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With Growth, China Gets NIMBY Attitudes

A Beijing suburb fights to keep a hospital from moving in. Residents say their wealth makes officials unsympathetic to their concerns.

October 30, 2005|Charles Hutzler | Associated Press Writer

BEIJING — When Beijing homeowners learned that the city planned to move its main infectious diseases hospital into their suburb, they did what ordinary Chinese are increasingly doing: They held meetings, organized a signature campaign and took their grievance to the government.

But these aren't ordinary Chinese. They're lawyers, financiers, entrepreneurs -- a class of newly rich in a system that once believed itself to be classless.

Their protest is another measure of how much China is changing. Besides their concerns about public health, they're also worried about property values -- a turnabout for a society raised on the communist belief that private property is evil.

When they traipsed to the city government's complaints office, the dozen or so suburbanites stood out from the largely working-class Chinese also there to press grievances. "We were dressed very businesslike, so we were very obvious," Margaret Zheng said of their first visit in late June.

The others waiting inside the reception area lined with plastic orange seats, she said, "were common Beijing people."

The not-in-my-backyard struggle is turning the usual order of social conflict on its head and exposing some of the shifting political realities in China. The rural and urban poor, who have struggled under an increasingly market-driven economy, often get shortchanged as their neighborhoods are razed to accommodate rapidly expanding cities and towns, legal experts and sociologists say. Meanwhile, the educated and the entrepreneurial have prospered in the booming economy.

But in the suburban area called Beigao, home to executives for multinationals such as Microsoft Corp., it's the turn of the prosperous to fret. New houses in their gated, trimly landscaped communities fetch $400,000 and up, in a city where annual income averages about $3,500.

The facility to be moved there, Ditan Hospital, is where many patients were treated in the 2003 outbreak of the deadly disease known as SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome.

"This will affect our physical health and our financial health," said Andy See, a Chinese-born, Hong Kong-reared lawyer for telecommunications manufacturer Nortel Networks Ltd. in Beijing and a leading organizer of the opposition.

It's not clear whether Ditan's move from its crowded city neighborhood to Beigao can be stopped. The Beijing Health Bureau says it carefully weighed the public safety issues and has full approval for the 600-bed, $55-million facility.

It says construction must begin within months if Ditan is to be up and running by the 2008 Olympic Games.

The hospital's well-to-do opponents have pursued channels unavailable to many Chinese: hiring a lawyer and using family friends and business contacts to deliver letters to Beijing Mayor Wang Qishan and to a vice premier with the health portfolio.

But they appear to be at a disadvantage against the larger backdrop of swelling unrest and sharpening class lines.

The nation's police chief says there were 74,000 large protests last year. Some turned violent, with protesters venting their anger against government offices and, on at least three occasions in the last two years, against wealthier Chinese.

Sensitive to these trends, the communist government led by President Hu Jintao has tried to position itself as a champion of the underdog. It has clamped down on local governments transferring land for development and called for the displaced to be justly compensated for the sake of "a harmonious society."

In such a political and social climate, Beigao homeowners worry that the government is not duly considering their interests.

"Poor people resort to violent means, protests, demonstrations," See said. "For rich people, we dare not do it."

Like other residents, he knew nothing of the hospital relocation until the head of a film-distribution company living in a nearby compound angrily posted a leaflet at a neighborhood convenience store, after reading a small item in a local newspaper in June.

Soon, a group of about 20 residents held a meeting, organized the first of their two visits to the complaints office and began collecting signatures -- about 1,200 to date. Their lawyer drafted a petition asking for a review on the grounds that, contrary to regulations, the neighbors weren't consulted.

Last month, the government accepted the petition without comment, after initially rebuffing it on bureaucratic grounds.

Some residents sought out well-connected neighbors and friends. In response to one letter, the mayor toured the neighborhood in a 20-car convoy in early September, a witness said.

That letter, and another to Vice Premier Wu Yi, pointed out that the proposed site was too close to schools and the airport expressway, people familiar with the letters said.

Among the scenarios that residents have sketched are spread of airborne diseases, contagious patients riding public transport, and contaminated waste seeping into the groundwater or infecting mosquitoes, which could pass it on to humans.

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