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
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
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
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
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