Buying a home turns IT manager into activist in campaign against developers
Ren Chenguang is among the growing number of new homeowners on the mainland who dare to stand up to property developers and the governments that often side with the businessmen. The IT manager talks to Raymond Li about what turned him into a housing act
When did you buy a house and how did you feel at that time?
My mother-in-law said I had to buy a house when I got married, and I was so excited about the thought of having my own house that I signed the papers within 10 days, in April 2000. It felt like a dream come true when I moved into the Jianxiangyuan Residence in north Beijing two months later. However, that excitement gradually turned to a sense of frustration over the slow progress on basic infrastructure within the neighbourhood. There were also frequent disruptions of the 24-hour hot-water supply developers had promised. On top of that, a fire in the basement in my block led us to discover that the electrical wiring installed by the developers was not legally certified.
What did you do then?
I was a bit unhappy with the poor service, but still preoccupied with the excitement of having my own house in Beijing. But a few neighbours began to take their grievances to the developers with support from other homeowners. I gave them my full support by signing all the documents they needed, but at most I was a sympathetic homeowner at that time and not an active homeowner.
So why did you take the lead?
When I came home about 9pm one day in October 2002, I saw about 100 residents in my neighbourhood were arguing with representatives for the developers over incomplete facilities and muddy roads. The argument grew more chaotic and fierce the later it became. I used to be a student leader back in university and I know such chaotic arguments go nowhere in solving problems. So I jumped on top of a stone table in the middle of the crowd, saying that we must unite to make it work. People started to calm down and listen to my ideas. There has been no turning back for me from that moment.
What did you do first?
I and another 19 active members in the neighbourhood voluntarily drafted a proxy form and went door to door to seek consensus. At the end of November of that year, we set up a homeowners' association after we gathered signatures of more than half of the households. I was the deputy director of the association.
I suppose you have a full-time job? How do you find the time for the community work?
It's hard to juggle both jobs sometimes, but I enjoy doing the job as it gives you a sense of responsibility and belonging. However, developers did not take us seriously, and related government agencies snubbed us when we approached them for support. On top of that, we did not have any money to start up, so each of the 20 committee members donated 500 yuan as seed money so we could finally carry out our work on behalf of the whole neighbourhood.
Was there any breakthrough?
Yes. Early March is normally the time for the two key [national political] meetings, and we decided to choose this very sensitive period the following year to stage a sit-in at the developers' office. Eventually, with the intervention of the municipal government, they agreed to talk to us and to follow through on their promises. In 2005, our committee succeeded in replacing the property management company appointed by the developers with the one we chose based on an open tender. Also, I staged a two-day hunger strike in April 2006 along with other committee members, at the office of the developers, forcing them to scrap a development plan on a piece of land reserved for hot-water boilers for the neighbourhood.
Have you had trouble with authorities for organising a mass movement?
I know the risk, but we know the law and how to get around it. For instance, we held the 2003 sit-in in the office of the developers, not in public. What's more, we never said who led the sit-in, otherwise he or she would be in great trouble. However, I did receive anonymous, threatening messages and someone let down the tyres on my car.
What have you learned from the community work?
Community work is like a mirror that reflects what we know about democracy. All our decisions have been reached based on wide consultation with the neighbourhood and a democratic process, and everyone is bound under the rule of law. Based on the democratic idea, we plan to set up a supervision arm to work along with the homeowners' committee and a meeting mechanism for the representatives of homeowners.
Do you have plans for the future?
I think one individual neighbourhood can do little no matter how established it is. So I'm involved in forming a city-wide association of homeowners' committees. But our application has yet to receive government approval. However, I have a strong belief that the grass roots must unite to get the job done.