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    China Business
     Nov 2, 2007
Chinese homeowners nail down their rights
By Catherine Jiang

SHENZHEN, China - Chinese "nail house" - or dingzihu - sagas have spread since March when a stubborn couple in southwest China's Chongqing Municipality drew international attention in their fight to be properly compensated for their two-storey, 219-square-meter brick residence and restaurant building popularly dubbed the "the coolest nail house in history" because it refused to be hammered down.

The two had been fending off demolition since 2004 when developers tried to evict them and another 280 households to

make way for a shopping mall. They eventually reached an acceptable negotiated settlement spurred by a combination of Internet-generated heat, savvy public relations (the husband nailed a Chinese flag to the roof of their urban "island", while the wife held daily "press conferences") and growing awareness of China's landmark Property Law which guaranteed the right of private property protection and had been passed only a month before after 13 years of heated dispute.

"I want to safeguard my dignity and my rights," the wife, Wu Ping, said in one of her homespun press conferences.

"Let's hope the new law reduces such disputes," Zhao Wanyi, professor at the Southwest University of Political Science and Law, told China Daily shortly after the settlement.

At the time their struggle inspired a couple in Shenzhen who was also locked in a nearly year-long battle with a powerful development company that had targeted a site that included their six-storey, 779-square-meter apartment building in the city's Luohu district and near the city's landmark and highest building, the 420-meter high Diwang building.

Zhang Lian Hao is the wife of Cai Zhu Xiang, a 57-year-old Hong Kong construction worker who commuted from Shenzhen. The couple owned the apartment building which Cai had built for 1 million yuan (US$134,000) in 1996. After hearing of the Chongqing nail house, she decide to take their struggle with the Shenzhen Kingkey development group to the Internet.

Registering under the name, "A Xiang Po" (fragrant old lady), 60-year-old Zhang began to tell the netizens about their nail house plight. Photos at the time showed the lonely brick building on a site the size of six football fields in Shenzhen's Caiwuwei commercial district surrounded by a concrete and glass forest of much larger, newer buildings and all in the shadow of the Diwang "mansion". (At the same time, other nail houses were also reported in Shanghai and Beijing.)

Zhang and Cai were also battling extremely stiff odds. The chief executive officer of Kingkey is Zeng Baobao, the niece of China's Vice Premier, Zeng Qinghong.

Finally, on September 21 after lengthy negotiations, more Internet-generated publicity and a lawsuit filed by Cai, the couple accepted compensation of 12.58 million yuan. And on September 22 Cai received the money.

"The new Property Law ... really encouraged us to fight for what we deserved," he told Asia Times Online. "It really encouraged us to fight for what we deserved. We felt more confident than before after the Property Law was passed in March. The new law says that private property has the same rights as public property. What they were trying to do was to tear down our apartments forcefully and it was against the law and wasn't for any public benefit. It was totally for commercial activity."

Cai's story didn't end with the settlement, however. Both during and since the fight, he said he was subjected to numerous extortion threats and harassment. Cai said Kingkey originally offered him 6,500 yuan per square meter while apartments in the same area were selling for about 16,000 yuan per square meter.

"I was spied on a by a couple of people who followed me when I was out of the house," Cai said. "Sometimes, when I was in some narrow space, they would come up to threaten me. They said if I didn't sell my apartments to them for 6,500 yuan per square meter, they would not let me go. So I walked to the police station, but they didn't dare to follow me in there."

He also received anonymous extortion calls on his home phone demanding that he go to a bank and withdraw up to 10 million yuan in cash. "They told me to withdraw the money, bring it home and that they would pick it up a few days later," he told Hong Kong's Next Weekly magazine. "There were different male voices but it was always the same number. I don't know who they were."

Cai claimed that the threats and dust and noise generated in the construction area while he and his wife were holding out in their nail house had taken its toll on his health. "I am definitely going to see a doctor," he said. "I lost my income of HK$700 [US$90] per day because of this too." Still, he has big plans for his hard-won wealth. He said he plans to buy four apartments and rent out two and keep two for his family. He is also considering moving permanently to Hong Kong if the extortion threats continue.

He isn't alone. Shenzhen currently has two other nail house hold-outs, both in a dispute with Kingkey, one of whom said he also was considering a change of residence when his case was settled but who also praised the recent real estate law reform. The man, Yang Bing Hui, said he has become a reluctant amateur law student in an effort to find a solution. (The other nail house stalwart, a woman named Zhang Ping Zhu, could not be reached for comment.)

Yang is a People's Liberation Army veteran of China's short-lived 1979 bloody border war with Vietnam who later received the land for his 740-square-meter apartment as a part of his wife's dowry. In 1997, he built the apartment, but for nearly a year he has also been locked in a dispute with Kingkey. He said his water and electricity have been shut off for four months, but he is continuing the fight, also near Cai's former abode.

Yang, who now runs a metal trading company, showed law books he has been reading, including copies of China's constitution, and the new Property Law.

"I was 'forced' to read the Property Law," Yang told Asia Times Online. "I had no choice, I have to protect my property. It says clearly in the law that our property should be protected and we have the rights to decide what we want to do with it as long as it is according to the law. If this law had not been issued after the 13 years of discussion, then democracy and a just legal system were not going to become true in China. The Property Law is very helpful to ordinary people."

Like Cai, he said he has been subjected to extreme stress and harassment during his fight. "The developers kept making noise 24-7. We couldn't sleep or do anything, so I had to rent another apartment for my wife and two daughters. There were also people urinating around our apartments."

Yang added that he was also considering moving to Hong Kong or even another country once the case was finalized.

Catherine Jiang is a freelance writer based in Shenzhen, China.

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

Wang Yang: A rising star in China (May 3, '07)

Property law denies farmers the good earth (Mar 20, '07)

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