The Chinese 'nail house': a Chongqing saga

Li Datong
3 April 2007

"Nail house" is a term unique to mainland China. At a time when many urban homes are being demolished and residents relocated, the term has sprung up to describe houses in which the owners refuse to budge. Like a nail sticking up through a plank of wood, they are difficult to remove. In the past, the Chinese news media have always used the term in a derogatory fashion to condemn those who refused to act "in the public interest".

Now, however, the owners of one nail house in the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing have become heroes to the public and news media. Defending their property rights, Yang Wu and his family held out against developers' bulldozers for three years - until they got what they wanted. After a deal reportedly done on the afternoon of 2 April 2007, the "nail" - the building that had been Yang family property for most of the past six decades - was removed the same night.

The Yangs' fight was thrust into the broader public eye in February 2007, and was seen as a test of China's newly approved property law. Government officials and the public alike will have learned lessons from the case, in which both sides gambled with their interests. The message to each will be that compromise leads to progress, and a precedent has been set on the path to democracy and political enlightenment.

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and formerly editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper

Also by Li Datong in openDemocracy:

"The story of Freezing Point"
(12 September 2006)

"China: a 'great nation'?"
(10 January 2007)

"China's contradictory signals"
(24 January 2007)

"Hong Kong's example"
(7 February 2007)

"Will China follow Vietnam's lead?"
(21 February 2007)

"Chinese political reform: official discourse, real meaning"
(7 March 2007)

"What China's new property law means"
(21 March 2007)

A Chongching saga

On 26 February 2007, a Chinese blogger posted a photograph of the Yangs' building, terming it "the coolest nail house ever". The picture spread quickly around the internet. Anyone seeing it for the first time couldn't help but be surprised by it: in the middle of a deep hole dug for the foundations of a large building stands a solitary, old, shabby two-storey structure, surrounded by steep precipices. What was it doing there?

Before its demise, the building was a privately owned piece of Chinese real estate. Yang Wu's father bought the land in 1944 and had constructed a small wooden building on it. The ground floor became the senior Wu's shop, and he lived on the first floor with his family. His eight children were born there. At the start of the 1980s, the state took over the building's ownership, but thanks to a later policy decision, it was returned to the Yang family. Yang Wu inherited his father's property rights.

In 1992, the structure was rebuilt with bricks and concrete, and Yang and his wife, Wu Ping, ran a popular restaurant there. But in 1993, the wave of "urban transformation" in Chongqing broke over the commercial area, with the Yang family restaurant at its centre. Demolition work and relocation of residents began in 2004, and by September 2006, only the Yangs' building remained. They disagreed with the rate of compensation offered by the developers, and refused to move or to sign any agreement. The developers' response was to begin excavations for the foundations of a large building project, leaving the "nail house" as an island with no water, no electricity and no access.

At that point, the Yangs were no longer able to live in their home, let alone run a business there. It goes without saying that their interests had been seriously infringed. In the first weeks of 2007, the developers and government housing administration took the Yangs to court. The family, the court ruled, had to agree to the demolition and relocation plan "at their own discretion" before 22 March. If they did not do so by the deadline, they would be "forcibly relocated".

Throughout the history of urban transformation in China, no individual had ever won in a dispute with developers and the government. If the outcome in this case was unprecedented, the reason lies in its timing: it arose just after the National People's Congress had on 19 March passed the new property law. The fate of the Yang family home immediately became a test of whether the new law actually would protect the property rights of Chinese citizens. Almost all of the influential news media in China were stirred into action. Commentators wrote columns, legal experts debated, and websites hosted running updates of events, attracting millions of viewer hits. Public opinion almost unanimously supported the Yangs in their attempts to uphold their legal rights.

On 21 March, Yang Wu - an ex-kung fu champion - climbed up to his home and put a Chinese flag on the roof, along with a banner reading: "Citizens' private-property rights must not be violated!!!" Wu Ping, his fashionably dressed wife, talked almost non-stop to domestic and foreign news media.

The demolition of rights

For several years, the violence that often accompanies demolition and relocation has been one of the main causes of public anger at the government. Terrible events have occurred, including the death of two elderly people in Shanghai on 9 January 2005 when demolition workers set fire to their building, and the killing of two officials in Suzhou on 22 March 2007 by residents who were being moved forcibly. Perhaps because the property law had only just been passed, and the politburo was studying the background to the law, the authorities did not forbid reporting on the Chongqing nail house. The standoff aroused intense interest and became a public event.

Throughout all this, the Chongqing municipal government deserves praise. In the face of a public-relations crisis, they have shown great restraint, and government officials have demonstrated a willingness to present their viewpoint to the media. The court order for "forcible relocation" was not carried out.

A similar outcry happened when in March 2003 a university graduate, Sun Zhigang, was illegally detained in Guangzhou and beaten to death in a detention centre. The government immediately scrapped the detention-and-removal regulations, and resolved the crisis.

One could be sure that China's central government - which is attempting to build a "harmonious society" - would not sit by and allow events in Chongqing to damage its image. It would have sent out guidance on how the issue should be handled.

Before the Chongqing matter was mutually resolved, the local court set back the date by which the Yangs could agree to the demolition three times, with the last date set for 10 April; the decision on forced demolition was postponed to a later date. This flexibility implied that the government had worked out its policy and there was still time for the issue to be resolved through discussions.

The handling of the matter was both a potential opportunity and a potential banana skin for both sides. The two parties each could emerge as winners, or as losers. If the Chongqing municipal government decided to maintain "government authority" and forcibly demolish the Yangs' home under the banner of "upholding the dignity of the law," there would have been a public outcry. The property law would have become a laughing-stock and the Communist Party's image would have been tarnished (see "What China's new property law means", 21 March 2007).

If, however, both sides remained calm, and reached a rational compromise, with each giving way a little, then everyone would be happy. As it has turned out, the property law has, in dramatic fashion, received huge amounts of publicity thanks to the Chongqing nail house. The event will live long in the public memory, will be referred to often in the media, and will enter the Chinese history books.

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