A bitter taste at Olive Garden

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 January, 2010, 12:00am

You are spoilt for breathtaking views as soon as you enter Angela Chui's penthouse at Shimao Olive Garden in Beijing, the luxury housing complex built by Hong Kong developer Hui Wing-mau. To the south is the Olympic National Forest Park, an 8.7 million square metre panorama of trees and grass and a prized oasis of open green in this claustrophobic capital of cement, tarmac and regular smog.

As you look out in awe from the floor-to-ceiling picture windows on this preciously clear winter's day, the forest gives way to modernity 1.5 miles away.

The iconic Olympic stadiums, the Bird's Nest and Water Cube, which are illuminated in their signature red and blue colours at dusk, stand proudly in the middle distance.

To the southwest, Beijing's central business district looms.

The jumbled regiment of 21st century skyscrapers - which popped up on the horizon in just a few years like a novelty children's book - offers a figurative shock and surprise announcement of Beijing and China's rapid rise.

The prospect from Chui's kitchen is equally inspiring. To the east are the historical Fragrant Hills and to the north, the protective Taihang and Yanshan mountain ranges.

Beijing stands before you, looking impossibly tranquil from this multimillion-yuan room with a view.

It is of little wonder Hui made his billions with a canny eye for spotting prime real estate sites.

Thanks to its Olympic location and spectacular views, Olive Garden is one of the top five desirable places to live in Beijing, and one of the most expensive.

The units were snapped up as soon as they came on the market for between 15,000 yuan (HK$17,000) and 20,000 yuan per square metre five years ago. They have since more than doubled in value.

It is also of little wonder the Chuis and their well-off neighbours are now fighting tooth and nail to keep their luxury homes just as they are.

The upmarket complex has become the latest salient in the ubiquitous land and property war between citizens and unscrupulous government officials and developers.

Overnight, the Olive Garden residents - who are lawyers, factory owners, bankers and financial investors - have become brazen property rights activists.

As well as seeking to protect their properties, they are also challenging what they allege is the questionable relationship between a perfidious developer and equally shady government officials.

Chui jabs a pointing finger earthwards to the Qing River that flows 100 metres from the Olive Garden perimeter wall.

With a look of dismay, she points out the blight that is turning their once idyllic, enviable lives into misery and anger.

A deep scar has been cut into the green landscape and a road bridge is being built over the water, part of a four-lane highway. If completed, the highway will link a new, mass housing project for 100,000 residents 2.5 kilometres away, to the Olympic Park.

And to the residents' horror, it will run within 10 metres of their homes, shattering their peace with a mix of roaring traffic and honking, emission-spewing, rush-hour gridlocks.

Like all construction projects, the building site is an ugly, chaotic mix of hyperactivity. Even from the 33rd floor, you can hear the clanging of construction.

'Work goes on 24 hours a day,' snarls Angela, looking down at the labourers with her arms folded in defiance.

Of course, this being the mainland, there was no prior warning of the diggers and workers moving in just over two months ago. Nor was there any information made public about the planned highway.

This is despite the implementation of the National Planning Environment Evaluation Regulation signed off by Premier Wen Jiabao on October 1 last year. It requires all building projects to go through public consultation before work begins.

However, the first time the Olive Garden residents became aware of the project was the unsightly blue metal hoardings around the construction site at the end of November.

'My husband and I saw the work begin as we were having breakfast. We thought they were building a new footbridge so people can access the Olympic Forest Park,' explains Angela.

Days later, there was a rap on the door by an agitated neighbour, Ruben Liu. He told them a major road was being built on their doorstep and would, on completion, surround their 100,000 sq metre complex.

Liu said a protest committee had been formed and the residents were going to fight to save their homes.

Are you with us, he asked the Chuis, pen poised to tick their names on his list of potential petitioners. They did not hesitate to sign up and they later joined 100 of their neighbours on a demonstration.

The residents drove a 40-strong fleet of cars decked out in protest stickers to the construction site and halted work for several hours. They unfurled a large red banner calling for work to stop and for justice.

In their next protest, they boarded three coaches and headed to the Beijing Government Office, but police put up a roadblock and forced the residents off the buses and home.

Their out-of-character militancy is part of their growing impatience with the Shimao Group and the local governments involved.

'We have been lobbying the developer and the government to hear out our complaint and do something about this road. But we have been ignored,' Liu says.

As reported in last week's Sunday Morning Post, 300 residents are now threatening to sue Shimao if it fails to step in and help stop the construction.

They are accusing his company of a cover-up, saying it knew the land outside the complex was earmarked for future development as early as 2003, but it failed to disclose the plans in its sales brochures.

Official papers obtained from the Beijing municipal government urban planning department - and seen by the Post - clearly state Shimao was told that a highway would be built at some stage.

The infrastructure project straddles Chaoyang and Changping districts, and both local governments have declared the road is legal.

Angered at being duped, the Olive Garden residents have begun pooling money for a legal fund to bring Shimao to account. 'If the project goes ahead, we will sue Shimao,' said resident and lawyer, Kevin Hu, one of the key members of the protest group.

'The developer did not give us any information about the planned road during the sales period. Yet it is now clear it knew all along it was to be built.'

'We have been clearly cheated by Shimao and then ignored by the local government officials over the planning procedure for the road,' Hu said.

'We are victims of deceit and will, as a final solution, seek redress through the courts and compensation for our loss.'

However, Hu said the priority is to get the road re-routed.

'We want the Shimao owner to become involved with the other parties to solve this problem peacefully.'

Clutching a folder filled with legal papers and maps with the contentious route of the highway highlighted in red, Liu personifies China's growing number of - often reluctant - middle-class agitators who are rattling the government.

Like many of his generation, Liu has spent several years overseas, studying and working and 'experiencing societies governed by the rule of law'.

'What the Shimao Group and the government have to understand is that we cannot be ignored like less well-off people,' the financial investor says.

'We will fight for our rights and for the rule of law.'

'We understand the government needs to complete infrastructure projects quickly to continue the country's development. But it must realise it cannot brush people like us to one side,' Liu, who has spent many years in the United States, says.

'We know planning consent exists in other countries and how a civil, modern society uses due process to find solutions to disputes. We will not tolerate the laws of China being ignored by government officials or developers. We are not just homeowners. We are citizens and we will fight for justice,' he says.

Such high-profile disputes are challenging the traditional order of the mainland's booming property industry, which is widely recognised as being riddled with corruption, says Xu Zhiyong, a law professor from Beijing University of Post and Communications.

'The Olive Garden situation proves injustice affects all classes in China, rich and poor. But the government is more worried about such informed and affluent citizens taking on the corrupt power relationships that rule over such an unfair society,' he says.

'China is a country based on guanxi, not a legal system,' claims Xu, who was part of the legal team that provided legal aid to victims of the Sanlu milk powder scandal.

'The corruption such relationships foster causes injustices. Until there is an independent legal system, abuses will continue and the threat to social stability will remain.'

The Beijing municipal government has appealed to the residents for calm, saying 'social stability is paramount'.

Requests for interviews with government officials were denied.

Officials posted notices around Olive Garden on January 22 saying the residents' objections 'are been taken into account' and re-routing of the expressway is being considered.

This week, fear crept into the complex. All the residents involved in the protest refused to be photographed 'in case of reprisals'.

But they remain defiant and ready to take on some of the most powerful forces in the mainland's property development sector and one of the richest men in the country.

'We shall carry on protesting. We have to stop the highway and save our homes,' Angela Chui says, shaking her head once more at her blighted views.