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September 20, 2006

Is Chang Lianjun the most stubborn person in China?

Jliuliuiouji

Above, her home in the heart of Beijing.

The immediate neighborhood leaves something to be desired, but that's only because it was razed three years ago to make way for a shiny new development called Capital Garden.

The several thousand other residents of the neighborhood, which covers an area the size of about a dozen football fields, meekly did as they were told and left.

Mrs. Chang (below),

Juliujjloliuj

who's lived there for 17 years, refused to move.

She told Jason Dean and Karby Leggett, in their story on the front page of today's Wall Street Journal, "I have no other place to go."

Here's the article.

    As Chinese Towers Go Up, Mrs. Chang Makes a Last Stand

    Beijing's construction boom leaves many stranded, so she stays amid ruins

    Behind a 10-foot wall in the heart of Beijing, tall weeds cover an expanse of rubble the size of about a dozen football fields.

    Three years ago, the area was home to several thousand working-class residents who lived in a warren of 1950s-era apartment buildings. Last year, dozens of the structures were razed to make way for a glitzy new complex called Capital Garden.

    But construction, nearly a year behind schedule, hasn't begun. The reason: a woman named Chang Lianjun. After living in an apartment borrowed from a relative — which she has called home for 17 years — Mrs. Chang refuses to leave.

    "I have no other place to go," says the 43-year-old woman, sitting on the steps of what remains of her brick building. It sits alone in the middle of a field. All that is left of the apartment house is her second-floor unit, the emptied one below it and a connecting stairway. With the utilities long shut-off, Mrs. Chang uses candles and battery-power lanterns to see at night and cooks with a burner using canisters of gas.

    Millions of Chinese have been forced to relocate to make way for new roads, luxury apartments and gleaming office towers. The change has ripped apart families and neighborhoods and has raised anger against the government.

    The upheaval has been especially dramatic in Beijing, where huge swaths of the city have been demolished to make way for new construction in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. From 2002 to 2005 alone, 315,000 households were relocated, or about a million of Beijing's 15 million residents, according to the Center for Real Estate Law at Peking University Law School.

    The government is trying to take a softer line toward some who have been forced to relocate. It has tried to strengthen residents' legal recourse and require developers to settle all disputes before building — moves aimed at appearing more responsive and, ultimately, ensuring its citizens continue to accept Communist Party rule.

    "Instead of its old focus on speed, the government is putting greater focus on justice and social stability," says Wang Cailiang, a prominent Beijing lawyer who has handled numerous relocation cases.

    In the end, residents like Mrs. Chang who fight relocation often lose. For two decades, the South Sanlitun neighborhood offered her a stable and comfortable life that is proving difficult to replicate in the new China.

    The daughter of a postal worker, Mrs. Chang was born in 1963. After high school, she landed a job at a government-owned pastry maker. In 1989, the year of the Tiananmen Square uprising, she married Liu Baocheng, who also worked at a government factory. The same year, Mrs. Chang gave birth to their only child, a boy.

    At the time, the vast majority of Chinese lived in government-subsidized housing. Neither Mrs. Chang nor her husband had been assigned an apartment yet. So, in a common arrangement here, Mrs. Chang's mother-in-law let them live in an empty one provided to her by her government employer. (Her mother-in-law no longer needed it since she lived with her husband in his state-supplied apartment.) The unit was small and the family shared a bathroom with neighbors. Rent was only a few dollars a month.

    In 1995, Mrs. Chang's life began to unravel. Her husband lost his job amid a push to close or retool state-owned enterprises. The same year, their son was diagnosed with cancer. Distraught, her husband began drinking heavily, Mrs. Chang recalls.

    The couple burned through their meager savings to pay for their son's medical treatment, Mrs. Chang says. Her husband grew more desperate. Late in 1999, Mrs. Chang returned home one day to find him passed out after a heavy day of drinking. She rushed him to the hospital, but doctors couldn't revive him and he died.

    Around the same time, Mrs. Chang's employer went bankrupt and she was laid off. Then, in 2002, her son died.

    The hardship created a rift between Mrs. Chang and Du Xiulan, her mother-in-law, who was grappling with the death of her own husband, both of them say. With both sides laboring under growing financial debts, they stopped seeing each other regularly.

    Mrs. Chang plugged away at life. Her father pulled strings to get her a job at the government post office across town where he once worked. She earned enough to pay the bills and chip away at her debts.

    Early in 2004, she learned that the city planned to replace South Sanlitun with a ritzy new development. Because the apartment still was in the name of Mrs. Du, the developer approached her — not Mrs. Chang — about a compensation package. In September, Mrs. Du signed a deal giving her the equivalent of $37,000, or enough to buy a modest apartment elsewhere, in exchange for vacating the apartment. The money was to be paid only after Mrs. Chang left.

    Mrs. Du, the mother-in-law, says she tried to contact Mrs. Chang to discuss the agreement but didn't get a clear response. Mrs. Chang says her mother-in-law assured her she would be taken care of but never provided details. Mrs. Chang, who believes she is entitled to some sort of concession because of her 17 years of residency there, decided she wouldn't leave the apartment until she was given a new home or money to pay for one.

    While Mrs. Chang dug in, most of her neighbors moved on. By the end of 2004, wrecking crews got to work. In January 2005, they turned toward Mrs. Chang's complex. On the evening of Jan. 25, as Mrs. Chang was preparing for bed, her electricity went out. She stepped outside to find the main power line into her apartment cut. Suspecting an attempt by the developer to ratchet up the pressure, she called the police. A few hours later, the lights went back on.

    Mrs. Chang stayed, and watched her neighborhood vanish. Her own building, which once housed 30 apartments spread over three floors, came down around her.

    By June, Mrs. Chang was the last resident left in the area. Amid growing tension with the developer, she says, a group of workers arrived outside her door one evening and began banging and yelling, apparently seeking to intimidate her.

    The developer, Beijing Topwin Real Estate Development Co., says it hired an unidentified outside company to handle the relocation and compensation work, and had no direct contact with Mrs. Chang.

    An uncle of Mrs. Chang's recruited two unemployed farmers to stay with her, fearing another confrontation. When the same workers returned and tried to open Mrs. Chang's front door, her two protectors scared them off by hurling stones. The workers never returned.

    In July 2005, Mrs. Chang's electricity was shut off for good. The water was cut the following month. Mrs. Chang switched to bottled water and battery-powered lanterns. Without heating, she wore extra layers that winter to keep warm.

    The developer, Topwin, also was under pressure. Construction on the complex of ornate buildings was supposed to start last year and be completed before the 2008 Summer Olympics.

    Last November, Topwin sued Mrs. Chang's mother-in-law for failing to vacate the apartment. At a January district court hearing in eastern Beijing, Mrs. Chang's mother-in-law argued the developer should compensate both her and Mrs. Chang, according to court papers. Mrs. Chang says she was too upset to speak clearly.

    The court sided with the developer, saying Mrs. Chang's mother-in-law had entered a legally binding contract. It ordered her to empty the apartment within seven days, according to the court papers.

    Mrs. Chang appealed, arguing that she couldn't leave because she had no place to go. At a new hearing in June, the court judge upheld the original ruling.

    The split between Mrs. Chang and her mother-in-law has grown sharper. The two haven't seen each other since their last court appearance. Mrs. Du insists she deserves the full compensation. "That money will take care of me in my old age," she says, sitting in a tiny two-room apartment she shares with her son, his unemployed wife and their twin children.

    Nearly two years after she began her battle, Mrs. Chang remains defiant but also is increasingly desperate. Topwin last week gave her written notice of the appeal court's decision and told her she had to leave this week. A spokeswoman for the company says it has followed government rules by offering compensation to Mrs. Du only.

    There are other signs Topwin is preparing to move ahead. It recently erected giant signs, three stories tall, along the outside of the lot to promote Capital Garden. "A dazzling city of fortune," it reads. A Topwin executive says the company still hopes to complete the project before the Olympics, although she acknowledges that might be difficult.

    On a recent hot night, Mrs. Chang sat outside her apartment and pondered her options. In the glow of a fluorescent lantern, she said she plans to stay until her demands are met. "It's either that or a life on the street," she said.

September 20, 2006 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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