BEIJING – According to the lunar calendar, it's officially winter in China today. And although it was sunny, the wind picked up as the temperature dropped.
So spare a thought for 56-year-old Dong Jiqin, who could be evicted from his home in western Beijing and sleeping on the streets of the capital tonight.
Not because he's just another victim of the global economic recession. If anything, he's just the latest casualty of China's breakneck development.
Or so it would appear.
"The demolition project here began in October 2002," he told us and a handful of other foreign journalists shivering in the morning chill of his dilapidated courtyard home in Beijing’s Xicheng district. "Neither the government nor the developer has ever shown any certificate of legitimate right to tear down houses [here]."
Dong, who was grasping a folder of legal documents that included court summonses and court notices regarding the demolition of his home, said he had been given no information about the development plan.
"Nobody ever came to my house to discuss details. They are just trying to take my house illegally," he said calmly. "They bought off the garbage collector, too. He told me they are coming to demolish today."
Dong was born in this courtyard house. It's where he played and grew up, where he lived when he got married, and where he raised his daughter.
It's also where his wife, Ni Yulan, was taken by plainclothes police – and, her husband believes, gangsters – on April 15 of this year. "They came to our house, tore down some of the house, cut off our phone and power lines, grabbed our belongings and dug up our sewage pipes," recalled Dong.
The authorities initially accused Ni of assaulting a demolition worker, part of a group tearing down homes surrounding Dong and Ni’s house in the Qianzheng hutong (the term for the series of narrow streets and alleys that characterize traditional Beijing neighborhoods).
A couple of weeks later, Ni was charged with obstructing a public official, which according to China’s Criminal Law carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison.
Ni – a lawyer by training – was not just a pesky homeowner who refused to vacate her house. She had been an active voice campaigning on behalf of residents who had experienced similar situations – forced evictions and the destruction of their homes around Beijing during the city’s makeover ahead of the Summer Olympics.
She lost her lawyer’s license when she was arrested in 2002 and sentenced to a year in prison after filming the demolition of the house of someone who was forced out of their home. According to Human Rights Watch, she was beaten while being held by the police for 75 days.
It’s her activism for tenants’ rights that Dong believes is the reason his family is being persecuted and driven out of their home.
Ni was supposed to stand trial in August, just before the Olympics began, but it was postponed. No new date has been set, and no further information has been given, said her husband.
Spotlight on China
But Ni’s case may get some international attention soon. "It will be interesting to see how Ni’s case might be affected in light of the [United Nations] Committee Against Torture review of China," said Sophie Richardson, the Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
The U.N. Convention Against Torture – which comprises ten independent experts who monitor the implementation of the international convention – is starting a very public two-day review of China in Geneva on Friday. As a member of the U.N., the Chinese government has had no choice but to agree to the scrutiny and answer questions about alleged abuses against prisoners and dissidents.
While it’s hard to gauge what impact the review might have on officials in Beijing, "this has never happened before," said Richardson.
The Chinese government has prepared for another review scheduled early next year by the U.N. on broader human rights. Earlier this week, it announced what it called a "human rights action plan," the first of its kind in the country, designed to protect citizens’ rights over the next two years.
Seeking answers…and justice
But none of this has come soon enough for Dong, who last saw his wife 215 days ago.
"I have not seen her at all since she was taken," he said although his lawyer has been allowed to visit her three times. "She was in a single room for a long time. She has a chronic headache, but they don’t give her any treatment or medicine."
Dong, a former education administrator who has since stopped working, said he has filed appeals with the local district court to stop the demolition. His wife has written letters alleging police brutality while she’s in custody. And Dong says that their 24-year-old daughter, who had been living at home, has been so spooked by some of the apparent intimidation tactics that she has run away.
Dong said they don’t have any real options – apart from talking to the media in the hope someone can help him.
Of the thirteen people in his family who used to live in the traditional courtyard house, he is the last one holding out in this Qianzheng hutong.
"I have nowhere to go if I am evicted," he said quietly. "I’ll have to become a homeless person. We have no prospect if corruption is not investigated."
When I called him this evening to check on his status, he said no one had yet come for him. But he wasn’t hopeful