Not Buy House in China

This page is a collection of newspaper articles and blog posts about the individual named Zou Tao who began the "Not Buy House" movement in China.  Who is this person really?  Hero or charlatan?  

Do you think the bloggers are more insightful and/or informative than the mainstream reporters?  This is a particularly hard case, because the role of blogger/reporter is ambiguous.  Here, we have some reporters writing as bloggers and some bloggers writing as reporters.

(Southern Metropolis Daily via Lian Yue's Eighth Continent)  By Lian Yue.  Dated early 2005.

[in translation]

On January 6, there was a Southern Metropolis Daily news report titled "Nominating himself as a People's Congress representative, a Shenzhen citizen claims to be a grassroots representative.  The report was about Shenzhen citizen Zou Tao's Internet-published statement "Open letter to nominate myself for the Fourth People's Congress of Shenzhen" which expressed his desire to become a "People's Congress representative who truly represents the broad masses at the grassroots level."  According to report, the response was great.

Any People's Republic of China citizen whose political rights have not been stripped away is entitled to say: "I want to become a People's Congress representative."  It is logical that the starting point for becoming a people's representative is to want to be one (after all, many people do not want to a people's representative for reasons such as interests, occupation, physical health, etc).  It would have been very strange if someone becomes a people's representative against his/her intention -- that would mean that the election system was not objective.  This is to say, Zou Tao only said something that was the most ordinary in a civic society.  Yet the audience found it refreshing, perhaps because his words let them see the blind spot in their thinking: they have not thought about trying to become a people's representative and to fulfill their ambition to serve society and nation.  Perhaps, they even felt that it was improper to even try to say something like this.

One of the reasons why Zou Tao wants to become a People's Congress representative is: "... a while ago, there were some cases in which migrant workers got injured.  Actually, they don't have labor contracts and insurance when they work.  There must be hundreds of thousands of such people in Shenzhen.  I have visited many government departments: the ministry of labor, the ministry of social security and so on.  They all told me that there was no way to protect the workers under the existing laws.  They also told me that they have seen far too many such cases, but there was nothing that they can do."

If he were to become a People's Congress representative, "then maybe I still won't be able the solve the problems concretely.  But after I do a lot of research, I can offer some advice to the relevant departments.  Particularly in Shenzhen, we have greater rights in local legislation.  For example, should we do more to care for those kinds of groups of people?  This is not just about a few workers, but about the interests of the entire group."

A real driving factor gets a virtual solution.  This can be looked at from two sides.  In reality, the interests of certain citizens are being damaged and the government is aware that "it is impotent" because their existence and voices have not been adequately represented, if at all.  In the long run, these people truly become invisible citizens whose feelings are unknown.  This is not just a shame on the civic society, because the accumulation of injustice can only turn into despair and hatred against society.

Some people say that this is easy: the People's Congress representatives can show more concern, and Zou Tao's solution can be done by any other People's Congress representative.  This is blindly optimistic.  The People's Congress representative's ability, energy, knowledge and experience all say that he ought to pay attention to one set of problems -- namely, those problems that the people who elected him care about.  For someone like Zou Tao who spends a lot of attention on the rights of migrant workers, he would be more qualified to talk about those problems.  If you let him offer recommendations on tsunami warning systems, that would be amateur talk, clichés or inaccuracies.  This shows that any citizen group needs to have their own spokespeople.  Anyone else will likely miss the key points.

From the point of the law, the periodic election of People's Congress representatives guarantees by law the injection of new voices and opinions.  This allows the people who are most representative and trusted to become new representatives, so that no voice gets ignored.  Therefore, the "self-promotion as People's Congress representative" is something that we should see more of.  Even if they don't get elected, they can at least offer their social observations and present the problems that needs to be resolved.  For example, after Zou Tao, the society knows about the damaged rights of the migrant workers about which the people are "impotent."  The urgent nature is therefore obvious.

In the re-publication of this article in the blog, Lian Yue noted: 

A person who really wanted to represent public opinion, a person who can grasp public opinion and a daring person.  Such a person ought to become a people's representative."

(Shanghai Daily)  Netizen calls to boycott Shenzhen properties.  April 29, 2006.

A netizen has called out to the people of Shenzhen to boycott the rocketing housing prices by closing up their wallets, South Metropolitan Daily reported today.

Zou Tao, who often writes his opinions on the Internet, published an open letter for the boycott yesterday morning, which attracted 156 supporting replies within several hours.  Zou has asked people in Shenzhen to suspend any property purchases for three years. "So we don't become 'house slaves,' and so we don't have to carry the burden of heavy debts throughout our lives" Zou said.

The average housing price per square meter in Shenzhen reached 8,752.94 yuan (US$1,094) in the first quarter of the year, up 20.62 percent from a year ago.  Zou suggested that people rent houses instead because their prices have remained at a relatively stable level.

His letter also invokes the government's help to launch macro-control policies to curb the housing price surge. But, he also questions the effect the policies would have, he said during his interview with the newspaper.

With his fierce statements, Zou's letter was widely viewed and linked from one Website to another. It was applauded by most of its readers.  However, some people interviewed by the newspaper showed varying opinions. "I think the boycott is childish," said an interviewee identified as Liu. The government is the key factor in controlling the housing prices, he added.

Zou said that he wrote the letter to arouse people's interest on the issue, which may assist in bringing a more stable and rational housing market.

(Panshiyi's Blog 潘石屹的博客)  May 17, 2006.

[in translation]

Yesterday I went to the recording studio next to CCTV.  I have been there many times before.  This time, though, it was for a Phoenix TV program hosted by Hu Yifu.  I had read an article in New Weekly about what happened between Hu Yifu and a CCTV host, and I was quite impressed by him.  So even though this was the first time for me on Hu's program, I felt at home.

The Not Buy House movement founder Zou Tao was delayed in flying here from Shenzhen, so he came in very late.  We did not know what he looks like, so every time we see a young man come in, we would ask: "Are you Zou Tao?"  They all said no.  It was only at the end that we found out that it was deliberately arranged by the director.  He wanted to separate us from Zou Tao, just in case we chat privately on the side and become familiar, leaving no fireworks for a good show.

This program also had Yu Lingluo, the leader of the "Gathering Funds To Build Housing" movement; Liu Minbin, the chief editor of  Settling A Home magazine; and a new friend Shuimu Zhouping, who is a blogger who often criticizes me and other real estate developers.  I have never read his blog, so he was like any other new acquaintance about whom I don't have an opinion on yet.

Phoenix TV did not provide us with any information, and so we didn't know what we were expected to talk about.  Once we arrived, we let the director arrange things for us.  First up were Liu Minbin and Zou Tao.  I watched from below the stage at first.  I was then invited by the director to watch in their control room.  Within the small control room, there were a dozen screens with different cameras showing the expressions of the guests.  Their expressions and characteristics were very clear.  Zou Tao spoke firmly and briefly, and his speech was incendiary.  

Liu Minbin did not speak putonghua as well as Zou Tao and his voice was low.  Basically, I felt it was as if Liu was still trying to write an essay instead of appearing in front of television.  Every time that he spoke, he would say: "I want to talk about three things ..."  However, he was often interrupted by the host or Zou Tao before even finishing the first point.  During the program, he went from the Prisoner's Dilemma to the demand-supply relationship in the Marxist laws of values.  These lofty concepts could not even be explained readily in a university classroom, much less in front of millions of television viewers.  It would be difficult to explain clearly in such a brief time.

Next up was Shuimu Zhouping.  Originally, they had arranged Shuimu to be a supporter of Zou Tao for the sake of balance.  But unexpectedly, the first thing that Shuimu Zhouping said on stage was: "Not buying a house in the next three yeas is a farce."  This was 180 degrees away from what the director had intended beforehand.  Then he used a bunch of words such as "erectile dysfunction," "impotence" and "Viagra" which are not often used in daily life.  People who use the Internet a lot may know these terms, but older viewers obviously cannot deal with that.

During that debate, I found that Zou Tao diverged from what he had said in public before.  In the program, he said that "not buying a house in the next three years" is a concept, and "not buying a house for the next year" is also acceptable.  Also, he emphasized not to buy a house from crooked businessmen and not to buy a house whose quality does not match the price.  On these last two points, I am sure that most people will agree.  Who is going to buy a house from a crook and help him to make money?  A house with mismatched price-quality is one which is obviously priced too high with respect to the quality.

I got from listening that this movement was directed against the government.  They hope the government could build more economically affordable housing and cheap rental housing, especially the Shenzhen government.  Only next were they targeting the real estate developers.

I believe that everyone in the market should have his own independent evaluation and choice.  I have not joined any association for real estate developers.  I feel that a free and total market is fairer than one which is manipulated or monopolized by alliances.  In a "Not Buy House" movement, how can the founder and leader deliver the promise for the supporters and participants?  If in one year or three years, housing prices actually rose even further instead of falling, then who is going to compensate them for the losses?

Therefore, when I got on stage and the host Hu Yifu asked me about what I thought of the movement, I said: "I have only one thing to say!  The market problem should be ultimately solved by market methods."  This sentence infuriated the leader Zou Tao in some unknown way.  He said, "Everybody watch.  There is a mass movement that has the attention of millions or even tens of millions of people in the country.  But this real estate mogul said has only one thing to say!"

Then Zou asked me, "Do you pay bribes to government officials?  Do you dodge tax payments?"  I told him, "No."  The basic principle of our company is that we will not have one cent in fake billing or tax evasion.  At our company, no reimbursement is allowed for karaoke, KTV, sauna massage and any such invoice.  After I finished, Zou Tao immediately said: "Beijing netizens: if anyone of you finds out that he has paid bribes or evade taxes, please report to me immediately via email."  Zou sounded like as if he was a leader.

I sincerely welcome all of society to supervise the actions of me, my company and every one of the employees.  Then he said: "You will receive the judgment by the people!"  I asked him: "When you say 'you,' who is it?  Can you represent the people?"  He did not answer my question.  He said that this movement has achieved an initial victory.  There are 36 work stations around China.  The Shenzhen city leaders have met with him.  The Guangdong province National Land Department director has responded to their movement in different ways and called for the citizens "not to buy houses in the next three years."  He was here this time mainly to see the central government leaders.  That piece of information was not revealed during the live program, but I found that out later in Southern Metropolis Daily.

Zou Tao then shouted the slogan "Justice will triumph over evil!"  A loyal supporter of Zou Tao made a 90-degree bow to pay respect to him.  Zou Tao stood up and made a 90-degree bow to return the respect.  At the time, Hu Yifu asked me what I thought.  I said, "I was thinking about just who is good and who is evil.  I did not pay attention to what they were saying during their exhibition."

After the intermission, Yu Lingluo came on and kept promoting the magnificent blueprint for "gathering funds together to build housing" just like over the past two years.  He kept repeating, "We must unite together!" and "As Mr. Zou Tao said, Unity is strength."  When I heard that, I could not help but interject: "Chairman Mao said that!"

Unity is surely a nice term, but different people have different interpretations.  The understanding of Zou Tao and Yu Lingluo was that unity means that the people who want to buy houses should unite in a movement to fight against others.  This nature of this movement is not unity, because unity was only a means here.  Even if the goal is achieved, it is still not unity -- it is a struggle.  I have a deeper understanding of the meaning of unity and I suddenly understood why so many great people said: "Unity means unity of all mankind; it is about one big family under the heavens; it is about world peace."  To always think that I am correct and righteous and other people are wrong and evil is the greatest enemy on the road to unity.  Small-circle unity is not real unity; it becomes the source of quarrels and struggles, even wars.  True unity requires people to continuously reflect and to negotiate with others in an amiable way. ...

The sharp rise of housing prices is obvious to everybody.  Some departments are still debating whether it is 6% or 17% for their own reasons.  But if you just check the market, you will find out.  Some real estate developers are not willing to accept the facts.  The sharp rise in housing prices is partially due to real estate developers hoarding land and houses.  Those are undeniable facts.  The government ought to enforce the existing laws.  Land that have not been developed for over two years should be re-taken by the government.  The law states that no compensation is necessary.  But even if the developers are offered some money to cover their costs, this has still got to be better than letting the land sit in their hands without development.

Any person or industry will face some challenges.  The emergence of Zou Tao is not scary.  I don't think his slogans pose any danger.  Letting everybody and all of society monitor the real estate industry will make it develop healthily.  The worst fear would be the absence of monitoring.  Compared to those hunger strikes and self-immolations in society, the actions of Zou Tao are much more rational.  During these special times, we ought to start building on our accumulated land.  We don't want to be land traders; we want to be house builders.  Society will pay us back for our contributions to society.  To sit on the land like an old landlord waiting for rising land prices so that he can make big money without moving one brick -- that is not expected to last for too long.  When you don't want to work or build houses, the "invisible hand" will take away your right and opportunity to work and build houses.

(Telegraph via SMH)  Beijing moves to silence activist on property prices. Richard Spencer.  May 26, 2006.

A golf equipment salesman from Shenzhen was so outraged with property prices that were out of reach of most ordinary Chinese that he started a petition calling for the public to stop buying real estate for three years. Within days Zou Tao had 30,000 signatures from across the country.

Until recently, demands for lower prices would have been tolerated by the Government, which is trying to gently deflate a property bubble and is concerned about growing resentment of the new rich, many of whom have become real estate speculators.  But by the weekend, when Mr Zou arrived in Beijing to put his case to the authorities, they had decided he had gone too far, not least in saying local government corruption was fuelling the boom.

He was detained at Shenzhen airport for 10 hours before being allowed to board his flight.  "I was checking in and found my name was on a blacklist," he said on Sunday night. "Then two policemen came over and took away my ID card and my ticket."

When he landed, newspapers that had reported his case were banned from giving him any further publicity. Central television was told to scrap an interview it had recorded with him.  The subject is deemed so sensitive not least because there have been warnings a property crash could in theory jeopardise the whole Chinese banking system.

(The Australian)  Trapped inside a bubble.  Rowan Callick.  May 27, 2006.


Enter 32-year-old Zou Tao. He is a small businessman who a decade ago shifted from his home province Hunan to the fastest growing city in China, Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong. He acquired a masters of business administration and says he earns about $1160 a month, more than four times the average Chinese urban wage last year of about $253.

Back in Hunan, he had advised a group of desperate migrant workers to threaten to kill themselves to win backpay. It worked.

Last month he launched a campaign by publishing an open letter online calling for a three-year moratorium on property purchases as a protest against soaring prices.

He bemoaned the fate of fangnu - mortgage slaves - with 32 per cent of city dwellers spending more than half their income on their mortgage. The average urban Chinese spends the equivalent of 13 years of total earnings on buying a 70sqm flat.

Zou hit the right nerve. Within days, more than 30,000 people had signed up. Buoyed, he decided to fly to Beijing to discuss what he calls the "real estate bubble" with Premier Wen. When he arrived at the airport, he discovered that the success of his campaign meant it was perceived as a threat by a Government anxious about any protest that was not state-sanctioned. Zou had overstepped the invisible mark when he vowed to establish a national home-buyers' website. He was prevented from flying; after being detained at the airport police post, he was taken by seven or eight plain-clothes police to a house in a remote part of Shenzhen, where he was kept until 4am.

Zou, who had swiftly become prominent in the Shenzhen media, is today a non-person whom the domestic media is banned from mentioning.

In the end, Zou tells Inquirer, he got to Beijing. But he was unable to obtain appointments with officials and left after a single telephone conversation with the vice-director of a department. "Many people called me or sent SMS messages, my mobile is full," Zou says. "Some say, 'You're a national hero'; others threaten: 'You're looking for death."'

He admires Mao, who came from the same province. "I believe a government responsible for the people should care for them," he says. "But I'm losing confidence now. That sleepless night with the police was like a nightmare. My blogs are blocked." And his email account. "This is being done by the beneficiaries of the property market," he says. "They are vicious. But what I'm doing is towards making a better society."

The silencing of Zou indicates the level of government concern about the capacity of this issue to ignite urban passions. Last week it announced six measures to curb property prices and speculative real estate investment: a focus on low-cost housing; slowing the demolition of old homes; punishing developers who hoard land access; new regulations on taxation, bank credit and land approval; improving transparency in the market; and developing the second-hand market.

But a year ago the Government had introduced eight points for the same purpose, and there is little reason to believe much will change.

The Government continues to control the key elements in the equation. It owns the land and the banks that provide the credit.

But property is a crucial driver of the economic growth that underpins the Government's legitimacy, and every investment adviser in China is urging the rich, locals and foreigners, to keep funding new apartments.

No one cares much that lan wei lou - "rotten tail buildings", unfinished, crumbling towers from the 1990s or later - litter the landscape.

Meanwhile, government leaders keep saying they sympathise with the victims of the bubble. In Beijing Opera, it's called "one act in red mask, one act in white mask".

(Moonlight Blogger)  About the blocking of "Not Buy House."  May 28, 2006.

[in translation]

Shenzhen citizen Zou Tao started the "Not Buy House" movement, which has reportedly been banned.  According to some BBS posts, Zou Tao was taken away by the public security bureau before he boarded a plane at Shenzhen Airport on May 11.  Zou Tao's blog "民生观察网" at Tianya has been shut down.  The whereabouts of Zou Tao is unknown.

I have previously predicted such an outcome.  It is a fool's dream to think that an individual's efforts can affect the huge interests with the real estate moguls and the government.  Housing prices in Shenzhen and Beijing are extremely high, and there are signs that certain groups of buyers are speculating to take profit while the real estate developers are jacking up the prices.  But there is nothing that we can do.  Individually, we can refuse to buy.  We can write essays to condemn this kind of behavior.  But if we organize several tens of citizens to take certain actions against certain things, it would be anathema to the government.  No matter how pure and good your motives are, you will be banned.

The "Not Buy House" movement originally appears to be directed against the bad real estate groups.  In practice, it has touched upon the related interests of the government.  Through auctioning off the land, the government obtains revenues.  Obviously, the higher the price, the better off the government will be.  If the developers have higher costs, they will seek higher returns for which the government will receive high tax revenues.  Under this win-win situation for the government and developers, it was a fool's dream for Zou Tao to hope that housing prices will come down.

Zou Tao appears to have left Shenzhen now.  If he does not want to leave, his life may be threatened.  Shenzhen changed him, or else he should not have been living in Shenzhen, a city between heaven and hell ...

(The Standard)  Crusader has price to pay in Shenzhen homes fight.  By Justin Mitchell.  May 30, 2006.

At the first mouse click, 32-year-old Zou Tao seems like the latest modern poster boy for Chinese activists.

Netizens throughout the mainland have lauded his one-man campaign urging a home-buying boycott he launched on the Internet last month over the recent stratospheric rise in Shenzhen property prices.

Besides frustrated apartment owning wannabes, Zou does have the stats on his side. The average Shenzhen housing price broke the 10,000 yuan (HK$9,666) per square meter barrier in the first three months of the year, the city's housing authority said last month. The average price over that three-month period was 35.46 percent higher than the same period last year.

"I did this so we don't become slaves to our homes, and so we don't have to carry the burden of heavy debts throughout our lives," said Zou, who owns a golf supply company, drives a 200,000 yuan car and claims to rent a two-bedroom flat for 1,500 yuan. "I want everyone to have their own house to live in. If you can't afford an expensive apartment, it's cool but I want the government to have low-cost apartments for people to rent or buy."

Within days of launching his petition drive on April 25 calling for Shenzhen homebuyers to suspend any purchases for three years, Zou said he had 30,000 signatures, plus "1,000 to 2,000" e-mails a day.

A random sample of the text messages he has received reads: "Behind you are hundreds of average people who support you. You're a real warrior and a hero!"

For this, Zou claimed, his Web site content has been tampered with, his mobile phone is monitored, he's under constant surveillance by "mysterious characters," and he was detained by plainclothes Shenzhen police at the airport on May 11 when he tried to leave for Beijing to present his case to Premier Wen Jiabao. He said he had posted his petition on his site the same day and that's when the trouble began.

The trouble is that parts of his story - as plausible as it might sound to sympathetic human rights activists - don't exactly stand up to strong scrutiny.

Zou has variously claimed to have been detained for four, five or 10 hours by five or six people at the airport or elsewhere. Talking in a Shenzhen restaurant in one of the city's hottest property zones, he said he was taken to an unknown office by six unknown persons who told him there was "no explanation" for snatching him, yet didn't question him.

(If he's under constant watch, his monitors are extremely clever. The only other people in our secluded area, besides employees, were a mother and a young boy having a tantrum)

"They had no uniforms and no IDs. One who went by the name of Li said he worked for the police. They wouldn't let me answer my phone. I had about 100 missed calls but I was able to turn it on secretly for one call so the person could hear and tell all the Shenzhen people that the police had taken me."

Zou said the police discovered what he did and were "scared" so they took him to an apartment building in a "remote area" that he didn't recognize, though later in the interview he said it was in Louhou district, where he has lived for the last 11 years.

Despite the delay, he said he was able to get to Beijing where he delivered his petition - not to Wen's office as he once claimed - but to an unnamed member of a government bureau that oversees development. "It's not necessary to give his name," Zou said.

He claimed that since his Beijing trip, news coverage about him has been blocked and that his Internet site is blocked. His site is still up, it was pointed out, and he has appeared on two TV shows, on CCTV and on Phoenix where he debated legendary Beijing developer Pan Shi-yi. Comments about his match-up with Pan were mixed.

"A lot of average people on the Internet think that Zou Tao is doing a good thing," said Jiang Qian, a 29-year old Shenzhen flat owner who saw the Phoenix broadcast. "But some people think he doesn't have a clear idea how he's going to continue this and that he should work more on improving his debating skills. He was no match for Pan Shi-yi. One of the guys who was also on the Phoenix TV interview wrote in his blog that he thinks Zou Tao didn't know what he was talking about and that it was a waste of time talking with him." Jiang said.

Zou also claimed some people have threatened him through e-mails and calls to his mobile phone. "They say things like `Watch out for your worthless life,' but I delete them all," he said.

For a man who said his newfound notoriety allows him only three hours of sleep a night, Zou looked remarkably refreshed, though he repeatedly declined to answer most specific questions in favor of showing printouts of his publicity and mentioning that The Wall Street Journal Asia and a prominent Japanese newspaper had interviewed him.

He also feverishly text-messaged between bizarre conversational tangents wherein he claimed to have been a member of the PLA special forces and a millionaire by his mid-twenties, courtesy of a posting as the civilian head of an unnamed military administration department. For the PLA claim, he produces a worn black and white photo of himself in civilian clothes pointing a pistol at the camera.

He also asserted that an unnamed "American government official" will be flying to China soon to meet with him. But he can't say when or reveal any other details.

"I've closed my golf business," he said, "and now I want to work for an international charity organization."

Which one? "I don't know," he said. "There're so many." 

The Pretender.  Shenzhen Zen blog.  May 25, 2006.

At first glance of the many press clippings and self-written PR releases he carries Zhou Tao seems like a western journalist's dream come true.

1. Sticking it to The Man by speaking out? Check. Since April Zhou's been railing publicly via the Internet, TV and Chinese newspapers against rising housing prices in Shenzhen where indeed they're climbing with no end in sight. Example: Since two years ago an apartment in the Sunny Bay neighborhood of the district I rent in, purchase and rental prices have nearly doubled. He's gained fame with a grassroots movement urging people to buck the housing binge buying trend and boycott home buying until prices fall. Though few here know the image, imagine him as the lone, anonymous citizen standing up to the tanks of real estate developers and government officials selling them the land in a modern day Tienanemen Square situation.

2. Persecuted by authorities? Check. He says he's been detained by police and received threats from developers and shadowy mystery thugs for his bold action. His phone is tapped, he claims, and he's constantly followed.

3. A man of the people; acclaimed as a modest "hero" by the masses? Check. Ask him and he'll show you screen full after screen full of cell phone text messages sent by admirers. "You speak for us. You are a true hero" is typical.

4. A man of action? Check. Zhou says that not even being snatched by plain clothes cops at the airport and detained for 5 hours prior to a flight to Beijing stopped him from eventually getting there in order to deliver his message to prime minister Wen Jiabao.

5. Following his own example? Check. "I rent a two bedroom apartment for 1,500 yuan (US$187) a month. I cannot afford to buy one and wouldn't even if I could unless prices fall," he told me via C's translation. He claims to eke out a modest living as the owner of a golf supply store. (Golf? Red flag! Red flag! Definitely still a rich man's pastime in China. On second thought, hold that "check)

The trouble is is that his story -- while being lapped up by the Chinese press and hotly followed on the Internet -- doesn't exactly stand up to even cursory scrutiny.

He arrives an hour late in a 200,000 (US$24,000) yuan car for an interview in one of Shenzhen's hottest real estate markets. Strangely, though stopping the runaway apartment buying train here is his mission and though he says he's lived here for 11 years he calls 3 times enroute to ask for directions claiming that he's never heard of the neighborhood.

He's sporting a Titleist cap and a spiffy Sport brand golf shirt, carrying a sheaf of publicity materials and within 3-minutes of meeting casually mentions that the Asian Wall Street Journal has just done an interview with him. His golf handicap, a question I ask in order to break the ice? "Ninety." Huh?

These guys who detained you, what did they say? "Nothing. I asked why have you taken me and they never said." He goes on to embellish the story with an account of being driven to a neighborhood he never recognized where he sat in an apartment with his captors who again asked him "nothing." No threats? Nothing? "Nothing. Then they let me out of the apartment and I still didn't know where I was. I finally realized I was in Louhou." Louhou is a district in Shenzhen where he said earlier he'd lived for the past 11 years. "How did you get back to your car at the airport?" "I can't talk about it."

Direct questions about his missive to the prime minister reveal that he actually didn't get the message to Wen but to an anonymous official whom he can't name. What did it say? It was on my Internet site but it's been blocked. He adds, apropos of nothing that before he began selling golf ware he was in the People's Libration Army special forces and produces a black and white photo of a younger self in civilian clothes aiming a pistol at the camera as proof.

Then he says his cell phone is being tapped. "How do you know?" "Government officials call and tell me but don't tell me their names."

"The government officials call you to tell you that they are listening to your phone calls and don't leave their names but they leave their numbers?" C wisecracks to me in English, referring to the fact that the majority of cell phone calls one receives here have caller ID. He also claims to have been banned on the domestic Internet, though his website is still up and running. He clarified that observation by saying that his more "controversial" interviews and statements have been excised but are still available here courtesy of "foreign" Internet sites because "the government cannot block foreign Internet sites." Right. Tell that to someone without a proxy server or anonymouse savvy trying to read this blog, much less something about the Dali Lama from the mainland.

It gets worse. I go to the restroom in order to let C chat him up, Chinese citizen-to-Chinese citizen style. After returning she says he's told her that he amassed a fortune of nearly 1 million yuan after leaving the army and being recruited to head an unnamed PLA department as a 21-year old civilian. He used that to start his golf business. Oh, and by the way, an (unnamed, untitled) "American government official" is coming to China to talk to him about his cause.

And oh yeah, he did buy an apartment in Shenzhen in the late '90s. But sold it a few years later because it was too far from work. And then he bought the car. Which costs him 3,000 yuan a month for gas etc. And he's just quit his golf business in order to volunteer his time for an "international charity." Which one? "I don't know yet. There are so many."

"My parents are poor farmers. I only want to help people like them."

So...why don't you sell the car and ....?

"It's all here in what I wrote. Didn't you see me on CCTV? On Phoenix TV? Why are you asking all these questions? Just put what I wrote here in your newspaper."

As we're leaving he says something to C in Chinese. "What did he say?" I ask after he drives off.

"He wants me to read your story before you write it make sure it's all positive."


Note: On May 30, 2006, there were 2,980 results from Baidu News and 94,200 results from Baidu on the name 邹涛 Zou Tao.  The Tianya blog 民生观察网 has been shut down:

(Epoch Times)  'Don't Buy a House for Three Years'.  By Gao Ling.  June 3, 2006.

On April 27, 2006, Zou Tao, a resident in China's southern city of Shenzhen, started an Internet campaign called "Don't Buy a House for Three Years." The campaign spread very quickly to all of China, but the authorities suppressed Zou's initiative.

On May 11, Zou intended to personally hand an appeal letter to the Chinese premier in Beijing, but was detained for 10 hours by Shenzhen police before he could board his plane at the airport. For days, Zou Tao had no contact with the outside world. Then he appeared in Beijing but refused to comment. During our phone interview with him, his phone repeatedly cut out. 

According to a survey conducted at the beginning of 2006, of 15,000 people surveyed, 91 percent used a mortgage to buy a house, and 32 percent pay over 50 percent of their monthly income for interest. Such people are known as "house slaves."

In recent years, although numerous policies and slogans for regulating the real estate market have emerged from all levels in the Chinese government, all measures have failed to stop the rising prices.

According to a report on the Shenzhen real estate market in the first quarter of 2006, housing prices had increased to over 10,000 yuan per square meter (approximately US$115 per square foot). This is a 35.5 percent increase compared to the same quarter last year. The soaring price increase with some other long-term unsolved problems triggered the campaign known as "Don't Buy a House for Three Years," which started in Shenzhen and spread all over the country.

On April 26, Shenzhen resident Zou Tao published an article entitled "Shenzhen Resident Zou Tao's Open Letter to All Citizens in Shenzhen to Initiate the 'Don't Buy a House' Campaign." In the letter, he wrote: "For the sake of not being a house slave and carrying a heavy debt for the rest of your life and for the sake of our next generation, please follow me. As long as housing prices in Shenzhen do not drop to the level that Shenzhen citizens can afford, let's act together and not buy a house for three years. What you need to do is just keep your money in hand and watch; just waiting is enough."

In just over ten days, the open letter received a strong response in Shenzhen, and the campaign spread very quickly throughout China. Using the Internet, many people from all over the country signed an Internet petition to support the movement. Many "Don't Buy a House" alliances cropped up in cities like Beijing and Tianjin.

According to one government survey, 79 percent of the people supported the "Don't Buy a House for Three Years" campaign.

Because the campaign was a grassroots movement that did not get involved politics and drew a lot of attention from the public, many mainland media reported on it and followed its progress.

The Shenzhen government was forced to respond to the mass request. On May 9, government officials from the Shenzhen Municipal Land and Real Estate Management Bureau had a meeting with Zou, who represented Shenzhen residents and put forth eight suggestions.

From April 27 to May 9, Zou often appeared in public in Shenzhen. He visited businessmen and buyers and gave his business cards to publicize the "Don't Buy a House" movement.

In a short time, Zou became the well-known representative of the grassroots campaign. He even appeared on a TV program in Hong Kong that featured the story of the "Don't a Buy House for Three Years" movement. But the TV program was a turning point, and Zou's fate completely changed only 15 days after beginning the campaign. Suddenly, he found himself surrounded by all kinds of danger, both visible and invisible.

Zou planned to fly to Beijing on May 11 to personally deliver a report: "Premier, Please help house slaves. The housing prices are too high; house slaves' lives are too stressful; and the real estate market is in jeopardy."

At 5: 10 p.m. on May 11, when Zou was about to board the plane to Beijing to submit his open letter, his airline ticket and ID card were confiscated at the Shenzhen airport. He was detained until 3:00 a.m. the next morning—10 hours.

The last words Zou wrote on his blog described his feelings at the time he was prevented from boarding the plane: "The moment I saw the name 'Zou Tao' listed on the blacklist in the security center at the airport, I completely lost all hope. At that moment, I started to doubt what I had done in those years, and even doubted all my education."

"Every second was painful. It was all dark, like a nightmare. I cannot but admit that in the present state of society, most people can only live without dignity. We live like dogs. Maybe after this, there will be another nightmare waiting for me. Maybe I can no longer stay in Shenzhen, the so-called frontline of economic reform. But I have to face all this. I will not complain, nor regret."

According to some sources, Zou again managed to go to Beijing despite the detention incident at the airport. He subsequently disappeared, and his whereabouts remain unknown.

On the night of May 17, Zou wrote an email to the Epoch Times reporter: "I am completely forced-out. My name and photos cannot appear in any newspapers, TV or the Internet. What will happen to me next is unknown, but I probably can no longer stay in Shenzhen. My company in Shenzhen probably cannot operate anymore. My cell phone is 13902957568. Normally, I always turn the phone on. If you cannot reach me by this number, it means that I have disappeared. What I did is a personal act as a citizen. No matter what happens, I will not complain nor regret. Thank you for everyone's concern."

At midnight on May 17, the Epoch Times reporter called Zou's cell phone, but there was no answer. During the following five days, there was no news from Zou by phone or email. At 5:00 p.m. on May 23, his cell phone was unexpectedly connected. However, his demeanor was completely different from the way he had talked on the television interview for the Hong Kong TV station.

When the Epoch Times reporter asked him how he was doing and where he had been for the past five days, Zou replied, "I can't say anything. Please understand." When asked where he was, he replied in similar fashion: "Sorry. I can't say anything. You know it."

"Do your parents know what has happened to you?"

"No. They are only simple farmers. They don't know anything…," Zou replied.

"What about your future life?"

After a moment of silence, Zou sighed, "There must be some place for me under the sky. Anyway, what I have done are the legal acts of a patriotic citizen." Then the connection was cut.

An hour later, Zou sent the following email to friends on the Internet: "Dear friends who have an interest in the 'Don't Buy a House' campaign: Thanks for your support. I've have already left Beijing. I made an effort to fulfill my responsibility as a patriotic citizen to ask the government to resolve problems. However, it is a pity that I am now completely closed down. My last blog was sealed. Thank you again for your concern and support. Zou Tou."

The renowned human rights attorney Gao Zhisheng foresaw what would happen to Zou. In one of Gao's articles he said, "Zou unconsciously touched the sensitive nerve of the monopoly group [the communist regime], which is most powerful and possesses evil energy everywhere in China. How can he not be in danger?"

This 32-year-old young man from the countryside of Hunan Province had strived to establish his own business and had just settled down. However, after he initiated the well received movement, his life undertook a tremendous change in only 25 days. His act, from the moment it began, was described by the Chinese media as "Don Quixote's fight."