FOR most of the past 70 years Qiao Shuzhi’s family supported the Communist Party, and the party took good care of the family. Mr Qiao’s father, an underground member during the war against Japan in the 1930s and 1940s, helped store and move military supplies. He was rewarded with a building in the Haidian district of north-western Beijing. In 1953 he turned it into the Tianyi Guesthouse, offering budget lodgings to travellers. Permission for the business was granted, in writing, by China’s police chief at the time.
In the 1960s, Mr Qiao says, Zhou Enlai, who was then prime minister, protected the guesthouse, allowing it to operate as the only private business in Beijing throughout the mayhem of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. When pro-market reforms began in the late 1970s the guesthouse was widely praised as a model family-run operation.
Now Mr Qiao, 64, has lost it all. He does not understand why the party, whose Central Committee has just met to extol the “rule of law”, cannot protect him from the developers and officials he accuses of grossly violating it. Wielding a sheaf of official papers that acknowledge his ownership of the building, Mr Qiao says he was abducted and held for 13 hours last December as the building was demolished by what he describes as a network of corrupt officials and developers. All of its contents were lost.
Mr Qiao’s story is far from unique. Since the mid-1990s, tens of millions of Chinese have lost their land. In many cases, only minimal compensation has been offered. Researchers believe that, of thousands of “mass incidents” of rural unrest occurring each year, the majority are about land. In one of the worst recent cases, nine people were killed in mid-October in Yunnan province in the south-west in a dispute over evictions.
In their campaign for redress, Mr Qiao and his son have been stymied at every turn. Local police did not respond when thugs broke the Qiaos’ windows. The electricity bureau did nothing when power to his building was cut. Planning officials scoffed at his request for adequate compensation for the loss of his business. The Qiaos informally approached a local court to assess their chances of suing the government successfully. They were given a brush-off.
Mr Qiao and his son dare not go back to their old street. They are paying a high rent in order to live near Zhongnanhai, the compound housing China’s leaders. They feel that at least they’ll be safer in a well-guarded neighbourhood.