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China: Defiant Owners Defend Home, At Any Price

China's rural population has often found itself pushed aside by rapid development (file photo) (AFP) March 28, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The international media has flashed the pictures around the world. Chinese media and websites have ensured that the Chinese themselves have heard the story. It's about an ordinary married couple, Wu Yang and his wife, Ping, in the city of Chongqing.

Well, not so ordinary. In the most public way possible, this middle-aged couple is defying authorities' plans to clear a large area formerly consisting of old, traditional-style houses to make way for modern apartment blocks.

The Wus are the only holdout. Their house now stands alone and deserted in the center of the redevelopment area, high on a hillock as the surrounding ground has been dug out 10 meters deep for the underground floors of the new blocks.

Money appears not to be the object of the defiance. Reports say the district housing authorities have offered the couple at least $250,000 in compensation, or generous space on the upper floors of the new building. But the Wus, being restaurateurs, want equivalent space on the ground floor so that they can continue their business. This they have not been offered.

Remarkable, But Hardly Unique

China analyst Yi Yi Lu, of Chatham House research institute in London, says public resistance to relocation is not unusual in present-day China. What makes the Wus different is their tenacity.

"This kind of resistance to removal is not really all that rare in China, because you have this problem every time there is redevelopment and you take the old residents away; there's always disagreement over compensation," Lu says.

"I think in this particular case, [the difference is that] the family have held out so long, which is quite remarkable, and has generated so much public attention, which is also quite remarkable," Lu adds.

The matter appears to be drawing to a climax. A local court last week ordered the Wus to move out, and the state-run "China Daily" reported that the housing administration has indicated that they will have to use force to demolish the house if no negotiated settlement is reached.

Victims Of Development

The case goes to the heart of one of China's biggest contemporary problems -- namely, the unpopular confiscation of land for industrial and commercial development, particularly in rural areas, as economic expansion continues at a breakneck pace.

Farmers deprived of their land have staged frequent demonstrations, saying in many cases that they have not been fairly compensated or that local officials are "hand in glove" with the developers.

Against this background, the Wus appear to have won admiration and sympathy in the local media. Even the state-run "China Daily" said there's a need for an independent review of development projects, to stop local officials becoming too eager to hand over land to developers despite the wishes of the local people.

The People's Private Property

Analyst Lu says the timing of the Wu case has been important in thrusting it into the limelight. "The National People's Congress has just passed a new law to protect property rights, so all these factors have combined [to bring attention to the case]," Lu says.

The legislation passed on March 16 by the Chinese parliament is a landmark in that it's the country's first law that protects an individual's right to possess property. It comes after years of debate on how to frame such legislation while expressing the socialist principles that are -- formally at least -- still the basis of Chinese law.

In the event, the text of the new law puts public and private property under the same level of protection. The legislation states that "the property of the state, the collective, [and] the protected by law, and no units or individuals may infringe upon it." It adds that public ownership should predominate, but in coexistence with other forms of property rights.

However, analyst Christian Lemiere of Jane's strategic information company says the law is not as strong as it might first appear. "The law itself is fairly limited in its scope," he says. "It only really affects urban property [and] it only allows urban dwellers to have 50-70-year leases, while rural dwellers don't own any of the property but may have a 30-year lease."

As such, Lemiere expects the legislation will not be sufficient to stop the discontent, particularly among farmers.

Chinese media say the Wu case could see the first test of the new law. But it is unclear that the couple have the means or the inclination to mount a legal challenge to the Chongqing authorities, which would be an expensive and arduous process.

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