This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.
They’re colloquially referred to as a dingzihu, or “Nail House.” These are homes slated for demolition to make way for freeways, shopping malls, or some other state-sanctioned piece of private infrastructure, and the owners refuse to sell or even vacate. In this way the homes resemble protruding “nails” on the landscape that refuse to be hammered down, and demolition workers simply have to work around them. In the end, stubborn residents often find their homes surrounded by parking lots, or roads, but they continue to live there.
"These houses have captured China’s imagination because they represent a ‘David and Goliath’ struggle,” explains Steve Hess, who is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Transylvania University in Kentucky. He’s spent years studying the phenomenon, and in 2010 published a paper titled Nail-Houses, Land Rights, and Frames of Injustice on China's Protest Landscape.
“They first emerged as a phenomenon in the mid-1990s," he explains via email. “This is when a reform in 1994 shifted many tax revenue sources from local government to the national government.”
What this achieved, Steve explained, was the diversion of money to the central government, leaving local authorities strapped for cash. One solution was for regional officials to start selling land to developers, over which they had jurisdiction. And as they wasn’t obliged to pay market rates to displaced residents, they began making a lot of profit as they resold the properties. Over time this loophole became something of an official scam, which is something residents are today only too aware of.
Today, anyone who refuses to go quickly becomes an enemy of the state. But they’re also increasingly perceived as local heroes.
“Nail house protests really resonate with the Chinese public because of the wide perception that local officials are corrupt and collude with developers,” explains Steve. “The movement has come to symbolise the growing ‘rights consciousness’ within China, as citizens stand up against local officials who are misusing their offices.”
Of course, standing up to Chinese state officials is incredibly dangerous, and many people who refuse to go have been thrown in jail. For this reason, protesters often turn to foreign news organisations and social media to use publicity as a kind of protection, according to Steve. This is a rather new technique though, and for most of the 90s and early 2000s protesters adorned their homes with signs and banners, and even chained themselves to properties to stop demolition crews.
“In some extreme cases, citizens have attacked or lobbed Molotov cocktails at construction workers,” says Steve, citing a 2008 case in which a woman from Minhang district of Shanghai hurled explosives made from wine bottles and petrol at demolition workers. In this case the woman was ungracefully arrested—but online she became something of a local hero.
So why is it that people are willing to take such incredible risks, only to be rewarded by retaining a home that ultimately becomes a traffic island? The answers are fiscal as well as emotional. Firstly, as mentioned, movement officials usually pay inadequate compensation to buy similar-sized homes in the same area. More importantly, though, people are increasingly aware that protesting can lead to increased compensation.
Steve is quick to clarify that this doesn’t mean nail house protests constitute a movement, but rather that individual Chinese citizens are increasingly aware of other successful protests thanks to Weibo and WeChat. Additionally, another federal law passed in 2007 strengthened rights of citizens to their land, motivating many to engage in “rightful resistance.” Thanks to these factors, nail houses are becoming more and more common.
“This phenomenon is still very relevant today,” he says. “Housing costs have gone up, particularly in job-rich urban centres where citizens are very cynical towards local officials—especially amidst Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign.”
It’s in these places, he says, that more and more people are refusing to roll their homes over for developers.
Follow Talia on Instagram