Nailing China’s Nail House

In February, China’s

Internet chat rooms were filled with pictures of a lone house isolated a dozen

meters above its surroundings after developers carved out the land all around

it for yet another project while the defiant Chonqing homeowners refused to

budge.

The story, about what would become known as the “nail house”,

partly because of its precarious position atop a column of dirt and partly

because the owners refused to have it nailed down, became an international

symbol of the fight of China’s common man against rapacious developers. The

story played itself out on the pages of the Economist magazine, the New York

Times and others. And, when the homeowners won, it was taken internationally as

a sign that China’s

notoriously malleable institutions are maturing enough to provide protection

for common citizens due to pressure from China's growing media savvy middle

class.

It is a delicious story line and it is tempting to portray

this as a David and Goliath story. But the details uncovered by Chinese

bloggers and journalists reveal a more complicated story. The local government

and developers in this case, unlike so many others, had been following the law

far closer than most of their peers even before the national or overseas media

arrived on the scene; the media circus hyped the nail house even as villagers

elsewhere were beaten and chased from their homes; and the nail house owners, virtually

deified on the Internet as revolutionaries, have done little to earn such

praise.

The case began 14 years ago when a developer acquired the

right to build a shopping center on a centuries-old site in Chongqing’s Jiulngpo District and served

notice to residents to get out. Yang Wu and his wife, Wu Ping, were the only

ones to not accept. Undeterred, in 2004 the developers started to dig the pit

around their home at 17 Hexing

Road, cutting off electricity and water in an

effort to force the couple to flee.

The photo of a lone house in a great pit dug right to the

edge of its foundations was a perfect symbol of defiance in the face of urban

development run rampant. Eventually that begat Internet chatter, which chatter

begat news stories. Journalists flocked to Chongqing. Yang Wu stood defiantly atop the precipice

waving a Chinese flag and refusing to be cowed. His wife, Wu Ping, held news

conferences and drummed up support.

The story had all the highlights of a cable news vigil.

Sina.com even offered money for more images, according to China Digital Times’

extensive coverage. When the State Council Information Office banned coverage,

it only spurred Chinese bloggers to pursue the story more vigorously on their

own. One blogger named Zola traveled to Chongqing

to provide on-the-ground details. Zola has since been labeled “China's

First Citizen Journalist”.

Finally, on April 3, the Nail House was torn down after a

compromise was reached between the owners and developers. But despite the consistent attempts to paint

this as a victory for the little guy, the government appears to have gone to

extraordinary efforts to safeguard the rights of otherwise powerless citizens.

While the Chongqing Housing Administration seems to have filed for forcible

relocation and demolition on the behalf of developers, for instance, the courts

in Chongqing

pushed back deadlines for demolition three times.

Between 2004 and 2006 there were several failed negotiations.

Ms Wu, who appears to have been a formidable bargainer, demanded not only a

replacement property in the same area and equivalent space, but also

compensation for lost business over the years.

Developers pointed out that she had a right to file a

lawsuit, but she refused, saying it would drag on for three to five years. The

courts in the end provided mediation. The national government seems to have

stayed out of the case, with the exception of the brief media blackout imposed

by the State Council. The blog EastSouthWestNorth even found evidence that the

local government fought to end the blackout, quoting presiding judge Zhang Li

saying, “We cannot be isolated from the media”.

In fact, the final compromise, which consisted of an

equivalent property at a different location along with roughly 1 million yuan

in compensation, was only a relatively small improvement on a settlement

offered in early February, long before the media circus came to town.

Considering the staying power of the case, the nail house

would appear to have been a modest victory for the rule of law before the media

showed up rather than after, and a statement that the local government is not

nearly as monolithically corrupt, at least in Chongqing, as is often assumed.

That isn’t to say there aren’t aspects of the case that are

emblematic of the problems that plague China's urban development. The

property was sold to developers by the government without consultation with the

residents as to the best use of the property, and the developers, not the

government, are responsible for compensating residents. Even if there is no

collusion in a particular case, it certainly appears so when the local

government washes its hands of responsibility for the community.

Hence Wu Ping's criticism that claiming the development, in

this case a shopping center, is in the “public interest” rings hollow. The

Housing Administration, which issued permits for the forcible relocation and

demolition of the property, seems little more than a strongman for the

developers. The bulldozing of water pipes and electricity lines was in fact

illegal under existing law, a pressure tactic not uncommon in such cases.

A number of reports have claimed this is a test for China’s

new property law, which doesn’t even come into effect until October. It may be

an omen, but not a test. If this was a test of any laws, it was of the ones

that already exist and are not terribly well enforced.

Despite the claims that Madam Wu Ping harnessed this power,

she appealed to bloggers after they found her, and primarily thanked them via

the mainstream press in numerous interviews and photo ops. This is relatively

new, but it recognized the blogs’ influence after the fact.

There has been a tendency to describe the nail house case as

ushering in a new era of individual rights. But even the lead judge in the

case, Zhang Li, stated that there are scores of such cases each year. There

have been other Nail Houses and there will be more. Rather than a sudden

revolution, the Nail House seems more a blip on a gentle curve of changes in

China that have been going on for at least 15 years, since the process of

“Opening Up and Reform” set in motion the process that continues today.

So what was really accomplished? There was no public

punishment of the developer or Housing Administration for illegally cutting

utilities. There was no media coverage of thousands across the country who have

been, or are about to be, forcibly evicted. On March 27th, just as the media

ban on the nail House was lifted, Radio Free Asia reported on the forced

demolition of a village outside Beihai, Guangxi, during which 20 people were

hospitalized in clashes with riot police. Local press coverage was suppressed

by Public Security – at a time when the Chinese press was heralding the nail house

as a triumph of the rule of law.

While photos of the conflict at Beihai were spread across

the Internet, they were unable to bring to it the same attention that was

afforded the nail house. Meanwhile, many in the Chinese press have gone on to

herald the nail house incident as a triumph of the rule of law. It may well

have been the lure of a spectacular picture, a house seemingly suspended in mid-air,

that made the nail house incident so alluring.

And will we hear again from Yang Wu and Wu Ping? Or are they

satisfied having taken care of themselves? Wu Ping, after all, said she was

fighting for “her legal rights.” She never said anything about fighting for

anyone else’s.