Property-owning activists lead democracy drive

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 March, 2006, 12:00am

Activist homeowners are facing pressure on two fronts - from property developers and local governments - but their activities may speed up the development of grass-roots democracy in cities, an analyst said.

But right now, the odds are stacked against them.

Huang Weiping, head of Shenzhen University's Research Institute on Contemporary Chinese Politics, said the demands of residents were rarely met in clashes with property managers because of the complex web of interests between property developers and political groups.

He said activists representing disgruntled homeowners could not expect much support from local authorities.

'Most property management firms of urban residential compounds are designated by the property developers, a group that contributes greatly to local revenue.

'That's a hidden rule in the market. Apparently, the individual homeowner is not able to dismiss the management firm. If someone comes out to represent others, he will be targeted by the developers and management firms.'

Professor Huang said authorities were not prepared for the political awakening that came with home ownership.

'Before the 1990s, urban residents had no private property. There were no homeowners so, of course, there would be no problems with homeowners defending their rights,' he said.

'Now, homeowners are protesting and filing lawsuits against local governments for malfeasance for their ties with real estate businesses. This can affect the reputation of local governments.

'This can partly explain why - in some regions - the government is still playing an excessive role, exerting great pressure to deter property owners wanting to set up a residents' committee and govern their own affairs.

'Some officials of local bureaus have warned the media not to report on property disputes. Lawsuits by residential committees run by activist homeowners have often been rejected by local courts.'

Professor Huang said the central government was also sensitive to homeowners' protests in large cities because of the growing wave of social unrest that was sweeping the country.

'If residents' committees were granted legal status, activist homeowners would have more power to fight not only the property developers but also the system. The central government may be too worried about this to introduce a property law.'

Professor Huang said authorities should be concerned about the demands of the new middle class because the issues affected social stability.

'A flat is the most important and expensive purchase for the average homeowner. They might put everything they have made over the years into their apartment. Without a doubt, they will do anything they can if their property rights are infringed.'

He said the authorities should realise that each crackdown could spawn a new wave of opposition and that the rise of homeowners' activities in urban residential compounds could actually help bring grass-roots democracy to urban areas.

Professor Huang said home ownership was giving people a new stake in society, emboldening them to supervise the government, fight corruption and reform the legal system, a shift in the direction of a healthy civil society.

'To protect property rights, homeowners are building owners' committees, leading neighbours to negotiate with or sue governments and developers. The activities have been extremely enlightening and are textbook cases of democracy in urban cities, like Chinese village elections in rural areas,' Professor Huang said.

'Many urban homeowners who have had experience in real estate disputes in which they defended homeowners' rights have become political aspirants. A few even realised that they could better protect property rights if elected to the position of a district representative in a grass-roots congress.

'Today, residents are exploring economic and political rights when they deal with disputes involving property rights. Tomorrow, they will take more action for rights in other fields.

'That's grass-roots democracy, and what we are looking forward to. The more [that] ordinary people in China buy apartments, the more chances we have to improve democracy in China.'