Since last October, when construction began in earnest, about 10,000 farmers also have been forced to relocate, their shacks bulldozed and their land seized. Many peasants, refusing to leave, clashed repeatedly with police, who used dogs and helicopters to break up protests during the clearing operation. A protest leader, Guo Zhihua, was jailed.
Liang Xufeng, 29, a successful landscaper who lost his island home, acknowledged that the farmers' lot was worse than his. Although they get help buying a new apartment, he said, the peasants have been left without land, and thus without a livelihood.
But Liang had his own shock recently when he returned from a business trip with his wife to nearby Dongguan. Police and demolition crews had destroyed his house during his absence.
Another resident, Chu Jiaquan, 42, an art professor who was known as Ken when he lived in San Jose, said he spent 10 years having his dream home built and filling it with art objects. He felt lucky, he said, because the other half of his two-home building was occupied by his former art professor and mentor.
Now that half has been gutted and the professor is gone, despite court cases and multiple appeals by lawyers in Guangzhou and Beijing. Authorities have condemned Chu's half as well, but so far it has escaped demolition because, Chu believes, he is a U.S. citizen. He has joined his neighbors in a public relations and court battle that they say they will not abandon even after their homes are rubble.
"It's not the money," Chu explained. "It's the way they treat us."
Guangzhou authorities have responded that there is nothing illegal about seizing land to build University Town and that they are offering fair compensation to homeowners as well as to poor farmers.
But Liang, echoing others' complaints, said he had been offered $280,000 in compensation for a house with a market value several times that amount. Moreover, he and other homeowners expressed the belief that authorities, despite their declarations now, will end up selling confiscated riverbank land to developers at ultra-high prices.
Researcher Zhang Jing contributed to this report.