Thursday, December 31, 2009

Developers, 999 : Nailhouse, 1

Wanted: Someone with a strong sense of responsibility, tough, brave and physically strong. Ability to oppose and deal with forces of evil.

That help-wanted ad was cited in a heart-warming story today from the New York Times:

Qin Rong, the owner of a restaurant facing imminent demolition, was looking for a foolhardy soul willing to save her from one of the most powerful forces in China today: the state-affiliated development company....

Chinese newspapers are filled with stories of battles involving so-called nail houses, the properties whose owners and occupants are like deeply embedded spikes that refuse to give way to redevelopment juggernauts. As an unceasing real-estate boom has swept the nation, much of it orchestrated by the local governments that benefit from soaring land values, property owners and occupants often protest unfair compensation.

A standoff ensues. Shady men are dispatched. Goliath rarely loses.

From rural farmland to ancient hutongs in Beijing, this is a story that's being repeated across the country. The featured resister in this article opened a restaurant in Beijing right before the Olympics, into which she and her boyfriend funneled their life savings:

Ms. Qin, a fiery 28-year-old raised in the rough-and-tumble western region of Xinjiang, said she would never have signed the lease — with an agency affiliated with the developer that owns the property — had she known the building was about to be demolished. “We have no problem moving out,” she said last week, in front of her darkened restaurant. “We just want back the money we invested for renovations.”

She demanded exactly that amount: $74,000. The agency’s final offer was just over $5,000. This month, the electricity and water were shut off and a herd of orange excavator machines began tearing away at adjacent buildings, where the occupants had folded with less of a fight.

In most cases, those who resist are squashed by the developers. But Qiu gained assistance from a former 拆遷辦 named Lu Daren. He was shaken after witnessing the death of one of the people he helped evict, and finally quit his job. “I decided one day I would atone for my wrongdoing and do something good for the world,” he said.

Lu helped guard the house against the intimidation and violence of hired thugs vigorous and enthusiastic persuasion of company employees. And for once, there was actually a happy ending: the company eventually capitulated and paid the owners the full compensation (apparently trying to finish off the issue before the new year).

Now it's cool that this happened. I am glad these restaurant entrepreneurs won against the unethical behavior of the land-grabbing development company.

But somehow ... I kind of wish the pensioners or the elderly citizens, the 老公公 and 老婆婆, are the ones who can be saved, too, not just a young unmarried couple with an investment.

These people are okay with leaving the place anyway, just as long as they get their money back.But what about the people who love their homes and don't want to leave? What about the intangible sense of community that is lost? How do we value those things? How do we treat those people?

In stories such as this one, in the cases of land grabs that are repeated again and again in this country ... are homes and neighborhoods ever saved? Do buildings stay standing, do establishments stay open, do homes stay occupied? Can life go on as it was? Or in the end, can it only be about securing compensation and then exiting the scene? Does success ever come in the form of preservation, renovation, and continuation?

As for Mr. Lu, he said he hoped to continue fighting on behalf of other nail houses. “Sometimes righteousness wins,” Mr. Lu said.

新年快樂!Happy New Year, everybody! It's a brand new 2010.

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