Fighting the Chinese ‘system’

Books | A burned-out, partially demolished neighborhood stands in stark contrast to Shanghai’s claim of a ‘Better City, Better Life’
by Rob Schmitz
Posted 6/17/17, 02:26 pm

How do you tackle a topic as complex and immense as 21st-century China? Rob Schmitz, NPR’s Shanghai correspondent and a former reporter in China for American Public Media’s Marketplace, accomplishes this by zooming in on life on a Shanghai street named “Eternal Happiness.” In Street of Eternal Happiness, WORLD’s 2016 Book of the Year in the Understanding the World category, Schmitz paints a picture of how China’s rapid economic and political change has affected individual lives: families displaced in land grabs, the elderly swept up in pyramid schemes, millennials searching for deeper meaning than making money, and migrant workers leaving their children behind in hopes of a better life. While Schmitz does a great job humanizing trends in China, it’s sad his only example of a house church preaches the prosperity gospel, using charisma to take parishioners’ money just like the get-rich-quick scams. In the excerpt below, courtesy of Penguin Random House, Schmitz visits a Shanghai neighborhood where residents continue to live in homes forcefully demolished by the government. —Angela Lu

“You’re not allowed in here! Hey you! Get out of here!”

It was one o’clock. Lunch was over, and Maggie Lane’s security guard had reported back to work, right on schedule.

“Old Kang! Is that you? Who’s with you?” the guard demanded, yelling up toward the hollowed third floor.

I peered outside the third-story window of Old Kang’s abandoned house to see the skinny guard standing obediently behind the police line. His blue jacket hung loose on his bony shoulders, his hat tilted to the side; the entire uniform was too big for him. He looked like a boy ready to go trick-or-treating.

“They’re my friends!” hollered Old Kang from inside.

“He’s a foreigner!” yelled the security guard, pointing at my face in the broken window.

“That doesn’t make him any less of a friend!” quipped Old Kang.

We gingerly descended the stairs and came outside to face the guard, who seemed nervous at having to deal with a foreign intruder in what was usually as quiet a beat as a guard could get.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“I’m a foreign journalist. I’m interviewing him,” I said, indicating Old Kang.

This was the last thing a security guard wanted to hear from an intruder. His anxiety level ticked up a notch, and he shifted from one foot to another.

The guard searched for words. “Well, you can’t interview him here,” he declared.

“Of course he can! This is my home. I’ve invited him here to interview me!” said Old Kang.

I carried a copy of the Chinese government’s “Regulations on Foreign Journalists” for moments like this. I took the yellowed paper out of my bag, unfolded it, and handed it to the guard. “It says here I can interview anyone in China as long as they give me permission,” I said, pointing to Item 17 of the regulations.

“I give him permission,” announced Old Kang, smiling at the clarity of this particular Chinese law.

The guard ignored him, scanning the document. “It also says here you have to show police your press card,” he said, pointing.

I pulled out my press card and gave it to him. He inspected both sides, holding it at an angle in the sunlight as if he were checking for a watermark on a hundred-yuan bill. He returned it to me.

“You’re trespassing,” he announced decisively.

“No, he’s not,” said Old Kang. “Is this not my home?”

The guard thought for a second, lifting his white-gloved fingers to scratch the back of his head. “Yes, it’s your home,” he finally admitted.

“And did I not give him permission to interview me?”

“Yes.”

“Then this is all perfectly legal,” concluded Old Kang, turning back to me. “Don’t mind him.”

The Party controlled the judiciary and the press, so people who had been dealt injustices by the government typically sought out the only people who refused to be influenced by the Party: foreign journalists.

The guard kept quiet and followed us as we walked around the partially demolished house, lifting his oversized policeman’s hat above his ears to hear Old Kang tell the story of what happened the night they destroyed his home.

It was a clear October evening in 2004. Most of the lane’s residents had negotiated relocation packages with Chengkai Group and had moved to tiny apartments on the edge of Shanghai. But dozens of people remained in Maggie Lane, refusing to budge on the principle that the Xuhui government had auctioned the land illegally. But after two years, district officials grew impatient. They put Chengkai Group’s demolition crew in charge of getting rid of the holdouts.

“At least twenty thugs surrounded my house,” recalled Old Kang. “They cut my water and gas, and then they pulled my front door off the hinges. I refused to leave. Then they threw rocks through my windows and poured buckets of raw sewage into the house. It was disgusting and the smell was horrible, but I mopped it all up. I still didn’t leave.”

Ever patient, the crew waited for a change in the weather. One night it began to rain, and Old Kang was relaxing in his living room when he heard the noise of a loud engine outside. An excavator slowly pulled up to his house and lifted its arm high above Old Kang’s roof.

Peng! Peng! Peng!” Old Kang shouted, remembering the smashing noise he heard from above. The roof collapsed, sending lumber and plaster everywhere and nearly crushing him. Debris, along with a torrent of rain, began to soak his furniture. “Everything got wet,” said Kang, “so I left.”

Old Kang has been homeless ever since, bouncing around friends’ apartments, living on social welfare checks, and petitioning the government to compensate him for his demolished home. “You can’t leave me roaming around outside on the streets like this,” he told me. The skinny security guard leaned in as Old Kang grew more impassioned. “You’ve got to give me a shelter to live or rent a place for me. Why not repair the house so that I can move back?” he asked.

The security guard let out a loud guffaw, bending over to laugh at the absurdity of such an idea before shouting “Bu keneng!”—No way!

Old Kang ignored the guard. “The least they can do is to pay my rent. I don’t need a nice house; just a place to live is enough. It doesn’t matter where,” he said. “A ten-square-meter room would be sufficient, where rent is around two thousand yuan a month.”

Old Kang spoke as if I had a say in the matter. Maggie Lane residents had sued the district government, but a local judge had dismissed the suit. They had filed petitions with the government, but those were ignored. The Party controlled the judiciary and the press, so people who had been dealt injustices by the government typically sought out the only people who refused to be influenced by the Party: foreign journalists. Unlike local media, which were strictly censored in their coverage, I was allowed to report whatever I wanted under the protection of a foreign journalist visa. When I first met Old Kang, I wondered how much he told me “truthfully reflected the truth.” Was he embellishing some of the details to attract the government’s attention? Officials had the chance to refute his story when I contacted them, but they didn’t—they refused interview requests. Later, I found police reports that corroborated his story. Plus, the physical evidence was right here, directly above us: a massive hole in his roof in an empty neighborhood of demolished homes.

“I’ve been without a home for more than eight years,” Old Kang said as we hiked over a pile of rubble, walking away. “Do things like this ever happen in your country?”

I thought about the eminent domain cases I had covered back in the United States. “Yes,” I said, “but contractors aren’t allowed to harass people in the process. That’s against the law. And people usually don’t end up homeless.”

“That’s the big difference between your country and mine,” said Old Kang, nodding. “We have laws here, but none of them are enforced. Nobody has rights here. It doesn’t matter how developed China is—the system is what’s important. If they don’t change the system, economic development is useless. The government only seems to care about progress in science and technology or the economy, not in its overall system.”

Old Kang had raised the proverbial question for China’s future, a pivotal issue that scholars have debated for years. Establishing fair legal rights would require an independent judiciary and open the door to lawsuits filed by the people against their government, threatening the Party’s power. For years, many China-watchers assumed an independent legal system would gradually evolve alongside the flourishing of capitalism and the economic development of the country, but it hadn’t happened yet.

We arrived at the burned-out shell of a shikumen home in the center of the lot. We were standing in a vacuum at the center of the world’s fastest-moving city, a void that had been left for dead.

A group of old women emerged from the partially destroyed homes of Maggie Lane to say hello.

“He’s a foreign journalist!” announced Old Kang, proudly.

The security guard shot me a nervous glance. “Don’t talk to them,” he told the women.

“Why not?” asked one of them, sarcastically. “We’d just tell him how happy we are to live here! So happy! And what a dignified life! Just look at this lovely place!”

The women’s cackling laughter embarrassed the guard and he looked away. Old Kang motioned to a man standing behind them to come forward. “That’s Old Chen. He and his wife live in that house over there. He’s leading the fight!”

I shook Chen’s hand. His full name was Chen Zhongdao, but I later came to nickname him Mayor Chen.

The Mayor of Maggie Lane was a thin man in his sixties. His hair was neatly trimmed and he had calm, kind eyes, a large nose, and a gentle smile that revealed two large buckteeth. His house stood near the entrance to the lot. Mayor Chen had obtained police records, court documents, and all sorts of evidence of wrongdoing related to the lane. As a result, demolition crews had largely left his house alone. It was well kept, surrounded by a grove of trees. A weeping willow stood in front of the stone gate entrance. Mayor Chen and I traded phone numbers, and I asked him how he and the others were still allowed to live here.

“Oh, they try to kick us out from time to time,” he said in a thick Shanghainese dialect, “but we keep fighting.”

But their tenacity wasn’t the reason they were allowed to remain here, Mayor Chen explained. It was the double murder.

In the early-morning hours of January 9, 2005, three men from the demolition crew arrived carrying canisters of gasoline. The previous year, the group had threatened and intimidated most of the lane’s residents out of their homes; in the weeks leading up to that evening, they set more than a dozen fires to scare those who remained, but residents had learned to have buckets of water at the ready to put them out.

On that January night, the three men sprayed gasoline throughout the ground level of an elderly couple’s home. Zhu Shuikang and his wife Li Xingzhi were in their seventies and had lived in Maggie Lane for more than sixty years. Zhu was a retired veteran who had fought with the People’s Liberation Army in the Korean War. According to court documents, at one o’clock in the morning, the men ignited the gasoline. Within minutes, flames consumed the house. Zhu’s and Li’s charred bodies were found in what was left of their bed the following morning.

Months later at trial, Zhu and Li’s daughter-in-law told the judge through tears that her father-in-law had survived a war, yet he and his wife, aged and defenseless, were murdered on the orders of corrupt local officials. The judge found the three men, all employees of Chengkai Group, guilty. Wang Changkun and Yang Sunqin received reprieved death sentences and Lu Peide was sentenced to life in prison.

Tenacity wasn’t the reason they were allowed to remain here, Mayor Chen explained. It was the double murder.

This sentence was handed down the same year Shanghai officials published and distributed How to Be a Lovely Shanghainese to residents as part of the city’s “civilization” campaign. The term is defined on page 75:

It refers to the state and extent of social progress when human society has rid itself of ignorance, brutality, and backwardness. It is the hallmark of a country, a nation’s advancement and enlightenment. It includes material civilization, political civilization and spiritual civilization. It shows a new type of interpersonal relationship that reflects an equal, united society marked by mutual help and amicableness.

The Maggie Lane murders came at a vulnerable time for Shanghai. The city was preparing for the world’s spotlight, and it couldn’t afford bad press about a burned-out, partially demolished neighborhood—the site of a grisly murder at the hands of a developer—in the very center of the city. Xuhui District officials purchased the land back from the developer at a loss and promptly fenced it in with cream-colored stucco that stood ten feet tall. China’s leaders had always been good at building walls, and this one prevented passersby from witnessing the carnage.

Mayor Chen, his wife, and four other families continued living inside their partially demolished houses, refusing to budge until the district met their demands: new homes in the same neighborhood. The district government had restored water, gas, and electricity to the lot, and now the only complaint Chen had was about his leaky roof. (An excavator damaged it years ago, but it wasn’t anything a properly placed pail couldn’t handle.) Much as it was decades ago, Maggie Lane was a quiet place to live, and residents could come and go as they pleased through a locked gate guarded twenty-four hours a day by a rotating shift of police officers. The lane’s remaining residents had even built their own community garden in a sun-drenched expanse in front of what was left of Zhu and Li’s home that included onions, chili peppers, and zucchini. I often watched them work from my window above. It was a collective farm in the middle of China’s biggest city.

On a sunny day later that autumn, I took a walk around the perimeter of the wall with Rainey. It was October 2010, and the world’s fair was wrapping up. Rainey trailed me with a rope in his hand along Peaceful Happiness Road, pulling his favorite toy behind him, a white wooden duck with clicking wheels.

As we kicked through the fallen yellow leaves of the plane trees, the clicking abruptly stopped. I turned to see him pointing to the wall, smiling.

“Haibao! Haibao!” he screamed.

The wall was covered with the same posters we had seen when we first arrived here: the blue, smiling, rubbery figure vacantly staring into the distance as he floated atop Shanghai’s skyline. Underneath him, in giant red letters, there it was: “Better City, Better Life.” The phrase appeared on posters every ten feet as we strolled alongside the wall: Better City, Better Life … Better City, Better Life … Better City, Better Life …

It was a repeated chorus backed by the steady rhythm of Rainey’s clicking duck as he ran ahead, chasing one Haibao after another, ecstatic at each appearance, unaware of the blackened corpse of a neighborhood that lay on the other side.

Reprinted from Street of Eternal Happiness. Now available in paperback. Copyright © 2017 by Rob Schmitz. Published by Broadway Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Photo of Maggie Lane by Rob Schmitz courtesy of Marketplace, from its story “Seizing homes, seizing lives: The anatomy of a Shanghai land grab​.

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