Saturday, July 5th, 2008
The Toronto Star
July 5, 2008
BEIJING—High atop Yu Pinghu’s home on Di’anmen Nei St. in the heart of historic Beijing, stand two flags — one for the Chinese Communist party, the other for China — and a photograph of Premier Wen Jiabao with an inscription that reads: “Premier Wen is the best! He cares about the common people and their well-being.”
Yu Pinghu and her extended family, who have lived on this patch of property for more than 60 years, are appealing to Premier Wen to save their home from the wrecker’s ball.
The City of Beijing wants the Yu family to clear out and make way for a beautification project for the Olympic Games. They’ve marked the Yu home, and the small food shop they’ve run here since 1978, for destruction.
The 14 members of the Yu family, ranging in ages from 4 to 71, are counting on their property rights, the Chinese Constitution and a hoped-for intercession by Premier Wen to save them.
Ever since the Sichuan earthquake, when Premier Wen was seen on television attending to the trapped, the homeless and the orphaned, he has become a kind of superhero here, seemingly able to do anything on behalf of the common people.
“I hope he knows about our situation,” says Pinghu, 40, sitting at a tiny table in one of six crowded rooms that remain from the original eight built by her late father.
The city bulldozed two rooms in March, hoping to inspire the family to move.
Officials said the rooms didn’t meet municipal standards.
And the city is planning on bulldozing the rest any day now.
Such tension has proved too much for the matriarch of the family, Pinghu’s 71-year-old mother, Meng Shulan. This was her matrimonial home.
“But the police set up a surveillance camera across the street and were spying on us and that made her very worried. She was crying all day.”
As she speaks, she points to the ever-present police van a short distance away.
Official government statistics say a little more than 6,000 households have been forced to move because of the Olympics. But the Geneva-based Housing Rights and Evictions Centre, estimates the real number to be closer to 1.5 million people.
The tactic of demolishing property in Beijing without the property papers is unfortunately common. But developers often have the verbal backing of city officials, a plan to compensate the soon-to-be-homeless and a ready demolition crew to do the job.
And they have the police.
Last Friday, in an impressive display of force, a phalanx of police and city vehicles, carrying more than 30 uniformed and non-uniformed personnel, pulled up in front of the Yu property in the middle of their business day, and taped off the area.
Then, as dazed shoppers and passersby looked on, the police seized the Yus’ inventory of fresh and dried fruit, ice cream, cold drinks — even chewing gum — as well as three freezers, and loaded them on to a truck and drove off.
The police filmed everything. And a friend of the family filmed the police filming — and carting off the family’s belongings.
No papers were shown to the Yus authorizing the seizure of their goods, they say.
And no papers were offered to them to sign to retrieve their goods at a later date.
The police just left; with the Yus’ goods in tow.
And just like that, the family’s business was over. It wasn’t just that there was nothing left to sell — there wasn’t anything to sell it from: counters, tables, chairs — everything was taken.
The city has offered the family 346,660 Chinese yuan for the property, in Beijing’s historic centre. That’s a little more than $50,000.
A typical three-bedroom, single-family home located about 1Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â 1/2 hours north of Beijing costs about $135,000 today.
“If we were to accept what they’re offering, we wouldn’t be able to afford a home with a proper toilet,” says Pinghu.
In a letter to Beijing Mayor Guo Jinlong, Pinghu cited the words of a famous Chinese lawyer, Wang Cailiang.
“As for illegal demolitions, these things that are torn down are not simply houses, they’re the Communist party’s flag. And what is carted away are the foundation stones of the mansion that is the People’s Republic of China.”
Says Pinghu: “He’s expressing what’s in our heart.”