Global Politics

Shanghai Squatters Want Their Homes Back

The Expo Homeland Apartment Complex in Shanghai sounds like it should be something grand. It's not. It's a series of apartment compounds for Shanghainese who were forced to give up their homes and move, to make way for the Shanghai Expo in 2010. It backs out on a trash incinerator. A high-voltage power line runs within a few yards of one of the buildings.

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The Chinese government's fondness for hosting signature events, like the Expo and the 2008 Beijing Olympics, may have brought some desired prestige, but at a cost – hundreds of thousands of residents have been forced to move to make way for the gala events.

Take the case of one Shanghai couple. Their house was demolished five years ago to prepare for the Expo, but they still haven't been compensated. Now they're squatting in an empty apartment in the Expo Homeland compound. But they've been ordered to vacate the premises by June 13. That's tomorrow.

When you enter one of the buildings, at the back of the stairs, there's a door with a sign on it: "Right and wrong cannot be differentiated. Black and white cannot be distinguished. The law is not respected. To live is hard, to die is harder." Then there's another sign: "Private Property. Enter at your own risk." Inside, you'll find Li Guan Rong, the woman who put up the signs.

Li is a slim, no-nonsense 40-year-old former housekeeper, married to a former security guard. On the wall is a photo of the artist Ai Weiwei. The place is dingy and disheveled, with concrete floors, and purple bedspreads strung up as curtains.

A few mahjong tables fill the otherwise unfurnished living room. Li and her husband had been thinking of starting a mahjong parlor here to make money. They've been living in this two-bedroom apartment since April, when – tired of being homeless – they claimed it for themselves.

"This compound is for people who lost their homes to the Expo construction. So I think I have a right to be here, because I lost my home to Expo construction," Li said. But the government has ordered them to leave the compound – Wednesday is the deadline.

"If the government authorities come with authentic papers and procedures, I will leave this place peacefully, and then try to go through legal procedures." But if not, she says, well, she gestures to a big canister of cooking gas, and says she has flammable materials here.

When I ask if that means she'll set the apartment on fire, she responds that she can't say "100 percent I will set this place on fire, but I will do my best to protect my property with my life, and what I am doing is for my respect as a human being."

Li has the grim determination of someone near the end of her rope. She says she and her husband have tried petitioning the local government, the provincial government, the national government. They went to Beijing during the National People's Congress, hoping to appeal to China's leaders.

Instead, they were detained and sent home, and her husband lost his job as a security guard for – supposedly – disturbing the peace in Tiananmen Square.

By that time, the couple and their teenage son had spent a couple of years sleeping on the street or in miserable shacks. Meanwhile, they knew apartments in this compound were standing empty. Li suspects local officials have kept some for themselves.

When I visited Li, a doctoral student named Daniel Zhang was also visiting. He's doing his dissertation at Edinburgh University on the gentrification of Shanghai. He says Li's case is far from unique – officials seem to have put beautifying the city ahead of the rights of low-income people.

"I don't think they care. They said they wanted to improve the quality of the city center, where the Expo site now is. The mayor of Shanghai even said he wanted the whole waterfront to the people. But obviously, the displace-ees are just not the people they want."

Zhang says he got interested in his dissertation topic after he and his family were kicked out of their home of 20 years in a nearby city.

The government was just saying they wanted to build a new town in the place where I live," Zhang said, "and I don't see the point in doing that. They call it public interest." He says he has tried to get answers from the Shanghai government.

"One day, I made like 20 calls, and they keep playing ping-pong with me, and saying they're not involved with this any more, and they try to push me away. And I'm trying now. I'm still trying."

For his trouble, Zhang says, the Public Security Bureau called him in and warned him that he was endangering national security, and that he had better be objective in his research. He thinks being in Li's house on the Wednesday deadline to vacate is an objective way of seeing what happens to her.

Li says she's asked friends and supporters to come, and she's ready to make a stand.

A government that says it values a harmonious society might want to think hard about calling her bluff.