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The Chinese Want Property Rights, Too

August 19, 2008

The protest zones are silent, but the city is simmering with dissent. Preparations for the Olympics led to a level of social disruption unlike anything in recent memory. At the same time, traditional avenues of solving problems have been shut down, and police crackdowns have intensified. This has created an Olympic pressure-cooker.

On Aug. 10, the day President Bush went to church here, a man with unkempt hair sidled up to me after the service. "My wife was arrested 100 days before the Olympics," Dong Jiqin murmured, eyes darting with fear.

Mr. Dong and his wife Ni Yulan have been fighting to retain the home they live in, while property developers and police try to force them to leave. Ms. Ni, a lawyer by training, has been helping citizens file lawsuits in land disputes for years, suffering multiple beatings and detentions as a result.

Mr. Dong, 56, who was born in the house, says the property deed is in his grandmother's name and was transferred to him by court order. That hasn't stopped a property company from trying to take control of the land. He says that, on April 15, over a dozen hired thugs showed up in his yard. He shows me where they cut the electrical and phone lines, dug up the house's water pipe, and tore down a shed. He says they even started carrying furniture out the door.

That day he and his wife were taken into detention. He was released a week later, but his wife is still in prison on charges of obstructing official business. Her trial was scheduled for Aug. 4, but postponed because it was so near the Olympics. Mr. Dong still lives in the house, with plainclothes policemen stationed outside to keep an eye on him.

As property prices rocketed -- and big infrastructure projects got underway for the Olympics -- more and more Beijingers were pushed out of their homes by a range of illegal methods, regardless of whether they owned the land. Ms. Ni's case "encapsulates a fundamental issue," Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch says, "which is that tenants have very few rights in China and that they have been forcibly evicted on an extremely large scale without adequate compensation or avenues for redress."

For centuries China has had a process of informal appeal called shangfang -- the practice of bringing complaints to the officials who run the country. Today, China's communist leaders have an Office of Letters and Visits in Beijing, and traditionally the disaffected have flocked there from around the country to plead their cases.

All this was swept aside by Beijing's Olympics cleanup. Months before the Games began, thousands of petitioners from outside Beijing were sent home or into detention. Across Beijing, suspected dissidents have been placed under increased surveillance. The most prominent were incarcerated. Wang Yuying and Wang Yuping, sisters, have fought seven years for compensation for the home they were forcibly evicted from in 2001. Since July 20, they have been under 24-hour surveillance. Although they were entitled to compensation and a new apartment, they say that the local police chief claimed the payment on their behalf and kept the money for himself, giving the apartment to his mistress.

"I've petitioned at all the places I could," says the elder sister Wang Yuping, when I chat with them in a public park. Each time a suspected plainclothes policeman saunters by, she sits up straighter and says, "I'm not afraid. I'm just telling you the truth." This is a brave attitude: In October 2006 the sisters' complaints landed them in jail for 10 days.

The younger sister dismisses Olympics "protest parks" as completely fake. The rights group Chinese Human-Rights Defenders reported eight cases of the detention or disappearance of people who applied for permits to voice their dissent in Olympic protest zones. The older sister asks, "Where are the common people supposed to turn?" Mr. Dong tried to seek help outside the system. The morning I met him at church, he was there to present Mr. Bush with an open letter describing his wife's arrest. In the end, security was so tight he didn't even shake the president's hand.

"I've heard what he has said," Mr. Dong says, referring to Mr. Bush's remarks on human rights. "Freedom is a right that people are born with." As he speaks, he eyes the policemen camped out by his house.

Ms. Hook is an editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal Asia.

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