782 days to go

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 June, 2006, 12:00am

Every Olympian knows the importance of holding your nerve in the enduring quest for victory.

In the shattered village of Yangshan, for one of three remaining communities facing the wrecking ball to make way for the showcase Olympic Village in north Beijing nerves of steel are as important as knowing the going rate for a square metre of real estate.

'I think the Olympics are a good thing, but I'm not moving until the government offers me the right price,' says landlady Wang Hong, 45.

Yangshan village might not go down in folklore or rank highly in history's list of great stand-offs. But here savvy Beijingers know the value and price of everything and they are testing a jumpy government to the limit and beyond.

They are refusing to budge until the price is right, they say, and frustrated, red-faced government officials are doing what they do best when faced with fearless obstinacy ... they have set up special committees.

This week seven new 'dismantlement leader teams' were unveiled. Their job is to visit 1,200 defiant villagers like Wang and offer an 'extra prize' to those households prepared to vacate their homes within a month and make way for a 'green lawn', a public park on part of the huge Olympic complex.

Aware of the potentially volatile situation, the teams will be flanked by security guards and propaganda officers armed with pamphlets offering a glossy vision of the future in new community high-rises.

Most villagers in communities like Yangshan took up the original offer months ago and bought into a new life in new housing complexes in new suburbs - happy to make way for the Olympics.

But over the past year, property prices have gone through the roof and the compensation packages fail to impress the remaining villages, most of whom have lived their lives here.

'The government is offering 4,000 yuan a square metre on a new apartment,' says Wang. 'But that is not enough anymore. The prices have gone up and the new buildings around here differ from 6,000 yuan a square metre to 7,000 yuan a square metre. We cannot afford to move. We would have no money to live on,' she says.

To the south, north and east, new apartment blocks with names like Purple Jade Villas blight the horizon and to the north the new fifth ring road rumbles with traffic. To the west, one can make out cranes pulling together the awe-inspiring Bird's Nest arena and the futuristic Water Cube.

'The money they are offering means I would have to move miles away to afford a home. I don't want to, but I cannot afford one of those,' adds Wang, pointing to a modern housing complex.

She sits at the entrance to her modest property empire, a simple, traditional single-story structure of redbrick and grey tiles. Inside are 12 dingy rooms measuring 230 square metres. Thin curtains hang from the windows and threadbare rugs cover the concrete floors.

Business was good a year ago, she says. She was at renting capacity - 500-600 yuan per room a month - and the money provided a modest income for her family.

Today, a wasteland of ditches and open sewers, rubble, stray dogs, discarded baths, tubs, rubbish and an atmosphere of decay and stubbornness surround her property. She has only three rooms rented to migrant workers paying 200 yuan a month.

Wang's home is among only 30 from 700 village dwellings scattered across this broken land holding out for an acceptable deal. Her elderly neighbours once lived two metres across the path but they and their homes disappeared, seemingly overnight, eight months ago.

She sits drinking tea and eating sunflower seeds, spitting the shells into a small stream of cloudy water.

During the demolition, workmen broke water and sewage pipes. She, like the remaining residents, now uses an ad hoc standpipe engineered by enterprising villagers - a garden hose sticking up through the mud. The electricity is still on and is fed into homes via dangerous overhead wires dangling gingerly from makeshift poles.

Li Jinghua, 28, squats in the quagmire, washing her laundry at a hose poking out of the earthy slush.

She moved into the village in 2001 from her native Henan seeking work, she says. She and her husband pay 200 yuan a month for a small room.

'My husband is a security worker in Beijing, but if we move from here we will have to move further out and he will lose his job,' she says. 'Yes, I believe the Olympics are a good thing. But I am worried what will happen when we have to leave here.

'And I understand everybody should make a sacrifice, but it is still difficult for us to move,' she says.

In another isolated home, four elderly ladies sit playing mahjong. 'We have lived here all our lives, for several generations. We are waiting for a good offer,' says one. 'You must go. You will cause trouble,' says another.

No one looks up from the game.

In a small structure nearby, which looks like a bike shed, singing can be heard. Inside several women squat on stools singing from books. We listen and I ask if this is a village song.

'No,' says Fang Deqin, 56, with a fearful scowl, 'they are Catholic women. Be careful! They are praying.'