If you don’t know how to make a homemade cannon or master martial arts like Bruce Lee, if you don’t have a foreigner as your spouse or have money to hire a professional guard, you might be out of luck if your home happens to stand in the way of a major development project in China.
Just ask Zhang Hongwei: You could get kidnapped from your house and return hours later to find a pile of rubble with your belongings buried inside.
Forced demolitions have been a contentious issue in China for years, but Zhang’s ordeal – which made headlines nationwide this week – was a fresh reminder that, despite much rhetoric by Chinese leaders on strengthening rule of law, it remains difficult to get grassroots-level officials to act accordingly.
Before dawn Friday, Zhang, 40, was sleeping on the fourth floor of his house in Xinzheng city in central China’s Henan province when he heard a noise downstairs, he told the Beijing News. Before he could get up, people stormed into his room, carrying long wooden sticks and flashlights. They bundled him up in the blanket and carried him downstairs in his underwear.
“This is what you get for going against the government!” someone yelled at him, Zhang recounted to the newspaper.
Zhang’s wife, Si Guihong, was sleeping on the third floor. The invaders tried to take her away, the paper reported, but she resisted and was allowed to get dressed while her soon-to-be-abductors watched.
The couple were forced into a waiting car. Before he was thrown inside, Zhang got a glimpse of a giant demolition machine parked in front of his house. He described his captors as a dozen young males in their 20s with local accents.
Zhang’s house was designated as being in the way of major development projects as early as 2012. His neighbors agreed to compensation packages offered by the government. But he decided to hold out, leaving his home the last one standing in the area.
After being taken from their home, the couple were driven to a cemetery nearby. “If you don’t follow our orders, this is where you’ll end up,” one of Zhang’s captors threatened him and his wife, according to the Beijing News. After four hours, one of the captors received a call and the couple were dropped off about a mile from their home.
Dressed in only his underwear and the blanket, Zhang couldn’t even make a phone call for help. He tried to flag down passing cars, but no one stopped. Eventually, he made his way to a construction materials company nearby, where a security guard let him call a relative, reported the Dayu Web, a local website operated by Chinese Internet giant Tencent.
Relatives arrived with clothes and Zhang and his wife drove home. They arrived to find a pile of rubble. All of their belongings -- including his identification documents, bank cards, cellphones and cash -- were buried under the debris. Smoke was rising from the pile, apparently emanating from some fireworks stored in a shop that rented out the first floor of Zhang’s building.
Zhang called police, but a dispatcher said no officers were available. Only when the fireworks vendor called did officers arrive at the scene.
When Zhang’s story hit the Chinese press this week, he received an outpouring of support.
“If police in Xinzheng city cannot solve this case and handle it in accordance with law, we have reasons to believe that the police chief in the city is a complete fool,” Yu Jianrong, a sociologist with the China Academy of Social Sciences, who is famous for his critical view on various social issues in China, wrote in a post on his Weibo account.
Li Jidan, a Beijing lawyer, offered his analysis of what crimes Zhang’s captors and others may have committed. “In this case, the people who demolished Zhang’s house did not have the legal rights to conduct the demolition and they could face charges on intentionally destroying and damaging others’ properties, which can result in a sentence of up to three years in prison,” Li said. “They also captured and held the couple for four hours illegally, which could also get them to face up to three years of prison term.”
Exactly who tore down Zhang’s home remains unclear.
In wake of the media expose, the Xinzheng city government issued a statement acknowledging – some might say justifying -- the kidnapping of Zhang and Si and the demolition of their house.
“Zhang Hongwei built a four-floor house in 2008 without receiving proper approval from the government. Out of the hundreds of residents who had to relocate for the expansion of the highway G107 in 2012, he was the only one who refused to move,” the statement said.
It added that the house was also in the way of a subway project, delaying work for over 20 days and causing “serious damage to the construction company and the growth of the city’s subway system.” To ensure the construction of the project moved ahead, the project’s management team handed the responsibility for demolishing Zhang’s home to the local village committee.
China is in the midst of a massive urbanization effort, and the government has forced millions of people to relocate as it builds new roads, mass transit systems and entire cities from the ground up. But a lack of clear laws and regulations -- not to mention funds to hire lawyers -- has made it difficult for many property holders to challenge forced relocations and assert their rights.
Many people facing eviction say the compensation offered by authorities is insufficient, and have resorted to extreme measures in an effort to obtain bigger payouts.
In 2009, restaurant owners in Beijing hired an eviction-enforcer-turned-defender to help them protect their properties from government dispatched demolition crews. In 2010, a farmer named Yang Youde from Hubei province made headlines when he fired rockets from a homemade cannon as he attempted to fight off eviction.
In 2012, a longtime martial arts trainer, Shen Jianzhong, bested seven thugs with his bare hands when they tried to force his family to move out of their house to give way for a planned apartment complex. In 2013, a local government in Shandong backed off plans to confiscate a farmer’s land – but only after learning his wife was a British national. Authorities said they did not want to cause an “international incident.”
Zhang was offered $47,000 for his 4,500-square-foot house, but said market price was more like $340,000.
In wake of the demolition, Zhang vowed a protracted protest against local authorities. But his attitude abruptly shifted after he met with officials. By Wednesday, he was telling the Beijing-based Legal Evening News that he had agreed to accept the government’s original offer and even wanted to apologize to officials for making a mistake by causing delays of a major project.
He refused to say if he faced additional pressure from the government or whether another deal was made so that he would not make further comments to the media. Zhang didn’t answer his cellphone when The Times tried to reach him for comment.
Despite Zhang’s words of contrition, the official New China News Agency reported Tuesday that Sun Guangyu, chief of Xiaoqiao village where Zhang’s house was located, had been suspended from his post. Two suspects in the abduction -- Zhao Guanfeng and Zhao Junling – were taken into police custody.
“The forced demolition incident in Xinzheng proved to us many local governments have no sense when it comes to the rule of law,” the Beijing News said in an editorial. “As citizens living on this land, we don’t even have the basic sense of safety, our house could turn into rubble at any time, our life could face threats at any moment; we couldn’t help but feel a chill in our bones. This kind of scene reminds us that ‘the rule of law’ is still far away from us.”
Tommy Yang in The Times’ Beijing bureau and staff writer Julie Makinen contributed to this report.
Follow @JulieMakLAT for news from China.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times