Monday, March 26, 2007

Chinese Homeowner

International Herald Tribune
Chinese homeowner stands her ground
Monday, March 26, 2007

CHONGQING, China: For weeks it has drawn attention from people all across China, as simple homeowners stared down the forces of large-scale redevelopment that is sweeping this country, blocking the preparation of a gigantic construction site by an act of sheer will.

Chinese bloggers were the first to spread the news of a house perched atop a tall, thimble-shaped piece of land like the Mont St. Michel, surrounded by a vast excavated ditch. Newspapers dove in next, finally to be followed by national television broadcasts.

The story of the "nail house," as many here have called it because of the homeowner's tenacity, like a nail that cannot be pulled out, has a universal resonance in a country where developers are seen to be in league with officials and where both enjoy unchallenged sway. Each year, China is roiled by tens of thousands of riots and demonstrations, and few issues pack as much emotional force as the discontent of people who are suddenly uprooted and told they must make way for a new skyscraper, golf course or industrial zone.

What drove interest in the Chongqing case was the uncanny ability of the homeowner to hold out for so long. Stories are legion in Chinese cities of the arrest or even beating of people who protest too vigorously against their eviction and relocation. In one often-heard twist, holdouts are summoned to the local police station and return home only to find their house already demolished. How had this owner, a woman no less, managed?

Part of the answer, which takes only a moment to discover upon meeting her, is that Wu Ping is anything but an ordinary woman. With her dramatic look of precisely combed and pinned-back hair, a form-flattering bright red dress, high cheekbones and wide, excited eyes, the tall, 49-year-old restaurateur seems to have missed a calling in the theater.

On this day, she kept a reporter waiting for a half an hour and then led him on a brisk walk through Yangjiaping, a neighborhood in the throes of redevelopment, with broad avenues, big shopping malls and a recently built elevated monorail line, from whose platform nearly everyone stops to gawk at the nail house.

"For over two years they haven't allowed me access to my property," Wu said, arms flailing as she walked.

Within moments of her arrival at the locked gate of the excavated construction site, a crowd began to gather. The people, many of them workers in grimy clothes, regarded Wu with expressions of wonderment. Some of them exchanged stories about how they had been forced to relocate and soothed each other with comments about how it could not be helped.

From inside the gates, a state television crew began filming.

"If it were an ordinary person, they would have hired thugs and beat her up," murmured a woman dressed in a green sweater who was drawn by the throng. "Ordinary people don't dare fight with the developers. They're too strong."

Another woman, an 80-year-old who declined to give her name, calling herself Wu's former neighbor, described another kind of outcome. "In the past, they would have just knocked it down as decided," she said. "Now that's forbidden because Beijing has put out the word that these things should be done in a reasonable way."

Between frenzied telephone calls to reporters and to city officials, Wu, who stood at the center of the crowd with her brother, a decorative stone dealer who wore his brown hair curled, stated her own case with a slightly different spin, one geared for a new media age in China, where people leverage public opinion and appeals to the national image to influence the authorities.

"I have more faith than others," she began. "I believe that this is my legal property, and if I cannot protect my own rights, it makes a mockery of the property law just passed," she said, referring to landmark legislation approved this month by the National People's Congress on the protection of private property.

Tian Yihang, a local college student who spoke from the monorail station overlooking the site, was full of admiration. "This is a peculiar situation," he said. "I admire the owner for being so persistent in her principles. In China, such things shock the common mind."

In the end, however, Wu may not win her battle. After she and her husband repeatedly turned down offers of compensation, developers appealed to the local housing authorities, who recently obtained a demolition order from the district court.

"During the process of demolition, 280 households were all satisfied with their compensation and moved," said Ren Zhongping, a housing official. "Wu was the only one we had to dismantle forcibly. She has the value of her house in her heart, but what she has in mind is not practical. It's far beyond the standards of compensation decided by owners of housing and the professional appraisal organ."

With the street so choked with onlookers that traffic began to back up, Wu's brother, Wu Jian, began waving a newspaper above the crowd, pointing to pictures of Wu's husband, a local martial arts champion named Yang Wu, who was scheduled to appear in a tournament that evening. "He's going into our building and will plant a flag there," Wu Jian announced.

Asked how his brother-in-law could get inside the locked site and scale the peak where the house is perched, he said, with a wink: "Magic."

Moments later, as the crowd began to thin, a red Chinese flag could be seen fluttering from the roof of the home along with a hand-painted banner that read: "A citizen's legal property is not to be encroached upon."

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