Housing protests in Beijing as top leaders hold crucial policy meeting

Keegan Elmer
·5-min read

While China’s top leaders praised the country’s economic achievements at a key Communist Party meeting on Thursday, a group of elderly protesters gathered at a government building in the capital, chanting slogans and demanding a replacement for their homes demolished by the city more than a decade ago.

Police stood by and watched as the protesters gathered at the gate of the Chaoyang District Housing Construction Committee, as they had done for the past three days, and yelled to its director, “Zhang Shihua, we want our homes!”

When police tried to disband the group, they resisted. “We are the victims here. Of course, we will try to defend our own interests,” one protester said to the police.

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The group represented around 60 households seeking compensation and rent subsidies owed for the demolition of their homes in the neighbourhood of Tianshuiyuan, around a kilometre and half away from the site of the protest.

“We are 60 and 70 year olds, do you think we can fight you police? We can’t. What do we want? We want compensation, owed to us by law! There are national laws on this. We wouldn’t be here if we got it!” the man explained.

Protesters were soon ushered into the building by police and government representatives for further talks. Housing Construction Committee members and police officers at the scene said they would not accept interviews.

“We’ve been doing this for years with no results,” said another protester, who does not want to be named. “The municipal government, county government, and different government departments – we’ve been to them all before for years. We’re always given the runaround,” they said.

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“We believe the central government has our economic well-being at heart, but we want the local government departments to meet with us and hear what we have to say after all these years,” said Liu Yuzhe, a representative of the group.

Liu said the government had planned to build them houses near Beijing’s central business district, one of the most expensive parts of China’s capital city, but nothing had been given. The protesters also claimed they were owed more than 70,000 yuan (US$10,430) for this year’s rental assistance, which was supposed to be given to them in January.

The protests occurred as top Communist Party leaders met in Beijing for a crucial policy meeting, to assess the nation’s progress through the Covid-19 pandemic and to set political and economic goals for the next five years.

On Thursday, as the three days of meetings closed, President Xi Jinping and the 200 member Central Committee talked about China’s achievements for the middle class.

Two women ride past a construction site in the central business district of Beijing on Friday. Photo: AFP
Two women ride past a construction site in the central business district of Beijing on Friday. Photo: AFP

While some people were treated terribly as their homes were knocked down to make way to China’s colossal urbanisation drive in the past decades, others have become better off. The “descendants of the relocated” have become a unique and enviable group in China, referring to the young people who inherit the real estate from their parents and almost become rich overnight as they receive millions of yuan or even more in relocation compensation.

A party report summarising the meetings said more than 55 million people in China have been lifted out of poverty and more than 60 million new jobs were created in China’s urban areas in the past five years. And the country was on track for eliminating poverty and building a “moderately prosperous society” by the end of the year, it said.

But the report also said China still had “shortcomings” in maintaining the livelihoods of its people, as well as weaknesses in public governance.

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Analysts have warned that these weaknesses could get in the way of China achieving its long term goals.

“Policymakers have put rapid urbanisation first, and social justice second. Long-term housing conflicts … show that local governments and the developers get their deals first, and leave compensation for the residents to very last,” said Wu Qiang, a former Tsinghua University professor and Beijing-based social commentator.

“Xi Jinping may believe that [handling well] social conflicts like these are very important, and it appears that top-level efforts are addressing the issues,” said Wu. “But [Xi] is unable to balance against the local governments and the radical urbanisation that has been occurring, and the average citizens lose out.”

“These demolitions cases happen all the time, all across the country, and it’s almost impossible for citizens to hold governments accountable to the law,” said Sheng Hong, a Beijing-based economist.

China no longer issues statistics about the number of public protests that occur each year. The Wickedonna blog project, whose journalists won a Reporters Without Borders prize for journalism, recorded more than 726 protests across China by victims of forced demolitions in the year 2015.

In June, thousands of housing demolitions in the northern outskirts of Beijing led to protests, clashes with police, and arrests of the protest leaders.

Sheng, who’s home was among those demolished in June, said that despite years of reforms planned for China’s legal system, it has remained extremely difficult for the average person to sue the government, and win.

“When conflicts arise, it often leaves people with no choice but to wage long and arduous protest and petitioning campaigns,” he said.

“Without the rule of law, there will be no ‘moderately prosperous society’ [in China],” said Sheng referring to the idea that all individuals are equal before the law.

Additional reporting by Jane Cai

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