Disneyland project in Shanghai spotlights forced evictions in China

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 19, 2010

SHANGHAI -- It took years and all of the family's life savings, but in 2008, retiree Wang Quanlin finally completed his dream home. It was spacious, two stories with an attic, and had new furnishings inside.

Then last fall came an unexpected notice from the Shanghai city government. The entire area had been slated for a new development project -- a Disneyland theme park. The Wang family would have to move, and their house would be demolished.

The Wangs' uphill legal battle to stay in their home, or to get what they consider fair compensation, is about to end. The government is set to turn over the land in July for the $3.5 billion Disney project, and the family -- having exhausted its protests and appeals -- will be relocated to two much smaller apartments.

"We support Disneyland, but we hate these forced demolitions," said Wang's son, Wang Yuchen, 30, who took a leave of absence from his job as an engineer to fight the eviction. "The whole process is unfair. It's unequal."

It's a story being repeated all over China, as the country's breakneck economic growth has created a property boom and developers, often working hand in hand with local officials, rush to cash in. Often that means the government seizing land for projects deemed in the "public interest," and ordinary Chinese who lack high-level connections being forced out of their longtime homes and neighborhoods with meager compensation.

Hundreds of thousands of Beijing residents were displaced and thousands of houses destroyed for the construction of 2008 Olympics venues. In Shanghai, thousands were displaced to make way for the world expo this spring. And about 2,000 households in four townships on the east side of the Yellow River are being moved to make way for Disney; the Wang family is among the last dozen or so holdouts.

"It is happening everywhere, and to a great magnitude," said Yang Jianli, a longtime dissident and a fellow at Harvard University who works with a group called the Sparrow Initiative, which highlights forced evictions and demolitions.

"Forced demolitions, forced evictions are so ubiquitous in China," Yang said. "And they do it without regard to people's rights."

Residents push back

But there is evidence that people are growing more aware of their rights and are fighting back.

In Wuhan, west of Shanghai in Hubei province, a farmer named Yang Youde became a local media sensation when he built a cannon, stuffed it with fireworks and fired it at a team sent to evict him from the farmland he leased. Last year, several people were reported to have set themselves on fire when eviction teams arrived to remove them. And this year, homeowners have clashed with demolition squads, which often resort to tactics such as cutting off water and electricity to holdouts' homes.

"Nowadays, people's awareness is enhanced," said Zhang Shutai, a member of a Shanghai demolition crew waiting outside the Wang house for the final order to bulldoze the property.

Zhang said he was also involved in demolitions to make way for the world expo and has seen an increase in protests by homeowners. "We understand. But there's no other solution," Zhang said. "Ordinary households believe these kind of forced demolitions are not allowed. But this is an urgent project."

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