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Rebellion of the Displaced

Some in Shanghai are resisting a project forcing them from their homes. The city is taking notice.

September 05, 2003|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

SHANGHAI — It was more than 60 years ago that Shen Ting's mother's mother put down 10 pieces of gold for the right to rent a one-room apartment in the Jingan district of downtown Shanghai. The gray-brick building in the old British settlement is now drab and, as always, cramped; the cooking is done in a public hallway, and bathrooms are shared too.

Through all that time, though, even after the government took it over following the Communist revolution in 1949, it has remained home for the Shen family -- until earlier this year, when security guards hired by a local developer showed up and said it was time to go.

The relocation of the Shens and more than 2,000 other area residents is not unusual in a city that is one of the world's busiest construction sites, where skyscrapers seem to rise almost overnight and new apartments are in high demand by a burgeoning middle class. But the response of the Shens and several other tenants in the dilapidated Jingan complex is extremely unusual: They are fighting back.

The residents have launched a vigorous public protest and lawsuit that has attracted considerable attention here, in no small measure because the would-be developer of the site is at the center of a real estate fraud scandal that is being investigated by Beijing authorities and could yet ensnare other developers and even government officials here.

The high-flying developer, Zhou Zhengyi, one of Shanghai's wealthiest men, was placed under house arrest on charges of misrepresenting his assets to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in bank loans. The head of the Shanghai branch of the Bank of China was soon demoted, with one bank official saying the action was linked to questionable loans to private developers.

Whether the scandal will mushroom is unclear, but it has bolstered the hopes of the plaintiffs in their battle, even though a judge in the case has largely ruled against them so far. The case is currently on appeal in the Shanghai courts. That state-run news media have covered the case in some detail has also unleashed considerable speculation that authorities, aware of widespread resentment among many poorer Shanghainese over how the city's make-over is affecting them, are at least allowing a little venting over the subject.

The city government seemed to further acknowledge the anger in July when it announced plans to crack down on what it called the "wrongdoing" of some developers who had failed to give adequate replacement housing or compensation to the dislocated. And earlier this year, responding to a related source of grumbling, the state Ministry of Land and Resources announced a freeze on the lease of land in Shanghai for the development of more villa-style mansions, which a top ministry official called "luxury housing that is far above the average living standard."

Advocates for the tenants see the moves as promising, and openly hope that the developers may be forced to award damages to the tenants and even provide them apartments in the new buildings that are being erected.

Liu Qing, president of Human Rights in China, a New York- and Hong Kong-based nonprofit group, said the case represents "an important test of whether China's legal system can genuinely protect the interests of displaced residents over and against those of the rich and powerful."

On the other hand, there is considerable evidence to suggest that the protests may only go so far -- not all the way to victory. The dislocated residents have hardly had a friendly hearing in court so far, and several protesters say they have been detained, hassled or put under surveillance by the police. One of their lawyers was arrested in June and charged with stealing state secrets, an allegation his supporters contend is bogus.

In any event, such protests are virtually unheard of in a place where even many of the displaced say the destruction of their residences is a necessary cost for helping Shanghai, once widely known as the Paris of the East, reclaim its place as one of the world's most dynamic cities.

Indeed, many of the plaintiffs and others who have taken part in increasingly public protests over their forced relocation say their real goal is not so much to preserve the old housing. Few wax nostalgic about the confined, dingy tenements where they live now, and a common goal of most protesters is to secure an affordable apartment in one of the new high-rises planned for the spot where they were living.

"We support the government's decision to do what it takes to make Shanghai an international, modern city," said Xu Zhengqing, a 41-year-old restaurant owner, who was moved out of a three-room apartment downtown that he had been sharing with his wife and 11-year-old daughter, as well as his father, mother and a younger brother.

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