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Blogging Beijing

The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.

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August 6, 2008 5:46 PM

A Beijing courtyard epic

Posted by Daniel Beekman

(Note: Phone calls to the property developer referenced below went unanswered. This Blogging Beijing entry, therefore, speaks to one family's experience only. It does not represent a full investigation. The principal interviewees also asked that their Chinese names be withheld.)

"This courtyard has suffered three great dramas, three great crises," Tina H began solemnly.

Spectacled and graying, Ms. H spoke with her hands - as if she were literally reaching into her family's troubled past, plucking memories from a tree.

"They took our furniture. They choked our goldfish to death with perfume. They burned our apricot tree."

Ms. H has told the story many times.

Spanning a Cultural Revolution, an economic explosion and China's Olympic movement, the story is far from over.

The courtyard Red Guards took from the Hs in 1966, the courtyard Ms. H reclaimed decades later, is in danger again. A well-connected Beijing developer is determined to wrest it away.

Ms. H's younger brother has returned from Seattle; although they possess no deed to the courtyard, the Hs intend to keep their home.

"Our leaders want to build towers. They want to put on a show for the world," remarked Bill H, who deals software. "They want to earn money.

"The people who want our courtyard - we told them off. 'Just wait until the Games are done,' they said. Post-Olympics, the harmony you see in Beijing today will disappear."

Mr. and Ms. H, brother and sister, are mired in an unusual property dispute, their family courtyard casualty to a quirk of history. It was confiscated during China's chaotic Cultural Revolution, afterwards sold to a private firm.

While Chinese leaders later condemned the Cultural Revolution, the Hs were never recompensed. They've waited 40 years.

A young boy explores the H family courtyard, a forest of flowers and vines today.

An abandoned factory sags at the back of the courtyard, left from China's Cultural Revolution.

Mr. and Ms. H's grandfather with Mao Zedong (center right, wearing cap) in the Red Army' s stronghold Yan'an, 1939.

Ms. H remembers her grandfather well. A physician, he kept nine pretty bottles on a sandalwood table in the courtyard's west wing.

One day in 1966, the bottles - valuable antiques - disappeared.

"I asked my grandfather where the bottles had gone," Ms. H recalled. "He said Red Guards would inspect our home, that they'd consider the bottles old and wrong, that even under my bed the bottles wouldn't be safe. I was devastated."

On the evening of August 24, 1966, Ms. H heard jogging boots. Red Guards - Chairman Mao Zedong's young fanatics. They seized the courtyard and forced Ms. H's grandparents to kneel.

The Hs didn't stray far. They settled in a compound across the street, sharing it with five other families - more than 30 people. That's where Mr. H grew up. He lived within spitting distance of his former home for 16 years.

Red Guards targeted landowners and intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution; Ms. H's grandfather was both. In 1967, a radical 'counter-current' swept through Beijing.

"My grandfather wouldn't shut his mouth in defeat," remembered Ms. H. "So he bore the brunt of it."

Ms. H's grandfather was arrested, beaten and held for a year. The Hs shouldered his criminal reputation.

"The other families in our compound were very poor," said Ms. H. "They ate only steamed buns. Yet they taunted us. We had enough money to buy rice, but rarely smiled. I envied the other children, chewing their steamed buns."

Mr. and Ms. H were ridiculed at school. Ms. H remembers the Cultural Revolution vividly: red propaganda posters and neighborhood parades. Meanwhile, the courtyard served as a kindergarten and a state-run electronics factory.

Suddenly, in 1976, the Cultural Revolution came to a close. Ms. H was 20.

"One day, I reached an intersection," she said. "There was a crowd waiting to cross. Someone called my name. 'Your courtyard's been sold again.'

"The news hit me like a bolt from the blue. 'Now,' I thought, 'I have to snatch it back.'"

So began a second crisis. Aided by factory insiders, Ms. H snuck into the courtyard and took up residence. From 1982 on, she shared the space with the courtyard's buyer.

The buyer, an import-export company, took Ms. H to court. A district judge ordered her out. She appealed; a city judge concurred in 1990.

Six years later, China's supreme court tried the case. Ms. H lost again. Thanks to the People's Congress Overseas Chinese Committee, the suit disappeared.

Quarrels over property are common in China, where there's only one official landowner: the Chinese Communist Party. Residents who resist development are known as 'nail-house' fighters - dingzihu.

"We don't have private property in China," explained Matthew Gao, Secretary General of the Beijing Planner's Society. "The state wields a lot of power. When these disputes go to court, the common people often lose."

Sometimes dingzihu hold out for money; that isn't what the Hs are after.

"We're willing to negotiate," said Mr. H. "The bottom line is 'we want to live here.'"

Until 2003, Ms. H shared the courtyard with the import-export company. She often dreamed about what the home had been like decades before - a friendly, secluded abode.

"Our courtyard was peculiar to Beijing," Ms. H recalled. "It had three successive gates and a corridor of scientific design. In the summer, our roof blocked the sun. In the winter, the sun warmed my room."

Thousands of courtyards were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Thousands of blockish factory buildings were installed. Only one H family structure remains.

Today, market forces are finishing off Beijing's traditional neighborhoods.

"Beijing still had a city wall 20 years ago," said Gao. "It had 11 gates. Now three are left. The wall is gone."

Legislators have tried to restrict development ahead of the Olympics. They passed a comprehensive plan designating 31 'historical streets' in 2004.

But according to Hu Xinyu, director of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, implementation has been spotty at best.

"We're working with neighborhood committees," said Hu. "We want to help the government enforce these measures.

"Unfortunately, awareness is low. Most people have no idea there are such laws."

Mr. and Ms. H's altered home falls outside the sphere of heritage protection.

Ms. H reminisces about her simple courtyard life before the Cultural Revolution.

In the courtyard's abandoned factory, a first floor hallway.

'No trespassing' read the faded characters on the H's back wall.

In 2003, an infamous developer purchased the courtyard.

"They're very evil," declared Ms. H. "A few years ago, they tricked a resident into the street, covered his head with a black handkerchief and led him away.

"When he returned, his home was demolished. They threatened him with a knife; that's how they relocate people."

According to Ms. H, many Chinese developers operate outside the law.

"Some developers in Beijing are very cooperative," admitted Hu. "Others are quite arrogant, completely neglectful of courtyard preservation."

"In most cases, we acquire property already leveled," said a spokesman with high-end developer SOHO China (not the developer involved), who asked to remain anonymous.

"Generally, the city handles relocation and compensation. We are very respectful of the law."

A third crisis commenced March 25 this year. Over 100 men assembled unannounced and pushed over the Hs' rear wall.

Police sent the gang packing, though no arrests were made. 'You don't own the place,' the police told Ms. H. Mr. H hired a handful of guards, installed cameras and strengthened the courtyard's front gate.

On April 1, the gang reappeared; police turned them back. On April 3, they showed up again, to slice through the courtyard's electrical cables.

Nothing has happened for months now. Local authorities, says Mr. H, want no part of the conflict.

"The Olympics are coming soon," he said. "If a violent incident were to occur, the police would be punished and the district leaders would lose face."

Mr. H worries that foreign fans of the 2008 Games won't see 'the real China.'

"Our government wants the world to think China is a developing country, a land of opportunity for Fortune 500 companies," he said.

"Supposedly, we've built a harmonious society. But we want harmony anchored in justice, not force."

Will the Hs retain their courtyard after the Games?

"If you can prove that you owned property before 1949 and can prove it was confiscated, you've got a chance," said H. "It's nearly impossible, because of the Cultural Revolution."

"Things here have changed thanks to the Olympics," said Mr. H. "China has opened up to the world.

"But we still have a long way to go. Can property belong to individuals, or only the state? China needs to answer this question."

Seattle Times in Beijing:

'Times' Olympic coverage'

'Columnist Steve Kelley's blog'

'Reporter Kristi Heim's blog'

'Photographer Rod Mar's blog'


'Seattle Times' photographer Rod Mar takes in Beijing Olympic torch relay'

'ESPN reporter encounters trouble at Beijing Tibet protest'

'Usain Bolt still not sure if he'll run the sprint double'

'Dream Team welcomed to Beijing'

'Americans protest in Games city against Chinese abortions'

'American athletes apologize for masks'

'PETA press conference shut down in Beijing'

'Guangzhou's Olympic whistle-blowers'

'Asia Society on Beijing's air'

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