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    China Business
     Mar 31, 2007
'The coolest nail house in history'
By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - It appears to teeter precariously on a narrow mound of earth surrounded by a massive excavation pit that would be a shopping mall. In the southwestern Chinese municipality of Chongqing, the modest two-story brick structure - a dot on the decimated landscape - is called the "nail house" because it seems to be nailed to the ground by its owners' stubbornness.

And the woman who is largely responsible for the three-year battle with a property developer and local authorities that has - so far, anyway - saved her home from the wrecking ball is called "the



stubborn nail".

After accepting compensation offers, 280 other homeowners long ago moved out of the rapidly developing neighborhood of Yangjiaping, leaving Wu Ping and her husband, Yang Wu, in a lonely David-versus-Goliath struggle. Their widely publicized ordeal has tapped into widespread resentment against greedy developers who collude with local officials to run roughshod over ordinary citizens in the name of profit and progress.

Land seizures in the name of development are commonplace in today's China, as are demonstrations, often violent, against those seizures. In many cases, outside the media spotlight, property developers and local authorities have hired thugs to enforce their will.

The Chongqing case stands out for the intense media scrutiny it has attracted, both nationally and internationally, with striking photographs of the site circulating around the world. Bloggers have turned the case into an Internet cause celebre that has drawn more than 10 million page views. The passage this month of the country's first law protecting private property further heightened interest in the case.

Meanwhile, the couple continue to stand their narrow ground.

"I'm not stubborn or unruly," Wu Ping, 49, told the state-run Legal Daily last week. "I'm just trying to protect my personal rights as a citizen. I will continue to the end."

At this point, the end is unclear.

The couple have reportedly rejected an offer of 3.5 million yuan (US$453,000) to vacate - although there have also been reports, denied by Wu, that she is demanding as much as 20 million yuan.

The Chongqing housing authority, citing the couple's "unreasonable demands", has ordered their house demolished. In a sign of the increasing power of the media and public opinion in China, however, a local court declined to enforce the demolition order, although it did uphold the eviction order.

Now the case has become not only a testing ground for property rights but also a challenge for the judiciary.

Catching the wave of public opinion, Chongqing Mayor Wang Hongju has stated his opposition to the forced demolition of the nail house, even suggesting that the developer offer the couple space in the shopping mall as compensation. Since Wu previously operated a restaurant with floor space of 219 square meters out of her house, the mayor's proposed solution might actually work.

Whether the couple's tenacity is reasonable or extreme is open to question, but there is no doubt that their quest has struck a nerve in Chinese life. As the land on which their house stands has gradually been whittled down to an isolated strip of earth, they, unlike countless others, have refused to cave in to the interests of the powerful and well placed.

For the millions who are following their drawn-out battle, the couple - especially the articulate, svelte and stylish Wu Ping - have come to symbolize all of the countless injustices suffered by ordinary people who stood in the way of the juggernaut of China's breakneck economic growth. It doesn't matter if they are right or wrong - their story has taken on a life of its own and is now the stuff of myth and legend. In cyberspace, the couple's home is known as "the coolest nail house in history".

Although Wu has clearly been the star of the protracted drama, her 51-year-old husband, a local martial-arts champion, has also played his part. Last week, in defiance of the court's eviction order, Yang hung a national flag from the roof of his house as well as a banner that read: "No violation of legitimate private property."

Entry to the locked construction site had been barred, but Yang used nunchakus to fashion a makeshift staircase from the construction pit, which is 10 meters deep, to his home, where he proudly unfurled both his patriotism and words of protest.

His wife, the spokesperson for the family, told China Central Television that, before climbing his way back into their home to make his one-man stand, Yang vowed to her: "If anyone dares to come up, I'll beat them back down."

It's not clear how long Yang could hold out in a house that is dangling over an abyss and no longer supplied with electricity or water, but it was a grand gesture nonetheless. The site has become a daily gathering point for the media and a curious and sympathetic public.

A survey conducted by the popular website QQ.com showed overwhelming public support for the couple, with more than 80% of the respondents embracing their cause.

State-run publications, such as the Legal Daily and China Daily, have carried stories chronicling the nationwide nail-house sensation, and the China Youth Daily opined: "If this case of the 'lonely island' persists, it could become a landmark test for Chinese law. If the government does not respect people's rights in this case, it will raise suspicions about the entanglement of civil rights, property development and government interests."

As the case has taken on the aura of legend, few now dare to posit that despite their remarkable obstinacy and flair for theatrics, the heroic homeowners might very well be in the wrong. But Professor Jiang Ping, who led the team that drafted the recently adopted property law, has spoken out. He says the new law - which will not take effect until October anyway - does not apply to the Chongqing house.

"The reason the Wu family refused to move," he told the China Daily, "is that they don't think [the property development] is related to public interest, but that is just her claim. Now that the court has issued the [demolition] order, then the order should be executed."

The problem with that reasoning, of course, is that it does not take into account the tremendous public support for the couple and the media sensation that has followed. It's as if all of the myriad land grabs that have figured in China's phenomenal economic growth over the past quarter-century have, fair or not, come to be represented by history's "coolest nail house".

The house, no doubt, is doomed to the rubble heap. But clearing the way for that shopping mall is looking like an increasingly pricey prospect.

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer at Hong Kong International School. He can be reached at kewing@hkis.edu.hk.

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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