Isn’t it wonderful to see the Chinese populace, spurred on by bloggers and BBSs, mobilize to take action against something that really matters instead of a Forbidden City Starbucks or an idiotic English teacher’s sex blog? This story is inspiring, and reveals the best and the worst of China’s media – namely, the fact that the traditional media really did try to cover it before they were silenced, with the ball then carried forward by China’s new army of citizen journalists.
For weeks a dispute had drawn attention from people all across China as a simple homeowner stared down the forces of large-scale redevelopment that are sweeping this country, blocking the preparation of a gigantic construction site by an act of sheer will.
Chinese bloggers were the first to spread the news of a house perched atop a tall, thimble-shaped piece of land like Mont St. Michel in the middle of a vast excavation. Newspapers dove in next, followed by national television. Then, in a way that is common in China whenever an event begins to take on hints of political overtones, the story virtually disappeared from the news media, bloggers here said, after the government decreed that the subject was suddenly out of bounds.
Still, the ‘nail house,’ as many here have called it because of the homeowner’s tenacity, like a nail that cannot be pulled out, remains the most popular current topic among bloggers in China.
It has a universal resonance in a country where rich developers are seen to be in cahoots with politicians and where both enjoy unchallenged sway. Each year, China is roiled by tens of thousands of riots and demonstrations, and few issues pack as much emotional force as the discontent of people who are suddenly uprooted, told they must make way for a new skyscraper or golf course or industrial zone.
What drove interest in the Chongqing case was the uncanny ability of the homeowner to hold out for so long. Stories are legion in Chinese cities of the arrest or even beating of people who protest too vigorously against their eviction and relocation. In one often-heard twist, holdouts are summoned to the local police station, and return home only to find their house already demolished. How had this owner, a woman no less, managed? Millions wondered.
Read the rest to find out the answer. This is no ordinary protester; she has played the media like the proverbial fiddle and created a classic David vs. Goliath drama, complete with photo effects and punchy soundbites. She sounds like a perfect candidate for a public relations agency.
I think we take it as a given that whoever stands up against the entrenched bureaucracy in China will get crushed. Usually it’s true. So when we see a story like this, it’s impossible not to feel some optimism that maybe, just maybe the phenomenon of citizen journalism and instant news broadcasting (via blogs and forums) can really result in positive change. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen it; it was online outrage that fuelled the Sun Zhigang scandal and resulted in drastic action by the government. But so often, the “e-outrage” is directed at issues that are trivial at best, and at worst aren’t even issues at all. Today’s story deals with a real issue and one that directly threatens the lives of many Chinese, i.e., forced relocations for development that lines the pockets of local officials while treating the citizens they are supposed to represent like dirt. It’s a good fight, and it’s an encouraging story.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.