In China, protests by privileged

Upper class is biting hand that feeds it to protect investments

March 08, 2002|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - They gathered by the hundreds last weekend, carrying long white banners, chanting slogans and pumping their fists in the air. In a country where most people are too frightened to participate in protests, the crowd created a striking scene.

Flanked by wary police, people marched through the streets of their residential compound to denounce profiteering and official corruption. "You may not be a victim today," a man with a crew cut shouted through a megaphone, "but you may be the next one, so we should unite!"

Despite a virtual ban on public demonstrations in this authoritarian country, protests are growing more frequent - but the participants and their cause set this one apart.

The crowd was not made up of laid-off state workers, poor farmers or political dissidents, the people who have the least to lose. The marchers were people who have gained the most from economic reforms, members of the emerging middle and upper classes.

More than 600 homeowners had come together in the upscale residential compound of Wangjing New City to oppose a developer who is trying to erect a 33-story building instead of the three-story building that had been described to them.

Residents said the new apartment tower would damage property values and block their view of the city. They accused local officials of corruption because the officials had failed to stop the project.

Demonstrations by homeowners are common in the United States but new in China, where the state owns all land, leases its use and traditionally has viewed private property as the root of all evil. Well-to-do urban Chinese, however, feel threatened by unscrupulous developers and are rewriting the rules of engagement with local governments.

The demonstrators at Wangjing, many of them professionals in their 30s and 40s, were drawn together by a confluence of trends, including rising incomes, increasing exposure to foreign ideas and growing home ownership. Some of the demonstrators speak English and work for overseas companies.

A dozen years ago, people such as this and apartment compounds such as Wangjing did not exist in China.

"It's an amazing change," said one of the demonstrators, a 38-year-old who gave only his English name, "Ron." "Before 1990, there was no way to buy a private home."

When Ron began working for China's trade ministry in the late 1980s, he lived in a small state-owned apartment. As a private sector emerged in the 1990s, he took a high-paying job with a foreign company and bought an $80,000 apartment twice the size in Wangjing on the city's outskirts.

Now, Ron fears the new tower will block his view of the capital's skyline.

"We paid for that," Ron said a few days after the demonstration, referring to his 14th-floor vista while sipping coffee at one of Beijing's more than two dozen Starbucks.

As recently as the 1980s, the state owned almost everything in urban China. In the past decade, though, market reforms have raised urban incomes, driving demand for quality private housing. The government has also sold off state-owned apartments to employees at heavy discounts.

The result is a growing class of homeowners bent on protecting its investments. The government has no figures on how many demonstrations homeowners have organized, but anecdotal evidence suggests the number is rising in Beijing.

Residents of an upper-middle-class compound, Atlantic Place, displayed protest signs and sued the developer late last year after learning that the company planned to add four buildings to the complex. In January, homeowners settled the suit after the developer agreed to honor the original design.

In December, residents at Pengrun Garden blocked the compound's entrance to protest high parking fees and were beaten by guards. Ten days later, unidentified men attacked people working in the office of a residents organization, putting two in the hospital for 2 1/2 weeks.

In January, at Silver Maple Garden, where a luxury, two-floor apartment goes for $160,000, residents forced the compound's housing administration to cancel a parking fee increase after they blocked traffic for a day.

The largest demonstration in the capital was the protest Saturday at Wangjing, a cluster of residential towers housing about 12,000 people. Carefully organized and well-executed, the event may be a preview of urban protests local officials might face in the future.

The conflict at Wangjing began last year when residents complained to the city planning bureau about the decision to construct the 33-story tower. After officials failed to respond, homeowners used vehicles to block the construction site, preventing workers from entering.

`They don't want to solve the problem for us because they have a relationship with this developer," said Jason Wang, one of the protest organizers, who like most people in the city says the local government and developers are enmeshed in a web of corruption.

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