Injustice reigns too close to home

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 September, 2009, 12:00am

On paper, the lives of Beijinger He Wenjun and Texan Tim Hilbert could not be more different. They are of the same generation and both men stand equal before the law of the land on mainland China. But here the similarities end.

Hilbert, 52, is an expatriate living in Beijing who three years ago took early retirement as the China head of a large US information-technology company to pursue his dream of starting a chain of steak restaurants, investing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

He, 54, works at a hospital in downtown Beijing sterilising medical equipment and earns 5,000 yuan (HK$5,685) a month, a wage that has allowed him to buy his small flat in a modest city centre housing block.

But their lives merged closer when each was handed an eviction notice and they vowed to fight their respective landlords.

For Hilbert, his dispute has become a cause celebre with both the local and international media, which have been closely following his Alamo-like stance.

Mainland reporters have been captivated by the novelty of the softly spoken Texan engaged in a high-noon showdown with rapacious landlords, and shadowy government and court officials.

He was declared the mainland's first expat 'nail house' rebel for refusing to leave his business premises as neighbouring establishments crumpled under the weight of the wrecking ball.

And Hilbert is keen to live up to his Lone Star image as he goads his adversaries with no-nonsense fighting talk, even though he has twice come close to arrest.

'Texans are no quitters. We are known for fighting to the end, to the death,' he says as we take a taxi to the site where his once-popular restaurant stood. Hilbert, a trained accountant, claims he lost more than US$650,000 after he signed a lease in 2007 to open Tim's Texas Bar-B-Q, a mock rustic roadhouse serving cold beer and giant slabs of meat under neon signs.

But, he claims, his landlord, the Eastern Seven Colours Big World Merchandise Market Company, secretly knew the land was earmarked for redevelopment.

On May 12, his business along with several others on Xing Ba Lu (Super Bar Street), a down-at-heel but popular entertainment area, were given less than three weeks to quit.

The landlord refused to offer little more than token compensation payouts. The tenants vowed to fight but, one by one, they fell by the wayside as the threats and intimidation mounted. Helen Ma, the Hong Kong proprietor of a bar called Shamba, was allegedly dragged with her staff from her building by dozens of kicking and punching thugs under the gaze of police officers on May 16. The message was clear: take the offer or leave it because either way, the wrecking ball swings.

Hilbert was offered US$105 a square metre, a total of about US$50,000, a fraction of the US$650,000 he believes he is owed. The Texan retreated to his restaurant for a stand-off, hiring lawyers and guards to protect his rights, property and staff. He began lobbying government officials and the courts, citing new rules governing compensation in such cases.

On the day the demolition crew arrived to knock his roadhouse down, uniformed security guards, and government and court officials surrounded Hilbert. A fire engine and ambulance were also present.

'The court officials dangled handcuffs and said I was to be detained,' he recalls. With the help of a translator, he managed to evade internment. Then, on a wave of bravado that had reporters gasping and giggling nervously into their notebooks, Hilbert, along with a small posse of supporters, took a protest petition and a copy of the law straight to the doors of the central government's Zhongnanhai compound. They were interrogated for five hours and then freed.

Later, police came looking for two of his American supporters, including Bobby Taylor, the lead singer from the Motown group Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers.

Hilbert's friends were thrown out of the country last week after it was claimed they got visas through unlicensed agents.

The landlord and the local government did not reply to requests to be quoted in this article.

Hilbert remains undeterred. 'I will not give up pressing for the compensation I deserve. The landlord and the local governments have to realise I will continue to fight for what is right and for the truth,' he says as he looks over the high wall and razor wire at the building site, fixing a vengeful eye on the cranes and diggers.

A few kilometres away, He stands on top of his 16-storey apartment block that sits cheek-by-jowl with the state broadcaster's new futuristic complex in Beijing's central business district.

He possesses an equal amount of determination, albeit a more nervous conviction than Hilbert. He has been among 70 residents protesting against their forced relocation by state-owned China Central Television, which wants to raze their 10-year-old apartment block.

He is jittery, keen to steer clear of the cell where he was recently interned for 10 days, sleeping on the same long communal bed as pimps, drug addicts, gamblers and pickpockets. 'Quick, we must get off the roof or we'll be seen,' he says.

We descend to his flat on the 11th floor of Xinyuan No3 Building. He and his neighbour, who gives his name only as Huang, flick through legal papers: contracts, letters, photocopies of property laws and a copy of the Chinese constitution.

They claim CCTV officials are using an outdated relocation and property-reimbursement law to offer them compensation set at 2001 prices - 5,500 yuan a square metre for prime property - and force them to move to new flats 20 kilometres away in the urban hinterlands, far from their jobs, relatives and friends.

The residents say the law was changed and they should be compensated with today's prices, 50,000 to 60,000 yuan a square metre - the same amount awarded to residents across the road who were forced out by their landlord earlier this year.

Why don't they get a lawyer?

'We've never heard of a lawyer winning this kind of case. Maybe one in 100 cases favours the plaintiff. With those kind of odds, why bother? Besides, few lawyers would dare take on CCTV,' says He.

He joined his neighbours during small demonstrations outside their home and the CCTV gates last month - exercising their 'inviolable' constitutional rights to protest and to criticise.

Media coverage amounted to a small story in one of the government-run English-language newspapers.

They demanded talks with their landlord and were invited to the Beijing mayor's office on August 26.

'We were finally granted a meeting with two CCTV officials. But they walked out halfway through,' He says. Hours later, at 2am, police knocked on his door. He cowered in his bedroom. 'I was really scared but remained silent,' He recalls. At dawn, he found a summons pinned to the door demanding that he go to the local police station.

He did so and was detained - interned without trial for 10 days at a detention centre. He now has a criminal record for disturbing the peace. 'The officers told me they were making an example of me. They said they needed a ringleader, and as I had gathered the petition, I was it.'

The scare tactic worked. The other residents have resigned themselves to their fate and expect an eviction date soon after the October 1 National Day celebrations.

But Beijingers possess as much grit as Texans, and He, like Hilbert, is determined to fight on.

Such resolute amateur legal work is being carried on in living rooms across the country as property disputes continue to escalate and spill over into unrest.

The swelling contempt for landlords - the same pariah group targeted by Mao Zedong during his campaign against the 'five black categories' soon after the founding of the People's Republic 60 years ago - crystallises in He's home.

'We went through the normal channels afforded to us by the laws of the land, but they're useless,' He says angrily.

'CCTV is a behemoth. The weak, the people, can't beat the powerful. I'm not involved in politics and I'm not against the government. I've worked for the state all my life. I'm just protecting all I have worked for because the government and the laws are not protecting me.'

CCTV spokesman Zhang Hongsheng would only say: 'We are proceeding according to the law. There are no further developments. It has been taken care of.'

The government is fully aware far-reaching judicial reform is an urgent matter if it is to stop the rampant corruption and local protectionism that anger hard-working, law-abiding and patriotic citizens such as He.

Without the implementation of an independent legal system, the central government, at the top of the bureaucratic pile, will remain a target for contempt.

Hopefully for people like Hilbert and He, the next 60 years will see the promised legal reform implemented.

But on the eve of the 60th anniversary of 'new' China, one thing appears certain: Texan or Beijinger, Chinese or American, rich or poor, right or wrong, the common man at least remains equal under a biased law.