Property owners plant seeds of democracy
Residents powerless in rows with developers have been organising representative bodies
For nearly a year, residents of Xinghe Garden in Tianjin's Hedong district have been locked in a battle with the estate's developer over facilities that were supposed to be installed three years ago.
Led by the community homeowners' committee, the residents first petitioned local governments to intervene and then filed a lawsuit seeking to force the developer, DW Property Purchasing, to meet its obligations to build the facilities, including a playground, landscaped gardens and an automated security door system.
Tussles between homeowners and developers occur on an almost daily basis on the mainland and underscore a heightened sense of private property ownership, particularly since the passage of the property rights law earlier this year.
The disputes also point to an emerging social group of property owners who are reshaping the landscape of grass-roots democracy.
To ratchet up pressure on the developer, the committee - representing more than 2,500 homeowners - put forward a motion to the district people's congress to recall Ding Bing , a delegate and chairman of the developer.
Committee head Qu Cunxi said Mr Ding could not legitimately represent his constituency because he disregarded the interests of the public and the country's law and order.
Mr Qu said the developer had snubbed the homeowners' requests for talks, and the committee feared its petitions to local government agencies and the pending lawsuit might not yield results. 'We are basically left with no other option but the democratic procedure [to recall Mr Ding],' he said.
Distraught homeowners in other parts of the country have also tried to reach out to local people's congresses.
Lei Tao , an associate research fellow at the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences, said homeowners in general were powerless because local governments and law enforcement agencies often sided with developers. Also 'they are still poorly represented in the political establishment such as in people's congresses'.
'But it just comes naturally for homeowners to demand a political say out of concern for their economic well-being,' he said.
Mr Lei, who has been researching urban grass-roots elections since 1993, said he had seen rising interest among urban property owners in low-level democracy.
And voters' enthusiasm for local elections had been rising in proportion with income, suggesting property owners were getting more involved in grass-roots politics, he said.
'Their motive is so upfront - they simply want to elect someone who can speak on their behalf,' Mr Lei said.
In 2003, dozens of independent candidates, including several campaigning on behalf of homeowners, entered local elections across the country, offering the public a rare taste of genuine democracy.
Nie Hailiang , who spearheaded a highly publicised campaign at Beijing's working-class Huilongguan Residence after the developers unilaterally altered the project's plan, was elected to a district people's congress in 2003 thanks to neighbourhood support.
The emerging homeowners' assemblies and homeowner-elected committees at many new urban residential blocks are pulling urbanites further away from the orbit of traditional government agencies such as grass-roots neighbourhood affairs offices and residential committees in charge of local elections.
While remaining sceptical about what it has labelled western democracy, the Communist Party has been pushing for so-called 'Chinese democracy' at grass-roots levels since the early 1980s.
But elections for local people's congresses and community officials have never been as popular with urbanites as official ballots suggest because voters basically have no say about who can stand and most electors know little about the candidates.
To many, voting in local elections is nothing but a formality they have to go through every five years or something they would ignore if they could.
Mr Lei said voter apathy about grass-roots elections was getting worse and his research indicated that turnout rates for the past four elections since 1993 were on the decline.
But the new sense of community among the urban middle class has given central authorities a new window of opportunity to nurture real democracy at the local level.
Citing a Communist Party Politburo study session on grass-roots democracy in November, Mr Lei said central authorities were sincere in their push for giving people a greater say. He said there was also a political awakening among urban homeowners. 'The challenge is whether authorities are willing to work out a mechanism in between to bring the two forces together,' he said.
Mr Lei said urban homeowners were part of the emerging middle class and 'working with them would be conducive to the social stability [the government hopes for]'.
'From an international perspective, these people tend to be social stabilisers because they are not trying to grab something from somebody else, but seeking a mechanism to protect what they have,' he said.
Many new residential blocks, particularly in southern cities such as Guangzhou and Shenzhen, have developed a sophisticated self-rule mechanism modelled on the western-style tripartite system of assembly, executive and arbitration arms.
However, only about 10 per cent of the 4,000 new residential blocks in Beijing have been able to form assemblies and elect self-ruled committees, largely due to a lack of support from wary local governments.
Mr Qu from Xinghe Garden said it was difficult to get the job done on behalf of homeowners because no authorities took him seriously.
Mr Lei said such emerging communities, centred around new residential blocks on the mainland, would continue to experience an identity crisis along with internal and external struggles.
But 'if half of the blocks can have a homeowners' assembly and their own committee in place', they hold the promise of genuine grass-roots democracy.