for housing projects that often exceeded the affordability of the local residents, leaving many new buildings vacant. Fu added that "some" local authorities were funding such construction projects with large loans that often led them to skim on compensation for those evicted, and that this was undermining public confidence in the authorities.

On March 21, the official Xinhua news agency reported that in 2006 the ministry of land and resources had launched investigations into 90,340 cases of irregularities related to transfers of land titles, a 20 percent rise from 2005. The amount of land involved was 84,000 hectares, a 95.5 percent increased on 2005. The report further revealed that 1,051 officials had received "administrative punishment" in relation to such cases, that 2,041 of them were disciplined by the ruling Communist Party (C.P.C.), and 501 were subject to punishment by the courts.

In 2003, the legal right to privately own economic assets was enshrined in China's constitution, but there was no clear and specific law on what this meant.

The new property law, which will come into effect on Oct. 1, has been criticized by many Chinese legal experts as giving retroactive sanction to the illegal privatization and asset stripping of state-owned enterprises that has occurred since the Beijing regime set out in 1992 to create a capitalist "market economy."

Formally introducing the draft law into the N.P.C. on March 8, C.P.C. political bureau member Wang Zhaoguo said it was aimed at giving legal recognition to the "economic and social realities" in present-day China. It was approved eight days later by 96.9 percent of the 2,889 N.P.C. delegates.

From Green Left Weekly.