Shanghaiist first encountered housing eviction protesters last week in front of the Portman Ritz-Carlton on Nanjing Road Lu. Most of the protesters were involved in housing disputes that involved the demolition of their homes and their forced relocation to other areas. However, in some cases, years of trying to solve their problems through the normal means (i.e., the police and the courts) prove fruitless, and thus these protesters and tenants’ rights activists ocassionally take to the streets. From August 8-12, they gathered in front of the Portman because city officials were meeting across the street in the Exhibition Hall, and they hoped to attract both the attention of these officials and both local and international media.
Hearing that Shanghaiist was a media entity — okay, kind of — many protesters began shoving photocopied documents into our hands, in the hopes that both their individual cases and collective woes would receive greater public attention. Upon further inspection, these documents were found to include letters to city officials, ranging from the district courts to the city’s highest ranks. There were receipts, hospital bills and written statements attesting to court decisions in cases both filed by the protesters and brought against them. Several had been convicted of “crimes,” such as disturbing the social order, or obstructing justice, related to their housing disputes. The protesters came with multiple copies of these documents and photographs for the purpose of giving them to the media and spreading their message to a wider audience.
Many protesters came up to Shanghaiist to tell their stories, all of which revolved around what they allege was illegal eviction from their homes. The real-estate boom in Shanghai has meant the destruction of many old residences to make way for new high-rise apartment buildings and office buildings. Some of the protesters claimed that the government colluded with real-estate developers, or in other words turned a blind eye to the illegal means the real-estate developers used to force them from their homes. They said that because the real-estate market was so lucrative, that real-estate developers and their official backers conspired to remove and relocate as many residents as possible for as little cost as possible.
The protesters claimed that real estate developers used forged documents as well as physical violence to harass and intimidate them into accepting terms of relocation they felt were unfavorable. Some protesters felt that they were given compensation per square meter that was a mere fraction of the market value of their land. Others felt that they were purposely short-changed in the official estimation of the area of their house (in square meters) so that they would be compensated less. And others still said that they had received no notification that their houses were slated for demolition, or at least not of the specific date their homes were to be demolished, and thus were forced, against their will to move out just before their houses were to be destroyed. The protesters also alleged that whenever they protested the various circumstances of their situation, they encountered resistance, harassment and intimidation. The result of this was the sentiment, repeated countless times in conversations with Shanghaiist, that the legal system was completely corrupt and they had lost faith in the rule of law and, going even further, in the Chinese Communist Party. The protesters believed that the government sat by while they were cheated of their homes and in some cases, of their livelihoods. Believing that they got a raw deal and there was nothing they could do about it in Shanghai, many of the protesters made trips to Beijing, where they made direct appeals to the central government.
However, this more often than not would land them in more trouble with the authorities — and Shanghaiist was told many, many stories of being stuffed (link blocked in China) back on buses and trains headed back to Shanghai. We even heard stories of torture — one middle-aged woman said that while she was being held at one of Shanghai’s police stations, bright lights were shone in her face so that she could not sleep, and she was kicked if she tried to move into a more comfortable position. Both she and her husband had made trips to Beijing to appeal their case, despite warnings from local authorities.
One man, surnamed Wang, has an elder sister that attemped to buy tickets from Shanghai’s West Station for Beijing, where she was planning on petitioning directly to the State Bureau For Letters and Calls. However, before she could buy tickets or board the train, she was taken into custody and promptly charged with disturbing the peace or disturbing the social order — and sent to labor reform. Wang’s younger brother, who was among the eviction protesters, caustically remarked that, “They should no longer call the government the people’s government, they ought to change the name to robber’s government.” In fact, many of the titles of the open letters of grievances that Shanghaiist received from protesters used the Chinese word for “pilfer” or “rob” — 掠夺 (lue duo).
There was a palpable sense of disgust with the government. One man, surnamed Dai, was not actually a tenants’ rights or housing eviction protesters like the others — sitting shirtless with a shaved head in a wheelchair, he told Shanghaiist that one night he had tried to stop a fight that broke out near his house, but rather than being rewarded for doing the right thing, he was taken into custody. Dai claims that this is because one of the people involved in the fight was a nephew of a police official. Dai was attacked and beaten, suffering injuries to his hand that, due to not receiving prompt medical attention, he never fully recovered from. Dai told Shanghaiist: “In the history books they always say how bad the Nationalist Government was, but I didn’t see it, so I don’t know — all I know is that I never got anything good from the Communist Party.” Judging from the materials Mr. Dai presented to Shanghaiist, his issue was not one directly related to housing. However, like the housing eviction protesters, he felt his case represented as miscarriage of justice and had made his life more difficult. Mr. Dai said that he is now receiving money from the government to help pay school tuition for a daughter that will enter university this coming fall.
One woman, who came with her teenage son and an infant, asked Shanghaiist for the contact information of the International Court of Justice and international human rights groups, saying that she planned to bring accusations against the Chinese government.
Shanghaiist couldn’t help but think that even if they banded together, these protesters and activists were still fighting a David-and-Goliath-type battle. A middle-aged man among the protesters that during most of Shanghaiist’s conversations sat facing the other direction, quietly smoking cigarettes, turned around and said, “When all is said and done, what we want is democracy. The Party said that we have a multi-party system, but it’s still just the Communist Party in charge, running the government.” He then added, “It’s normal to be against the Party. If you do a lousy job of running the government, why shouldn’t we be against you?”
C.L. Sun, a Shanghainese author as well as housing eviction protester, put the problem in even starker terms during a private conversation with Shanghaiist last Saturday. Sun said “the problem lies in the servility of the Chinese people. The subjects must obey the emperor, and sons must obey their father. It has been like this throughout most of Chinese history.” Upon hearing this, Shanghaiist admits being at a loss for words — we’ve heard these sentiments and generalizations echoed countless times by Chinese people both in China and abroad. Maybe it’s true. Maybe not. But such statements at best serve a cathartic purpose for those dissatisfied with what they perceive as the glacial pace of change.
There was more to the protesters’ anger than dissatisfaction with how the government deals with property. It was also a general frustration with China’s glaring social inequalities. Mr. Wang spoke indignantly of how even low level cadres could afford many vacations to Europe, while he, in contrast, had never left China even once. Mr. Dai gestured at the Portman Ritz-Carlton behind him, where upscale restaurants and offices surround the hotel, and said, “It’s not like I will ever be able to go in there.”
In the meantime, however, the housing eviction protesters can only hope to use public protests as a means of bringing attention to their lot and then solving specific cases through legal avenues such as the courts and relevant government bureaus. Shanghaiist’s curiosity about this system was piqued by conversations with the protesters and discovered that the whole Bureau of Letters and Calls system has been the subject of heated debate. You can read an essay (in Chinese) by one of the more outspoken critics of this system, Yu Jianrong, here. Yu states that (surprise, surprise) a sclerotic bureaucracy and individual influences and connections are among the flaws of this system.
On Wednesday, Shanghaiist visited the Shanghai city government, where hundreds of housing eviction protesters went to have their cases heard. One of the more outspoken advocates of housing rights, a Ms. Chen, said in reply to Shanghaiist’s question of how many people here had housing relocation related cases, that at least 90 percent of the people present came to discuss housing related issues. Of course, we could not verify this, but Shanghaiist did recognize a significant number of people from the protests outside the Portman the week before.
This morning, Shanghaiist traveled to a police station on Henan Nan Lu, where a woman surnamed Ma was to be released after serving the second of two labor reform and education sentences for crimes related to housing evictions. The protesters traveled to the station in the morning around 8 am to await her release. Police gathered at the intersection and began taking video of the protesters from inside a police van. The police then arrested four of the protesters.
What does the future hold for these people? With the exception of a few people, most of these protesters have found places to live. The exceptions are those that live in the streets, perhaps sleeping in front of the government buildings where they have appointments the next day. Some live with relatives, and others rent homes. Since most of them have not accepted the government’s attempts to move them into more suburban areas, most of them still live in the more central districts of the city. Many of the protesters are older and unemployed, either relying on their children, relatives or social welfare. In the future, they expect to make more trips to Beijing, despite the risks, and more attempts to spread their message via the internet to primarily Chinese language media outlets abroad. Shanghaiist has found no mention of housing eviction related protests or arrests in the local or Chinese media. But as the Shengyou village incident in Hebei Province indicates, land and property use disputes (blocked in China) are going to be part of the Chinese social and political landscape for a long, long time.
Photos from the recent Shanghai protests
South China Morning Post on the Shanghai protests
Taipei Times on Shanghai protests from 2004
Housing evictions in Chongqing
Riots and protests in China