BEIJING » It is a familiar tale of modern China with a sadly predictable denouement. A group of people wake up to find demolition notices affixed to their homes. After they reject the government’s compensation as too meager, a dark campaign of harassment ensues. The bulldozers arrive in the dead of night. Score another win for the boundless authority of the state.
But the struggle unfolding at Huaxiang World Famous Garden, a gated, suburban-style community on the exurban fringe of the capital, is not like the majority of redevelopment battles that each year lead to the forced eviction and dispossession of countless families.
The residents involved are by and large middle class and privileged — doctors, financiers, retired government bureaucrats — who thought they were immune to such capriciousness. Among their ranks is one of China’s most successful fiction writers, Yan Lianke, whose satirical novels about famine, AIDS and the cruelties of the Cultural Revolution plumb the suffering of ordinary Chinese.
Just as notable is that their subdivision is new, the oldest house no more than 5 years old. At least three of the homes were completed this year. The local district government, however, says the residences and their pampered gardens must give way to a road-widening project that was announced in July. Everyone was given just three weeks to leave.
The neighborhood’s 32 holdouts, who note that their homes are dozens of yards from the road, suspect a land grab by local officials eager to cash in on Beijing’s stratospheric real estate values.
"We thought these things happen to peasants in the countryside or voiceless city people with no education," said Wang Jilin, 56, a retired pediatrician whose elderly parents and brother also built homes in the complex, which until recently had 41 households.
The clash would seem to suggest a new wrinkle in the seemingly ubiquitous fights over land that have become one of the most nettlesome challenges to the stability so prized by the ruling Communist Party. Last year, the government-run Research Center for Social Contradictions found that forced evictions, more than all other issues combined, were the driving cause behind the 180,000 so-called mass incidents — protests, riots and group petitioning — counted by one prominent sociologist in 2010.
Even if the government works hard to keep such incendiary events out of the official media, nary a month goes by without news of a desperate evictee taking drastic measures.
In May, a dispossessed farmer in the southern city of Fuzhou bombed government buildings, killing himself and two other people. A month later, a man defending his property in Hunan province set himself alight after demolition crews approached his home.
Last month, hundreds of people in southern Guangdong province overturned police vehicles and attacked government buildings after a protest against the seizure of farmland for luxury housing turned violent. China already has a slew of laws and regulations governing redevelopment and relocation, but rights lawyers say they are frequently ignored.
The holdouts of Huaxiang World Famous Garden are fighting back in familiar and creative ways. Stonewalled by bureaucrats at Beijing’s main petition office, they have tried to draw interest from Western media, joined ranks in a homeowner’s association and festooned the neighborhood with shrill propaganda banners that promise an ugly ending.
"We pledge to sacrifice our blood and lives to defend our homes," reads one.
The local authorities have so far shown they are not afraid to spill blood or at least knock a few heads. A week after the eviction notices went up, excavators arrived at midnight to claw at the subdivision’s perimeter wall. Residents say as many as 100 men, many dressed in black, were sent to hold them in check.
When one resident, a 58-year-old taxi driver named Gao Yuan, tried to photograph the assault, he was kicked by several men who then smashed his camera, he recounted.
"The police just sat in their squad cars clipping their fingernails," he said.
Other residents, some elderly, said they were roughly tossed aside. One woman claims to have suffered a heart attack after she was detained overnight at a local police station.
Gao Lirong, the propaganda director for the Huaxiang township, brusquely refused to comment on the standoff when reached by phone. The company hired to handle compensation and demolition also declined to answer questions.
In recent weeks, that company has turned up the pressure. From morning until sundown, a van drives through the neighborhood blaring warnings. "Don’t be influenced by other people who might cause you unnecessary loss," the loudspeaker says again and again. Daily text messages that clog residents’ cellphones drive home that point. More than one resident’s window has been smashed. A half dozen homes, their owners having folded, have already been leveled.
On the face of it, the compensation in this case appears generous: 1.6 million renminbi, or about $252,000, for each household. Residents, however, point out that the figure ignores the differing values of each home. Some homes cost twice that, their owners say.
But even the earliest arrivals, who paid the least, say the compensation does not take into account Beijing’s property prices.
"For 1.2 million, you can’t even buy a bathroom," said Gao, the retired taxi driver, whose koi pond, mature fruit trees and do-it-yourself additions attest to his hard work over the past five years. "If they force me out, I’ll be homeless."
More than a few say the fight is not just about money. Yan, the writer, wants to know the truth about the road project, which he believes is a pretext to clear valuable land. His suspicions have been heightened by the government’s refusal to reveal plans for the expanded road or explain how it came up with its nonnegotiable compensation terms.
With water and electricity already cut and demolition crews threatening to arrive without warning, Yan vacated his house last week, leaving its interior strewn with discarded books and magazines.
A self-deprecating man whose quiet demeanor belies his provocative prose, Yan, 53, says he was inspired by Henry David Thoreau three years ago to buy a house where he could contemplate the interplay of man and nature. Even if a nearby rail line loudly announces itself every few minutes and the surrounding fields are quickly sprouting glass-and-steel high-rises, the subdivision itself is enveloped in dense greenery.
Yan does not face homelessness. As an army veteran, he has a government-assigned apartment in the north of the capital. But the experience of recent months has been enlightening in a way that only a novelist whose books are occasionally banned can appreciate.
He has gained a firsthand appreciation for China’s porous legal system, he said, and for the naked rapaciousness of public officials. And he has come to better understand what feeds the anxieties that rack so many of those who have prospered during the past three decades of economic reform.
"There is nothing Chinese people can rely on — the government, the law — so people put all their energy into acquiring material things," he said. "But even when they have money and a nice home, they feel their future is still unpredictable."