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Staying Put Is Rough for Some in Shanghai

Many fight to stay in older Shanghai homes, which city wants to update with high-rises. They find their utilities disrupted--and worse.

October 13, 2002|Martin Fackler | Associated Press Writer

SHANGHAI -- Zhang and his 67-year-old mother were watching TV one morning when the electricity in their one-bedroom apartment suddenly went dead. Then the water cut off.

The same thing happened to his neighbors, some of whom also have had interruptions in their gas and cable TV.

They blame the disruptions on a government-owned demolition company that wants to clear out their run-down neighborhood in central Shanghai to make way for a Hong Kong-financed high-rise.

"They told us we would have to move no matter what, but we never expected them to take such shameful measures," said Zhang, a 34-year-old hotel worker who asked that his full name not be used. He is one of about 200 people who still live in the neighborhood despite city orders to move.

The company, Wuxing Real Estate Demolition & Removal Co., which is owned by Shanghai's Luwan district government, denied having anything to do with the utility disruptions.

Such disputes have become common in Shanghai, where many say an unresponsive city government roughly shoves aside people who are seen as standing in the way of progress.

Block after block of crowded, gray-brick tenement housing has given way to glittering skyscrapers and shopping malls as this once-decaying city of 17 million people transforms itself into an international business center.

Although most people agree that changes in the city have been good, they believe progress is sometimes imposed with a heavy hand.

Zhang and others say the first disruptions of utilities began during soccer's World Cup in June, when cable TV service stopped right before key matches -- and resumed immediately after the games.

It goes beyond that, though. Entire neighborhoods' fates are decided by developers and city officials behind closed doors. Residents wake up to find eviction notices on walls and power poles. Government officials say they try to be understanding, but the neighborhoods must go.

"We do our best to persuade them and offer them fair compensation. But if they refuse, the government has no choice but to guarantee the city's development," said an official in Shanghai's public complaints office, who gave only her surname, Xu.

The evictions highlight the contradictions of a vibrant, for-profit economy emerging in one of the world's last communist regimes.

As in capitalist countries, the disputes often revolve around money. Relocated residents receive government compensation, but they say it is not enough to rent or buy in the new buildings springing up in their former neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, the government, which under communist law still owns most land, reaps big profits selling leases on the sites to developers, many based overseas.

At the same time, China's one-party state gives people no avenue to redress grievances. The same officials in charge of receiving residents' complaints can be involved in the deals, while China's courts lack independence.

"You can't defeat a government-backed project in court," said Yang Huali, a resident of another neighborhood that is fighting development plans by a large state-owned company.

Yang says city authorities failed to consult the 3,000 residents before approving a cluster of 30-story apartment buildings scheduled to go up next to their homes. They complain that the project will occupy green space and block sunlight.

One way to protest is to refuse to move. But it has its risks.

In the past, thugs have roughed up holdouts. In one incident four years ago, witnesses said, an elderly man was pushed from a second-story window.

Zhang's neighborhood, near downtown's trendy Xintiandi restaurant and shopping district, is a labyrinth of dim, two-story buildings built a century ago, when that section of town was ruled by the French before the 1949 communist takeover. Most of the cramped apartments lack toilets or baths.

Residents and the government say about 90% of the neighborhood's 2,000 households accepted government compen- sation of about $55 a square foot.

The money let them move to modern high-rises on the city's outskirts. But rooms in the new building in their old neighborhood, to be built by Hong Kong-based Shui On Group, will cost more than $275 a square foot -- far beyond their reach.

"Shanghai's downtown is turning into a club for the rich," said one resident, who asked that only his surname, Li, be used.

Zhang said he and other neighbors will not back down.

"We will fight until the government gives us a fair hearing," he said.

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