As Beijing Olympics Near, Homes and Hope Crumble

In Beijing, the government is bulldozing some homes and shops in an effort to beautify the city for the Olympic games. Many owners say they are being displaced against their will, without being adequately compensated. Video by Maureen Fan/The Washington Post, Editor: Francine Uenuma/
By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 12, 2008

BEIJING -- One place tourists aren't likely to see during the Olympic Games next month is a nut shop just north of the Forbidden City. Plastered with posters of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao and four Chinese flags, the little building appears held together with tape and string.

The Yu family moved in during the 1950s and opened a small shop in 1981, about the time China began its transformation from a planned economy into one that promotes entrepreneurs and, in theory, protects private property rights.

But the nut shop is now slated for the wrecking ball.

As officials step up efforts to beautify Beijing, especially along the Olympic torch relay route where the shop is located, the Yu family and their neighbors are left to wait, worry and appeal for sympathy.

"We hung pictures of the leaders because we want to show that we love the Communist Party," said Yu Changsheng, 45, one of the shop's owners. "Since I'm Chinese, I love China. I hope the Olympics will be hosted successfully."

More than 1.25 million people in Beijing -- at times as many as 13,000 people a week -- have been evicted since the city won its Olympic bid in 2001, according to the Geneva-based Center on Housing Rights and Evictions.

These residents are facing an issue that surfaces in every Olympics, gentrification in the name of improving a city's image. But in China, where the government is clamping down hard on anything that incites instability, those trying to fend off what appears to be inevitable have fewer options and face greater risk.

Some have posted homemade signs vowing to protect their homes until death, but others have looked for room to negotiate.

As Yu stood outside his store recently, neighbor Wang Zhenjiang pedaled up on a bicycle and asked how much the government had offered him. Yu replied: $49,523 for 398 square feet, a third of what it would take to buy a new apartment in the same neighborhood.

Wang, whose house is also scheduled to be torn down, reminded Yu that he had doubled the size of the place over the years and urged him to demand more.

"It's all about money," Wang said, jabbing the air. "Under a one-party dictatorship, ordinary people have to put up with being wronged."

But Yu said, "If they come, we can do nothing but let them tear it down. When have you ever heard of the weak winning a case?"

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