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Songzhuang Land Rights Disputes Boil On

Nation, page 10-11, issue no. 350, Jan 14th 2008
Abridged translation by Zuo Maohong
Original article:

From a dust-covered bookshelf, Li Yulan picks up a stack of legal material and shows them to the reporter. It is reminiscent of a time when she hoped that studying the law would help her find a way out.

"All useless, all in vain!" Li laments.

Li, a previously unknown artist living in a quaint Beijing suburb, has been swamped with media attention after her purchase of rural property in 2002 was declared invalid by a court this past July. Watching her appeal anxiously are two hundred other artists who may face the same consequences themselves. The stream of disputes now popping up in Songzhuang highlight increasing demand in China for clarification and reform of previous laws dealing with rural property rights.

Finding a Home, Buying a House
Holding her ten-month old daughter in her arms, Li Yulan repeats her story over and over again to reporters who have come to interview her.

Back in early 1990s, Li left her hometown, Handan of Hebei province, for Beijing. Like other beipiaos, a term describing those coming from all over China to work and live in Beijing, Li had floated from one place to another ever since she arrived here. "I can't remember exactly how many places I've lived in," she says, "I kept moving. It was annoying."

Fed up with the wanderer's life, Li suddenly saw her future in Songzhuang after learning about the town in east Beijing's Tongzhou district in 2002.

"The very reason why artists chose Songzhuang as a home is that the town is far from the hustle and bustle of urban life. It was also a time when a batch of farmers quit farming, became urban residents, and left their homes vacant. Several bold farmers then looked around for buyers," says Yang Dawei, one artist.

On July 1st 2002, Li and Ma Haitao signed an agreement settling Li's purchase of Ma's eight-room house and yard in Songzhuang from for 45,000 yuan.

After full payment was made, Ma promised he would never regret his decision. "The price was above the average at that time," Li explains, adding that the house was dilapidated; one of the girders was broken, the floor had sunk, and rampant weeds were clustered in the yard.

Despite this, Li and her husband were thrilled about the new place. The house was later renovated and re-fitted: three more wing-rooms and a washroom were built, a pond was dug, and flowers were planted in the yard.
Life was hopeful to Li then. And finding herself pregnant in 2006, Li couldn't feel happier. But this was also the year her troubles began.

Thirteen Artists Sued
In fact, Li was not the first Songzhuang artist to be sued by a former landowner. The first was 57-year-old artist Wang Lize.

In 2003, Wang bought a house in Songzhuang from his friend Xu Renbo, also an artist, at 66,000 yuan. When the house first traded hands in 1999 from a local called Zhang Jianli to Xu, the price was around 20,000 yuan.

After the purchase, Wang also renovated the house.

According to Wang, one day in early 2006, Zhang said to him, "you know, you can sell the house to me if you want to." Wang says he was puzzled by the request at the time, but later realized that "Zhang had been thinking of taking back the house since then".

Wang says that, as expected, Zhang called on him later, saying, "I want my house back because your purchase was illegal." Being familiar with law through previous work experience, Wang says that he replied, "it's useless to argue about the legality with me. You've found the wrong person. You should go find the one who bought it from you." But according to Wang, by that time, Xu had died from a heart attack.

Zhang brought the dispute to court in October 2006.

According to the State Council circular on banning speculative landing trading issued in May 1999, "Farmers' residences shall not be traded to urban residents." State Council Decision on Deepening Reform of and Tightening Up Land Management (28 [2004] of the State Council) again banned "urban residents from purchasing rural housing land". The Ministry of Land and Resources has also made several statements to clarify that minor property rights, that is, rural real estate sold to urban residents, is not protected by law.

Complicating these strict regulations was the booming real estate industry since 2002. In Songzhuang, a house once available for 300 yuan a month iss now rented at 2,000 yuan. With their houses already sold and making greater profits, farmers were determined to take back their houses.

Artists based in Songzhuang were then sued one after another—the second being Fang Lijun, one of the first who moved to the town, then Li Yulan, then Yang Dawei. Within a month, 13 artists were sued.

In October 2006, Li received a notice from Ma that he would like to buy her house at 70,000 yuan, which the former bought at 45,000 yuan four years ago and had been renovated for several times thereafter.

Different Cases, Different Stages
Though Li was the third to be sued, her case was the first to be closed.

At 8:30am on December 28th, 2006, Tan Xiaoxun, Li's husband, together with some 30 artists, attended the hearing in Tongzhou District Court. Because Li was pregnant, Tan served as the defense. After hearing the case, the court suggested the dispute be settled through mediation.
Progress in the mediation went slowly until one day when Li signed her name on a house assessment report. It was later said that this signature, which meant Li agreed with the assessed value of the house, that made the judge come to a decision sooner than the other cases.

According to Li, she "signed the report because somebody threatened her". In April 2007, Li claimed, a court officer came to her and told her "if you don't agree to sign the assessment, we'll adjudge 70,000 yuan to you, as has been offered by the accuser ". Later the next month, Li received the assessment report, which valued her house at a total of 93,808 yuan.

On July 10th, 2007, Tongzhou District Court determined at first instance that "the house purchasing agreement signed by both parties is invalid; the defender shall give back the house to the accuser, and the accuser shall compensate the defender according to the house assessment report."

Li then appealed against the judge's decision to the Second Intermediate People's Court Of Beijing. The second instance turned out to maintain the initial decision while permit Li to make further appeals concerning compensation.
Another reason why Li's case was first closed, said Wang, was that related government departments doubted her identity as an artist, since Li was found not to have registered in Chinese Artists' Association. The importance of being certificated as an artist stems from the attitude of these related departments, which said previously that "the cases concerning artists should be put aside until corresponding law is promulgated".

Now, the 13 cases are progressing at different paces. Some artists are still anxious, Some are free from lawsuits—for example, Yang Dawei. According to his wife, on January 8th the former landowner decided to withdraw their claim after being persuaded by community leaders.

Lingering Questions
Ever since she was sued, Li has been asking two questions: why does Ma have the right to sue her now that he's also an urban resident (Ma is now employed by a home for the elderly in Jixian, Tongxian)? Why can't urban residents buy houses in rural areas?

To Wang and many other artists, the judge's decision was built on shaky legal ground, "The court bases its decisions on document no. 391, released by the High Court of Beijing in 2004"

These views were expounded upon in a letter to the municipal government leaders on July 31st 2007, which was jointly signed by 315 artists in Songzhuang. In the letter, the artists expressed their skepticism over the use of government documents such as "instructions" and "circulars", which are not legally authoritative, as a technical basis for adjudication. They called for the adherence to rule of law and administrative regulations issued by the State Council.

The letter also points out that the definitions of real estate property, rural housing land property and the right to use this land are ambiguous, and that this has led to inconsistencies in court decisions related to rural property.

Regarding Li's two questions, the EO tried to interview the two above-mentioned courts but was declined. On January 9th, a source at Tongzhou court told the EO that Li's accusation against Ma has been put on record, but the time for trial has yet to be set.

The Songzhuang of Tomorrow
After the second instance of Li's case, CCTV anchor Bai Yansong said something  that Songzhuang locals could not ignore: "The farmers won the lawsuit, but lost their honest."

Judges in the second intermediate court of Beijing and the Tongzhou court, accompanied by Wang, visited Songzhuang on December 25th 2007. Seeing the places the artists having been living, they sighed, "the conditions are not as good as we originally imagined."

Tongzhou government's concern is that an increase in the number of such cases could harm the town's economic development.

In fact, the town has been taking advantage of its artist migrants and developing its culture industry since 2004. So far, not only has it been one of the ten cultural bases and animation bases in Beijing, but also has an income of 320 million yuan from its culture industry.

To avoid more lawsuits, village leaders were called in and demanded to intervene in the disputes. Moreover, the EO has learned that "thanks to efforts by the town government, the court has promised not to accept such cases any more."
"I'm waiting for the notice from the court." After submitting her claim, Li goes back to the house which—according to the ruling—doesn't belong to her any more. She and her family were accommodated by a friend for the previous week, because "it was so cold here that the children fell ill," she recalls.

"Ruined! All ruined!" says Li. The glass on a wing-room's door has been shattered by wind. On a wall in a middle room, there hangs an unfinished painting by Li, which she says she has been unable to work on due to her mood.

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