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By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 19, 2010; A08
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.”
The cleared land is scheduled to be handed over in July, and the theme park is due to open in 2014.
But the race to remove residents comes amid questions about whether China even needs a new Disneyland. The country is awash in theme parks — historical parks, garden parks, cultural parks, ethnic minority parks, even a theme park populated by little people. Few turn a profit.
Figures released this year show that the Hong Kong Disneyland, which opened in 2005, posted a $170 million loss last year, on top of $200 million in losses in 2008. The Hong Kong park’s 4.6 million visitors last year were also below the 5.6 million annual visitors originally projected.
Shanghai authorities, apparently mindful of the figures from Hong Kong, have scaled back the size of the Shanghai project; it will be the smallest of the Disneyland parks worldwide. A Disney spokeswoman in Hong Kong said there is room for both parks. “We believe the greater China market is large enough to support multiple parks,” she said. “The U.S., with one-fourth of the population of China, supports two Disney-branded resort destinations.”
‘A shadow cast over it’
Wang Yuchen said he has nothing against the Disney project; he just wants a fair deal for his family. “It’s a good thing for American companies to come invest in China,” he said. “But I wish they would take into account Chinese people’s feelings. If this project is built on the sorrow of ordinary Chinese, I believe there will be a shadow cast over it.”
He took his case to the local courts several times, most recently last month. He was armed with a May 15 edict from China’s State Council, the equivalent of the cabinet, which said people forcibly removed from their homes should get “reasonable” compensation and which held local authorities responsible for not “oppressing” people facing eviction.
The demolition crew responded by first bulldozing all the houses around the Wangs’ home and piling the debris in front. Then they cut the water and the phone lines and hung banners with slogans warning that holdouts “may encounter accidents.”
Wang, in turn, hung two huge Chinese flags on his family’s house and plastered copies of the May State Council edict over the demolition company’s banners.
The Shanghai government referred all questions to the local planning authority. An official there, Dai Shuo, said most of the households had been removed from the project area, with 5 percent holding out.
Dai said the villages affected were classified as “rural,” and owners will receive only what it would cost to rebuild. If the land were classified as “urban,” compensation would be based on the market value, which in Shanghai probably would be high.
“For Wang’s villa, you should know that it cannot be traded and has no market value,” Dai said. “If he insists on making demands beyond the reasonable scope, we won’t give in.”
Researcher Wang Juan in Shanghai contributed to this report.