Future of Asia

The End of an American’s China Dream

Foreign residents of China should never assume their passports will exempt them from forced eviction.

Credit: ArtisticPhoto Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • Foreign residents of China should never assume their passports will exempt them from forced eviction.
  • I advise first-time China visitors to spend three days in Beijing followed by three months in Yunnan Province.
  • In 2013, officials were planning a development project that included our compound. We soon realized that we sat in the path of an irresistible force.
  • An official told us the city would consider underwriting the cost of a comparable place. When we found a place, officials turned a deaf ear.
  • A seeming endless stream of edicts from Beijing have sought to rein in local officials. Suddenly we find our voices joined in a larger struggle for law and justice.

On April 1, 1980, as the first post-1949 American exchange professor to set foot in a city that had once played host to the Flying Tigers, I arrived in Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province on China’s remote southwest frontier.

I came to collect materials on the city’s most famous institution of higher education. After the Japanese occupied north China in 1937, three preeminent universities had joined forces in Kunming to keep the lamps of learning burning through eight years of war.

Shared reverence for this unique center of liberal education created a durable bond between an American scholar and the people of a Chinese provincial hub.

In the course of four months I had fallen in love with Kunming. China’s “Spring City” boasted a balmy climate, surroundings of mountains and lakes, friendly denizens and a hot pepper cuisine.

Over the course of nearly four decades, I have become a shameless huckster for Yunnan, which lives up to its literal meaning – “South of the Clouds.” The province revels in environmental diversity, scenic wonders and a rich mélange of ethnic minority cultures. I advise first-time China visitors to spend three days in Beijing followed by three months South of the Clouds.

Putting down roots

In 2006, my wife and I purchased an apartment next to Kunming’s charming Green Lake Park, equivalent to a New York flat overlooking Central Park. There – years before President Xi Jinping coined the “China Dream” slogan – we started dreaming our own China Dream as we sank roots into the local community.

In 2012, I became a minor celebrity when a Chinese version of my book – Lianda: A Chinese University in War and Revolution – hit the best-seller charts.

On the cover page of a local weekly, Kunming’s citizens could view me splayed out on a rug, while a banner headline lauded a septuagenarian foreigner’s insights into Kunming’s transformation over the course of 32 years.

End of the dream

Our idyll was short-lived. By 2013, officials were planning a development project that included our compound. In 2013, they started to raze a series of adjacent buildings.

One day, a young man appeared at our door demanding to know whether we were owners or renters. He identified himself as an employee of the “Chaiqianban” – literally, the “Tear-It-Down-and-Move-Them-Out Office.”

We soon realized that we sat in the path of an irresistible force. As if to underscore our vulnerability, our place was burglarized the next night.

The thief had availed himself of the rubble pile from a torn-down teahouse to gain access to our second story window. Exacerbating our sense of insecurity, his haul included a Kindle pilfered, as I slept, from a night table inches from my pillow.

As the Chaiqianban bought out our neighbors and moved its operatives into vacated units, our courtyard became cluttered with trash. Locks were removed from gates and the compound’s environment deteriorated.

Only once did anyone seek us out for discussions or negotiations. Realizing that we were back in the United States, the Chaiqianban offered a one-on-one real estate swap. We replied that we were disinclined to fly back to Kunming to trade our parkside paradise for a 7-story walkup.

Returning to a nightmare

In December 2016, my wife returned to discover that the Chaiqianban occupants of the apartment above ours had dug up flooring and released a cascade of water through the ceiling and onto our bed.

When we next went back, this past April, we found water, electricity, and gas cut off and our once idyllic compound resembling a battle zone. We had no choice but to find a rental and call in the moving company.

In July, a city official summoned us to a meeting. While they could not offer us market-value compensation, the city would consider underwriting the cost of a comparable place. However, when we reported finding a neighborhood apartment of similar size and nearly equal living quality, officials turned a deaf ear.

In August, we returned to Atlanta. Recently, we were able to initiate long-range negotiations with a Mr. Luo of the State Investment Company. A few days before Christmas, he stopped replying to our emails.

Reports from Kunming painted an ever more alarming picture. Residents’ security gates had been pried off and carted away, window smashed, the entire fourth floor of our building battered down. Our contact in the Chaiqianban blamed the vandalism on unauthorized initiatives by workers of “inferior human quality.”

The charade ends

The charade ended on Christmas day, 2017, when our China dream was obliterated by a wrecking ball.

Dispossessed neighbors who attempted to document the event were detained by police and their cell phones pried from their hands. My wife and I could not help but wonder whether we would have been subjected to such rough treatment had we been on the scene.

But, then, foreign residents of China – even long-standing friends – should never assume that their passports will exempt them from the Mafia-like arrogance and violence that has characterized official implementation of eminent domain throughout the country.

Nor should they assume that they are alone in their struggle. China’s Central Television has broadcast a series of exposés of what has become a public scandal.

Indeed, a seeming endless stream of edicts from Beijing have sought to rein in local officials. Suddenly – and rather surprisingly – we find our voices joined in a larger struggle for law and justice.

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About John Israel

John Israel is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Virginia.

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