Page last updated at 11:52 GMT, Saturday, 18 December 2010

Losing out to China's property developers

The disputed development area lies behind the hoardings
China's property market has exploded in recent years

Amid the frenzy of China's expanding economy, not everyone has been a winner in the rush to modernise, writes Peter Day.

In the middle of Beijing, close to the old city wall, there is a piece of cleared land surrounded by hoardings advertising a proposed new development.

The images show tall apartment blocks beside expensive, low-rise houses with courtyards attached, in traditional Chinese style. That, anyway, is the promise of the property developers.

But it will not happen if the angry group of locals I met on the site the other afternoon have anything to do with it.

The great economic reforms of the past 30 years have... given the new rich an appetite for owning their own apartments

They lived there - on what is now cleared land - for generations, they said, in little, old-fashioned courtyard homes.

Then, seven years ago, the developers moved in.

This is a desirable city centre site in a place that has been experiencing a great property boom for the past 10 or 20 years, accelerated by the Olympic Games effect.

Thugs moved in to intimidate the residents and they were moved out. Then demolition squads flattened their houses.


Seven years later, they are still seeking compensation from whoever will listen to them, brandishing the papers they say gives them title to this piece of land.

Members of protest group
Residents are left with no means of claiming compensation

They showed me the shed in the middle of the site where they base their occupation, complete with a bed for the overnight shift.

They are angry but do not know who to be angry with, as officials ignore them and the courts will not hear their petitions. Most of them are retired and are now forced to live with friends or relatives.

They blame their plight on the property boom and corrupt officials and are quite unafraid of talking about what has become an overwhelming preoccupation for their small group.

Apart from squatting on the land, they do not know what else to do.

This is a familiar story in a country where the great economic reforms of the past 30 years have brought a constant flow of people into the big cities, and given the new rich an appetite for owning their own apartments for the first time since the Communist revolution more than 60 years ago.

Beijing has been growing outwards at a ferocious pace, symbolised by the addition of a new ring road every few years.

You can see the pressures of China's headlong rush for economic growth and the prosperity associated with it everywhere.

'Homes of our ancestors'

After hearing from the one group of city centre protesters, I inched though the late sunlight and Beijing's traffic to a village in the outer north-western suburbs, just below what is called Fragrant Mountain.

These old houses belonged to our ancestors - that's why we say these developers have black hearts

It is attractive country for property developers, so the village authorities sold off communally-owned farmland to the developers, who then built cheap blocks of flats.

The people there said they had owned small houses nearby for generations. Yet ownership was a tricky concept in Communist China, and perhaps remains so to this day in Chinese courts.

Only one man is now holding out against the bulldozers. He and his father have lived for generations in a house built around a covered courtyard that he has protected with closed-circuit television to discourage corporate-backed hooligans from throwing him out.

It is surrounded by a neat smallholding, where he grows cabbages and chives, neatly spaced with stones decorated with calligraphy.

"The changes started in 2004," he said. "I feel powerless, I have no idea how I can hold out. I am an ordinary person. I don't have any power.

"It is the Communist Party who can decide what's going to happen. These old houses belonged to our ancestors - that's why we say these developers have black hearts.

"There is a property bubble here. It will burst, just as it has done in the US and Japan. The newly rich people occupy land that ordinary people relied on for survival. They cooked up the prices."

At this point a retired teacher friend butts in: "Our message to the authorities is: 'Please care about the wishes of ordinary people'".

It's a sad story but it is happening all over China, close to the big cities. Land is being gobbled up by building companies which pay off local officials.


But not every poor farmer on the edge of Beijing is feeling aggrieved.

On our way back from Fragrant Mountain, one man told us the story of his village in the southern suburbs.

His house was needed for development like so many others but, in exchange, he was going to get two apartments in a new block.

He explained that he would live in one and rent the other to ensure a steady income.

Some farmers in his village had been well compensated for their land, receiving the equivalent of £100,000 ($150,000).

Thirty farmers had even put in a joint order for 30 new cars - Mazda 6s - all of them red.

It made quite a sight, he said, as they drove them all home in a convoy.

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