BEIJING — The men who barged through Shen Jianzhong’s door probably thought it was a routine assignment: Break in and beat Shen’s family into submission. Forced evictions to make way for real estate development are an everyday occurrence in China, and the family may have seemed no different from any in that situation.
It was only after they forced open the door, threw Shen’s wife to the ground and began to beat her that they learned the 38-year-old Shen and his 18-year-old son are kung fu masters.
“I take Bruce Lee very seriously,” said Shen in a telephone interview a month after the incident.
Shen says he does not recall exactly what happened during the fight, but an eight-minute video of the aftermath shows seven of the hired hands piled in a motionless heap in Shen’s doorway. Blood pools around the cheek of one; another lies halfway through the doorway, crumpled on the curb. Survivors mill about unsteadily on the street, glaring at the camera.
The video, shot by Shen’s wife, has attracted nearly a million views and many admiring comments since it was posted online Oct. 30. It has turned Shen into a minor folk hero in China, where many villagers have been forced out of their homes by da shou (“beating hands” in Chinese) who work for real estate developers.
Land confiscation is one of the most contentious political issues in China and accounts for many of the mass demonstrations that occur with regularity across the country. A report by Amnesty International this year estimated that confiscations have occurred in 43% of Chinese villages in 15 years.
Shen and his family live in Bazhou, a city in Hebei province 60 miles from central Beijing. Shen says he has trained in Lee’s Jeet Kune Do style of kung fu for 20 years. He has also been certified by the Hong Kong-based World Record Assn. for completing the highest number of roller push-ups in a minute. The exercise, which involves folding and unfolding at the waist like an inchworm while propped up with a small wheel, is more than a pastime for Shen. He and his wife run a small business teaching the exercise at home and around Bazhou, and they fear that the loss of their house would damage their livelihood.
Shen says he was teaching at a nearby gym on Oct. 29 when a group of more than 30 men assembled outside his house, which a local Communist Party official was planning to redevelop into an apartment complex. The men threatened and verbally abused Shen’s wife as she returned home with groceries.
Once Shen arrived and confirmed to the leader of the group that his family would not leave before receiving guarantees for housing, the assailants, he said, burst through the front door and began to beat his wife. In response, Shen and his teenage son, a graduate of traditional martial arts schools, entered the fray.
Many who have seen the video, which has not been blocked by Internet censors, applauded Shen’s victory. But the incident has also prompted a number of mournful remarks about social conditions in China.
“So do all Chinese people have to go to the Shaolin Temple [a historic martial arts academy] and study kung fu to do something about forced evictions?” wondered one recent blogger.
Shen said his troubles have actually increased since the attack. The next day, he said, nearly 100 men arrived in buses from out of town and surrounded his house. When the police refused to drive off the men on grounds that they were behaving peacefully, Shen fled with his wife to Beijing, hoping that media attention and the central government would help his family.
Shen said that in his absence his house has not been demolished, but that shortly after his departure for Beijing, the Bazhou police arrested his son.
Gangs like the one that attacked Shen’s home often operate with the consent of officials. After tax reforms cut into revenue across the country in the 1990s, local governments began exercising their right to rezone and sell land for real estate development. Chinese reports have said that the proceeds from recorded land sales, which go directly to the governments, far exceed the compensation offered to evicted inhabitants.
Rural Chinese, who receive plots of land allocated by local governments, have no individual land rights and cannot dispute rezoning plans drawn up by officials. But when officials do not offer sufficient compensation to households to relocate, the residents sometimes refuse to leave. Developers then evict the holdouts by force.
These forced evictions can provoke desperate responses. Some villagers have set themselves on fire, according to Chinese media reports.
Spectacular cases of armed resistance have also attracted attention, as when a farmer named Yang Youde used a homemade rocket launcher to drive away assailants from his house near Wuhan in 2010.
Chinese prosecutors often bring serious criminal charges against individuals who fight back. In a similar case in north China in 2009, a man named Zhang Jian was charged with murder after he stabbed and fatally wounded a man beating his wife during a forced eviction.
Shen returned to Bazhou on Nov. 28 to negotiate his son’s fate with the police and the developer. He says his son is still in detention, and unless he comes to an agreement with the developer he is afraid criminal charges will follow.
So while Shen is hopeful that the compensation for his property will increase, he also knows where the hard-won money is bound to go: He’s had to retain a lawyer for his son.
Hannon is an intern in The Times’ Beijing bureau.