Fifteen Days in Chongqing

(Southern Weekend)  What happened in those fifteen days?  By Zhang Yue (张悦).  April 12, 2007.

[in translation]

Our newspaper had exclusive interviews with Chongqing Jiulongpo district party secretary Zheng Hong, Jiulongpo district court director Zhang Li and the "nail house" owner Wu Ping who "vanished" after the settlement was reached.  This report describes in detail how the public crisis was resolved through mediation and what is in it for each of the parties involved.

The roles of the local Chongqing officials in the matter of "the most awesome nail house in history" are perplexing.  Some people say that they are the most tolerant local officials.  Other people believe that they are different from other local officials who are trying to effect urban transformation.  But one thing that is certain is that this was a situation that had not been encountered for many years.

The affair was reported first on the Internet and was followed up by the traditional media.  The traditional media and the Internet interacted actively with each other, and there was a lot of social emotions behind that interaction.  This drew countless number of overseas reporters, so that the image of China depended on how well the case was handled.  More important, the Property Rights Law and just been passed and almost all the observers were using the outcome of this case as a measure of the degree to which China will move towards the protection of private property.  Now that the matter is over, we ask just what were the roles of the Chongqing officials?  During those days of excitement, what were they doing?

Zheng Hong said that he was in "in the midst of the storm."  And the center of that "storm" was the "island" of Yang Wu.

Zheng Hong has been district party secretary of the Jiulongpo district in Chongqing city for over five years, and the Hexing road district has always been troublesome for him.  "It really affected our image.  Sometimes, I take my friends along to look at it.  They all say, 'Zheng Hong, you must transform this area.'  I say, 'Soon, soon'."

In September 2005, Zheng Hong described to netizens who were concerned about the reconstruction project of Hexing road about what this prime area would look like afterwards.  He told them that the relocation process will be completed in October 2005.

But the progress did not follow Zheng Hong's logic.  The "most awesome nail house case" would slowly ferment underneath his "optimism" and this recently became the focus of attention for the whole nation.

Zheng Hong has the habit of getting on the Internet every day.  When the "nail house affair" reached a climax in March, "as many as 80% of the netizens supported the Yang Wu-Wu Ping couple.  40% predicted that the house will be forcibly demolished, and only 30% predicted an amicable settlement."

According to legend, "the eye of the storm" is usually calm but that is not always true.  "Secretary Wang (=Chongqinq city party secretary Wang Yang) and mayor Wang (=Chongqing city mayor Wang Hongju) issued many directives.  Apart from the written reports, I had to make two daily verbal reports to the party secretary and the mayor.  There was one day in which I made five verbal reports to party secretary Wang Yang.  I also had to give reports for related departments such as the Ministry of Construction."

Every day, Zheng Hong also got calls from all over the country about this affair.  "Among those calls were half a dozen top local officials.  They were concerned, but they did not provide any concrete advice."

Ever since the end of the last century, relocations have been going on across China.  Obviously, many other city leaders feel the pangs from these relocations and they are therefore paying attention to Zheng Hong and other Chongqing officials who are in the "eye of the storm."

On April 9, Wu Ping contacted our reporter on her own initiative.  This was her first interview after the incident was over and she spoke about what occurred in the final negotiations.  She said that "she was grateful to the netizens, grateful to the media and grateful to the government."

On April 10, the storm was slowly dying down.  One of the principals in the affair -- Zheng Hong -- sat down across the media and spoke for three hours.  Other principal figures such as Jiulongpo district court director Zhang Li also spoke with our reporter and detailed the scintillating inside story of what the government faced during this crisis as well as the lessons derived after calm was restored.

If Zheng Hong is a front line commander, then the other key figure Jiulongpo district court director Zhang Li was the most valuable mediator.

He said that the pressure of the "nail house affair" was something "he had never encountered in forty years of living and may be a once-in-a-life-time thing."

After the case was settled, he felt that this was a hard-to-come-by opportunity in his life.  "As a district court director, I had to go twice to the mayor's office to report on the progress and the opinions on this case within the legal framework."

Zhang Li was transferred from other county to Jiulongpo district just after this Lunar New Year.  On March 16, he was formally appointed as the court director.  The first tough assignment that he faced was the "nail house incident."

March 17 (Saturday).  One day after becoming court director, Zhang Li received a call from the deputy director that the media wanted to attend the March 19 hearing about the forced eviction of Yang Wu.  He was taken aback, because he had no idea that the photograph of the "most awesome nail house" was broadly circulated on the Internet.

"At the time, I felt that it was a troublesome thing to deal with the media.  I was afraid that I might say something wrong.  I turned down media interviews.  In retrospect, I can frankly say that I regret that."  Almost a month later, he reflected to the reporter.

On the day of the hearing on March 19, Zhang Li was surprised again.  "How can there be so many reporters here?"  After Chongqing became a municipality, urban construction progressed apace.  "There must be twenty or thirty such cases each year, but only this case drew so much attention."

On that day, the court ordered the applicant Yang Wu to comply with the Jiulongpo Housing Administration's administrative order on relocation before March 22, 2007.

Afterwards, the situation exploded as media around the world rushed in to await the forced relocation on March 22.

"March 22 was the time limit for voluntary relocation and not for forcible relocation.  Even that April 10 time limit was not for forcible relocation.  It only meant that forcible relocation could occur on April 10, but I can also demolish on April 20."  Zhang Li explained.

This lesson caused him to start reconsidering his attitude towards the media.  "The situation became tense all of a sudden.  I feel that I was being dense and slow because I had just recognized the severity of the situation.  I consulted with the high court leaders and the district leaders and I decided to change tactics.  We cannot be isolated from the media and we must open the gate on our own.  The city high court and district party both supported what we did."

"The incident reached a climax on March 22.  All the cameras were out there through the night."  Zheng Hong said.

On the night, Zhang Li spoke to Wu Ping by telephone from his office.  "She was very excited.  She said that negotiation is possible but the Housing Administration's administrative order and the court's legal decision must be rescinded first.  This is equivalent to shutting the door to negotiation because the legal process cannot go backwards."

"On the Internet, many people disputed the forced relocation and property rights protection policies of our country.  But as the court, we cannot overturn the existing administrative laws," said Zhang Li.

That was the second night after Yang Wu entered the house alone.  Wu Ping said that she went sleepless that night.

The workers for the government and the court also had a sleepless night.  The authorities decided to hold an informational meeting on the morning of March 23.  On the night of March 22, Zhang Li had a busy night.

The main purpose of the informational meeting was to tell the media that there would be no forcible relocation on the night of March 22.  But the informational meeting consisted of the reading and distribution of a notice.  "It was my first time facing the media.  I had no experience.  I was worried that the more I said, the more chances I had for making mistakes."  Zhang Li recalled.

There were various opinions at the time.  "Some comrades even proposed a joint press conference by the court, the Housing Administration and the district government.  The court felt that this was very inappropriate.  The Housing Administration is an administrative unit whereas the court reviews the administrative orders made by the Housing Administration.  A joint press conference will cause people to question the independence of the court."  Zhang Li said.

As district party secretary, Zheng Hong recognized this.  "In other countries, government officials and judges will not sit down together.  But foreign reporters do not understand party leadership in China."  In the end, the court held its own press conferences.  Similarly, when the government held its own press conferences, the court did not participate.

The other details also reflected the nervousness at the time: where should the press conference be held? how many people should they plan for? will the householders show up to cause trouble? should the court police be brought in to control the situation? should the court police wear uniforms or plain clothes?

Those arrangements were decided past 1am on March 23.  Zhang Li went home and took a bath.  Then another telephone call came for him to attend an emergency meeting.

The Chongqing city public security bureau leader was worried that there might be a mass incident and the various departments reported on the various related conditions.  "From 2am in the morning to 7am, the deputy director of the public security bureau and secretary Zheng worked.  The Housing Administration explained how the case evolved.  The publicity department explained why there were so many media present.  The court explained what has happened in the case so far."

At 7am in the morning, Zhang Li returned to his office.  He could only get two hours of sleep.  The informational meeting took place at 9am.  "61 reporters from more than 40 media units showed up.  The reporters were not happy about the fact that we only issued a press release and refused to answer questions."

"Frankly speaking, this informational meeting was held belatedly."  Zheng Hong said that the media had been getting one-sided information from Wu Ping previously, and the othter side was therefore placed into a defensive position.

After that informational meeting, it became a system in which the Jiulongpo district publicity department, the Housing Administration and the court each organized their own press conferences.

Zheng Hong demanded that the government and the court must not contradict each other.  They needed to be united to get to the truth of the matter without mutual accusations.  The lessons will be drawn afterwards.  "Although this was a bit late, it was still effective."

After the morning press conference, Zhang Li still could not get any rest.  At the afternoon meeting on March 23, the Chongqing city high court called a joint meeting of three levels of courts in order to study the legal issues and examine whether the court haf made any mistakes.

Actually, as early as March 10, the Jiulongpo district had set up a work group to handle the relocation at the Hexing Road area.  The group was led by district party standing committee member and publicity department director Zhang Qi.  After the incident blew up unexpectedly, district leader Huang Yun took charge personally.  The Chongqing city publicity department also joined the work group.

Zheng Hong said that during internal government discussions, many people advocated forced demolition because this was in accordance with the law.  "But we felt that the administrative costs for forcible demolition were relatively high and we were counting on reaching a settlement through the legal channels."

Zhang Li recalled that March 24 was a Saturday.  "On that day, mayor Wang Hongju personally gave a press conference in which he used the term 'flawless' -- if there were any flaws or problems under the law, forced demolition could not take place.  On that day, the legal advisors and experts for the city government and other departments were present and said whatever they wanted.  This showed that the city was paying attention and that there was a clear division of labor."

Zhang Li said: "Mayor Wang had a firm sense about the rule of law.  The city and the district both established temporary work groups, but they did not let the court participate.  Mayor Wang said that the court was not a government department which can participate in the work group."

The court was feeling a lot of pressure even as a lot of hope was being pinned upon it.  "Everybody realized that the case has entered the legal phase.  There would be bad reactions if the party or the government interfered.  If this case was mishandled, it could affect the authority and system of the judiciary in our country."

"The court was the only common channel for both sides (Yang Wu-Wu Ping and the land developer)," Zheng Hong analyzed the situation this way.  Since the case had entered the legal phase, it would be much more complicated if it was sent back to the administrative phase.

Prior to March 24, the court also did a lot of other work outside of the legal process.  "Before the March 19 hearing, the court wanted to mediate for them.  But Wu Ping was very resistant.  She did not want participation by the court.  She wanted to speak to the land developer alone.  She had the same attitude towards the Housing Administration."

Zheng Hong said frankly that the court wanted to do everything possible for Wu Ping.  Finally, Wu Ping agreed to negotiation but it must be overseen by Zhang Li because she felt that a newly appointed director to Jiulongpo district would not favor the land developer.  "Although I was surprised, I did not give it too much thought," said Zhang Li.

"On the afternoon of March 25, she came to the office.  I and two other comrades from the court spoke to her for three hours.  She once again brought up the withdrawal of our judgment as well as the administrative order of the Housing Administration.  I said that if you think that there is something wrong with the relocation regulations of the State Council, you will have to change the law before we can change our judgment.  So she did not insist on the point afterwards."

After that exchange with Wu Ping, the court then got the land developer to come in for a new round of negotiations.  "On March 26 and 27, we discussed for two afternoons and one evening.  But she insisted on not seeing the land developer.  So we arranged for the land developer to be in another room and they spoke back to back.  The court served the function of a voice transmitter."

On the same day, Chongqing mayor Wang Hongju said at the kick-off meeting of the National Book Fair that the "nail house" incident should be handled legally, calmly and properly without asking for sky-high amounts of money.

But Wu Ping said, "They only remembered that mayor Wang said 'no sky-high prices' but they would not talk about mayor Wang's directive to about 'legally, calmly and properly.'"

Zheng Hong joked that this incident is his graduation thesis.  If he failed to write this thesis, he would have to "drop out."

"At the time, we were worried that some central government department would step in and take a position.  That would put us in a defensive position."  The Jiulongpo district government communicated with the Chongqing and central government departments to avoid the occurrence of such a situation.

Now the key point of the thesis has arrived.  Zhang Li said that Wu Ping was reasonably cooperative during the negotiation and her demand was gradually lowered.  "She was playing word games.  She did not directly say 10 million or 20 million.  She insisted on getting a house, but the house has a projected cost.  She wanted a ground floor (which is 140,000 RMB per square meter) and a second floor (which is 50,000 RMB per square meter).  Now doesn't that add up to almost 20 million?"

Apart from getting housed again, there are other demands for compensation.  For example, the compensation between 1993 to 2004 was 4 million; from 2004 to now, the compensation was 40,000 RMB per month.  After more talking, the total amount of compensation was brought down to just over 1 million on the evening of March 27.

By this time, the situation was getting more complicated.  Zhang Li felt that he was being pressed from all sides.  "This place has turned into a stage."

Zheng Hong said that various relocated families came from all over China to offer support.  A "nail householder" from Zhuhai even went inside Yang Wu's house and wanted to hang out a banner.  One person even shouted out extreme slogans.  "We determined his identity that night.  All we did was to educate him."

The public security bureau and the street committees offered their resources.  "Frankly speaking, the scene and the surrounding area were under 24-hour-a-day surveillance," said Zheng Hong.

"Frankly speaking, the price arrived on the evening of March 27 was acceptable to the land developer.  But the city leaders became very explicit and listed several principles.  First, the people must not be lied to about the terms of settlement.  Secondly, the solution to this case must not cause other problems.  This imposed more demands in our negotiations."  Zhang Li said.

The land developer was facing a loss of 60,000 RMB per day.  It was in their interest to satisfy all of Wu Ping's demands.  But by this stage, the government had to consider the interest of the other 280 households which have already been relocated.  They also have to consider the impact of this case on relocation in Chongqing and the rest of the country.  The local officials said, "We must be responsible to history."

Zhang Li said that the proposal on March 27 involved a new house at the same spot on Hexing Road and compensation to the amount of 1.7 million RMB plus.  This was more than the final disclosed settlement amount by more than 600,000.  "By that time, I was thoroughly exhausted.  Wu Ping could not cope either and she went to get intravenous solution that night."

But the March 27 proposal was not approved by the higher authorities.  "Then Wu Ping requested to meet secretary Zheng.  She made a strong request while telling a joke: 'If I meet the secretary, I won't ask for a cent'."

On the afternoon of March 28, Zheng Hong met with Wu Ping.  From just past 2pm in the afternoon, they talked for three hours.  Those three hours were described by the media as the turning point.  Wu Ping's attitude changed.

At the meeting, Wu Ping began with a monologue of more than 40 minutes.  Zheng Hong listened and took notes.  Wu Ping said that she sensed Wu Ping's concern and respect for her.

During the meeting, Wu Ping offered: "Secretary Zheng, if you have any difficulties, I can go and meet with the city leaders instead."  Zheng Hong declined.  Wu Ping asked how much face the government will have left if this incident continued.  Zheng Hong said clearly that the face of the government is about upholding the law and the authority of the judiciary.

Zheng Hong recalled, "Wu Ping told me that she did not imagine that she would be led down this path.  I analyzed with her the possible outcomes if this incident continued.  I told her about our attitudes towards this incident.  I described what the best possible outcome was.  We had a delightful conversation."

"I asked her clearly that she must not reach a private settlement with the land developer.  The settlement must be public.  I have to be responsible to the other 280 relocated families."  After the meeting was over, Zheng Hong gave his mobile telephone number to Wu Ping.  "Afterwards, Wu Ping called me three times to ask for my opinion."  On the last call, Wu Ping did it for the purpose of expressing her gratitude.

On that day, Wu Ping made further concessions.  The amount of the compensation was decided on that day.

"Wu Ping has her justifications.  The Housing Administration said that the water and electricity were cut off in November 2006.  Wu Ping said that the water was cut off in October 2004 and the electricity in February 2005.  We checked the information and found that Wu Ping was telling the truth.  The compensations for 5 months and 30 months without water and electricity are obviously different.  We verified the parts that she said and we gave it full consideration."  Zhang Li said.

"The final proposal recognized the facts that I brought up.  This showed that I was right.  I was especially happy.  The 1 million plus in compensation was more than the original 720,000.  Even one extra RMB would be my victory."  Wu Ping assessed the situation this way.

Yet the proposal for the relocation stated clearly that a new house on the same location cannot be used for relocation purposes.  This became the remaining final problem.

Zhang Li said: "On March 29, we spoke to her again about not wanting to have negative results.  We offered a proposal wherein she would be paid with money first and then after the house is constructed, it would be sold to her at a discounted price."

But this discussion which went to 2am made Wu Ping very unhappy.  "At this time, you offer me more than 2.4 million RMB for relocation.  You claim that you will give me a discount towards buying the new house.  But what happens if the land developer reneges later?"

So the negotiations which were about to achieve a breakthrough were suddenly reaching a dead end.

But at this time, Jiulongpo district leader Huang Yun came up with a solution on March 30.

Huang Yun used to the district leader in Shapingba district.  "District leader Huang remembered that the Zhengsheng company had commercial buildings in Shapingba district.  So we asked the land developer if they have some houses there.  Thus Huang Yun came up with the idea of relocating to a different house elsewhere.  This solved everything," said Zhang Li.

Actually, at the time, Wu Ping was fighting for a house at the same location but she also did not think that she would succeed -- "If I managed to get a house at the same spot, all the other relocated families would surely come to cause trouble with the government and the land developer."

Wu Ping was very happy with the new proposal.  She thought that the government was genuinely trying to solve the problem.  At that time, Wu Ping proceeded from the court to inspect the house in Shapingba.  "The house was on the pedestrian mall in Shapingba.  The section was even better than Yangjiaping."  Wu Ping said.

On March 30, Zhang Li did something else -- the posting of the forcible demolition notice according to schedule.  "On one hand, the legal process requires that a public notice must be posed on March 30.  If it was not posted, people will think that we are not enforcing the law.  On the other hand, the notice about forcible demolition creates some pressure for her and may help to hold down her high expectations."

While the notice was being posted, Zhang Li held another press conference.  Zhang Li was afraid that the media might think that demolition was going to be forcibly carried out immediately, so he disclosed for the first time that the two sides were negotiating through the mediation of the court.

Two days later, Wu Ping finally signed the agreement  In a situation with no losers, Wu Ping told our reporter: "As a citizen, I have to defend my rights but at the same time, I need to consider the nation as a whole."

On April 3, the storm was over.  Yang Wu got out of this "island" using the ladder that the land developer made overnight.  According to information, some district officials wanted a live broadcast from the scene.  But after considering that the location was a traffic hub and there would be many spectators which may cause safety problems, the historical moment was witnessed by only very few people.

After the incident was over, its effects continued to ferment in society and academia.  Many experts believe that the "nail house" incident is a model case study in which something bad was turned into something good.

Some people believe that the Chongqing local government should be commended for adopting a relatively tolerant attitude even though the case involved wide and sharp contradictions, heavy social attention, many controversies and difficulties in management.   At the same time, as a direct municipality, Chongqing handled this public crisis much better than in the past.

A work group leader said, "On April 6, Wang Yang participated in our meeting on people's livelihood.  He laughed and said that this was a test of our wisdom.  When we went through this incident, we showed that the Jiulongpo district government had strong governing capabilities and mature political wisdom."

In reality, the impact of the incident has reached far beyond Chongqing.  Chongqing city mayor Wang Hongju told Jiulongpo district party secretary Zheng Hong in clear and certain terms: "You do not just represent the level of the district government.  You are representing the level of Chongqing or even all of China when you deal with this matter."

Zheng Hong told our reporter, "I gave myself at least a passing grade.  This is not just the sole effort of the government.  The people of Jiulongpo were pretty good.  They were very understanding and they cooperated with the government's work."

But Zheng Hong valued even more the lessons and methods of public crisis management.  In Zheng Hong's summary, there are two items related to media.  First, he thought that they did not take Internet media seriously enough.  If they acted properly at first, public opinion would not be so one-sided that it looked as if the land developer and the government were colluding with each other.

Secondly, they had no experience dealing with the foreign media.  The Chinese government had promised that foreign media could gather news freely.  The local governments cannot break that promise.  "I told the news center to contact them in a pro-active manner.  Including the press conferences, we actively invited the foreign media to attend.  Foreign media cared about these types of incidents because they care about the development of democratic governance in China."

There was one point that was questioned by <Caijing> magazine and scholars such as Hua Xinmin.  Between the launching of the project to the start of the relocation, the land development did not have the permit to use state land.  Zheng Hong responded: "In Chongqing city, the two permits are combined.  In practice, the land developer can proceed to propose relocation.  Before an agreement is reached, the right of land use remains with the household to be relocated.  Therefore, the land developer cannot possibly have a land use permit before that.  Based upon the relocation regulations in Chongqing city, this model for relocation is admissible."

Therefore, Zheng Hong believes that urban redevelopment cannot continue down this road.  In the future, when a relocation project should be cleared out by the government first and then the project is put up for public auction . This avoids the suspicion about collusion between government and business.  This is something that will requite determination to achieve.

"This affair does not stop here because we still need to have more self-criticisms."  Jiulongpo district court director Zhang Li said.  He believes that reflections in the judiciary should continue about the implications of this case for all relocations in China.  There should be broad attention and discussions.  For example, how is the public interest determined? how is the appropriate compensation for a relocated household to be determined?  These questions require urgent consideration and whatever needs to be amended should be amended.  "Our work was only to delay or avoid the worst case scenario," he said.