Seizing homes, seizing lives: The anatomy of a Shanghai land grab

Rob Schmitz Mar 5, 2013

Seizing homes, seizing lives: The anatomy of a Shanghai land grab

Rob Schmitz Mar 5, 2013

In the middle of Shanghai, there’s a secret neighborhood.

It’s the size of a city block, and it’s surrounded by a 10-foot wall. Inside is a field of weeds where stray cats prowl through the charred corpses of old homes. It’s a strange scene — particularly here, in the middle of Shanghai’s old French Concession, which has some of the most expensive real estate in China. But for the past decade, this lot has sat here, undeveloped and oblivious to the most rapid economic boom in modern history going on all around it.

But there are people here. And they’re aware. Kang Chenggeng sneaks past a police officer guarding the only entrance to this neighborhood to show what’s left of his home. “My home,” he says, his voice muffled by a cold gust of wind.

A decade ago, this was a quiet alleyway neighborhood called Maggie Lane. Officials from the Shanghai district of Xuhui had plans to sell the land to a developer to build a luxury condominium complex. Maggie Lane residents say Xuhui officials tricked them into leaving their neighborhood, telling them their homes were of historical importance, the government would rebuild them, and afterwards, residents could move back.

Xuhui government officials refused interview requests from Marketplace.

Kang says as Maggie Lane’s residents started to leave, they discovered officials had lied to them. The government changed the legal designation for the land, changed the resettlement terms, and suddenly they weren’t able to return to their homes. If they wanted new housing elsewhere, they’d have to forfeit much of their resettlement compensation for it. Kang and a dozen others stayed put. “The demolition crew cut my water and gas, and they took my front door off the hinges,” remembers Kang. “I wouldn’t leave. Then they broke my windows and poured buckets of raw sewage into my home. I still didn’t leave. Then, when it was raining hard, they used an excavator to smash my roof in. Everything got wet, so I left.” 

Kang’s been homeless ever since. Sometimes he comes back here to check on his old home. He looks through the hole in the roof that’s still there. Sunlight shines through it onto broken glass, piles of bricks and splintered lumber.

From the shattered window of Kang’s old kitchen, you can see what’s left of the home of Zhu Shuikang and his wife Li Xingzhi. According to Chinese court documents, on the night of January 9th, 2005, two employees of the developer set fire to the couple’s home to try to get them to leave. Another neighbor, Chen Zhongdao, remembers that night. “The fire alarm went off, but we didn’t go outside to see what was going on because we were scared of getting beat up by the developer’s thugs,” recalls Chen.

Zhu Shuikang was an elderly man who had fought and survived the Korean War as a Chinese soldier decades ago, but he was no match for the developer.

He and his wife burned to death in their bed.

Months later, two employees of the developer were given reprieved death sentences, another got life in prison, and the Xuhui government built a wall around the neighborhood, letting it sit as unfinished business for future leaders to take care of. “I believe the new leadership will take a tougher stand on these illegal takings,” says Li Ping, an attorney in Beijing for the property rights group Landessa.

He says tackling illegal land seizures will be a priority for incoming president Xi Jinping. Li’s confident China’s new leaders are ready to increase compensation and give fair resettlement packages to people like the residents of Maggie Lane. He says local governments have taken land from 40 million people in China, and the pace hasn’t slowed down. It’s beginning to threaten social stability, he says. “According to current pace of land expropriation, they will add three million people every year,” says Li. “If compensation is not adequate, you basically add three more million dissidents each and every year.”

The challenge, says Li, will be to give local governments more legal options to make money. As it stands, local governments hand over most of their tax revenue to the central government, so taking land from residents and selling it to developers is an irresistible temptation.

Chen Zhongdao still lives inside his half demolished home. He says every year or two, Xuhui officials send a demolition crew to try and force them off the land. “I’ve told the men in the crews that if they try to take me from my home, I’ll strap a gas canister to myself and we’ll all die together,” says Chen.  “I’ve told them: I’m 60 years old, you guys are only 40. You have your lives ahead of you. I’m not afraid to die.”

So far, the Xuhui government hasn’t tested Chen’s threat. Instead officials have allowed Chen and his neighbors to stay here, living in their partially demolished homes. Officials paid off the developer, losing money for the district, and then re-designated Maggie Lane as land for public use, yet a wall remains around it.

A few weeks ago, the district sent a crew to install new gas lines for Chen and his neighbors. He doesn’t know what to make of this, but he’s optimistic that change is afoot, China’s new leadership may help people like him, and maybe someday his house will again feel like home.

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