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Resolving disputes in a rapidly transforming society

Graffiti across the front of Beijing building
"Openness, fairness, equality." "Pledge our lives to protect our homes...protect the Constitution." Residential outcries such as these fill those Beijing neighborhoods that have been targeted by property developers. (Connie Wu photos)
Final dispatch: As disputes grow more complex, so does dispute resolution

When I first arrived in Beijing, I was looking only at small disputes within the neighborhoods and how residents dealt with them. These disputes usually consisted of arguments among neighbors or within the family. In the older neighborhoods, disputes over public space and facilities, noise, loitering pets and leaking pipes are common. Residents in these communities tend to resolve them through local mediations simply because these are small matters with no need to involve formal institutions. More importantly, local mediation committees are a part of the Residents Committees (RC), the grassroots organizations set up in individual neighborhoods specifically to deal with residents’ needs.

In newer neighborhoods, such grassroots organizations may not even exist. Instead of the RC as the primary caretaker, new neighborhoods of commodity housing have property managers to look after the neighborhood. While the RC is much more government-oriented, property management is more of a business, set up by private companies to ensure proper care of the property and quality of life for China’s growing middle and upper class. In these new neighborhoods, there is a strong sense of privacy and individualism. Individual families hold a very strong sense of ownership over their property. Therefore, when disputes arise over noise and public areas such as parking spaces, residents prefer to take their disputes to the property management for resolution because they feel that their rights and property have been violated. The property manager thus takes on the role of mediator to resolve disputes. In such communities, people have little interaction with the RC, let alone its mediation committee. Most people I interviewed in these residential areas hardly knew what the RCs do or who their members are. In these modern communities, the RC and its many functions – including mediation work – seem outdated and unfit to handle issues in neighborhoods that offer a new way of life and the concept of ownership of property.

In the neighborhoods I studied, I saw that the urban Chinese in Beijing used similar routes to resolve small disputes, usually through informal (out-of-court) mediations offered by their local institutions, the RC or the property management. However, during my last few weeks in Beijing, I became involved in studying larger and very complex disputes involving property developers, which took me out of the realm of mediations and into the arena of legal battles and negotiations with the local government over people’s livelihood.

Slogans and officia decrees compete on building fronts
While words such as "chai" in red ink mark this residential complex for destruction, members of the community voice their outrage with powerful slogans such as "Protect human rights," and "[We] pledge our lives to protect our homes."

As the 2008 Olympics approach, Beijing is on a tight schedule to demolish old neighborhoods and construct new ones for the modern metropolis that will host the games. State policy has set a 2006 deadline for this mass construction. As a result, property development has become a contentious business that has caused various disputes throughout the capital, in both old and new neighborhoods.

In older neighborhoods such as the one shown in the photos, residents are fighting for their livelihood as their homes are targeted for destruction. One of primary arguments involves compensation that property developers must pay to residents who are displaced. Negotiations over the proper level of compensation take a long time, and residents are often at a disadvantage. In one neighborhood I visited, for example, the amount of money the property developers were willing to give as compensation was much lower than what residents would need to move out and purchase new homes in the city.

In the new neighborhoods, home purchasers are having problems with the property developers over the quality of construction and over the property management companies, many of which have close ties to the property developers.

People’s approach to resolving these problems with property development can be very different in the different communities. In the older neighborhoods, residents tend to direct their energy toward the local government, protesting and writing letters to government agencies for help. Such an approach conforms to the traditional way of appealing to the bureaucracy rather than the courts for assistance when people’s rights have been infringed upon. In the newer neighborhoods, however, there is much stronger sense of the law, and a knowledge of how to use it to protect residents’ interests. For example, in some of the new neighborhoods I visited, residents organized themselves and hired a lawyer to defend their rights, rather than appealing to administrative officials. Modern technology such as the Internet has played an important role for these residents in organizing, planning strategically, and sharing information regarding rules and regulations that protect their interests.

This comfort in using the law is somewhat weaker in older neighborhoods, where most residents are older and continue to see the government as the primary decision-maker. Going through the court system, to these residents, is a rather distant and unfamiliar way to handle conflicts. This is not to say that these residents do not know that laws exist that could help them. But they are not always sure how to use the law, or where to find appropriate laws to protect their rights. This unfamiliarity becomes a barrier when it comes to dispute resolution. Going through the local administrative bureaucracy has historically been the primary route that ordinary Chinese citizens took to resolve disputes, and it remains the more common choice for the older generation.

While my project started off looking at local mediations, my fieldwork has taken me in various directions, including examining the social structures in various types of neighborhoods as well as the growing complexity of disputes and dispute resolution. My academic research also has enabled me to make a much more personal connection with China. Being able to communicate and interact with people in Beijing to get a glimpse of their life has been extremely rewarding.

As I wrote in my last article, being a Chinese American in China is hard because carrying both identities around constantly makes me wonder who I am and where I belong. I have many mixed feelings when I am in China. When I see the racism and the discrimination, particularly when the locals discriminate against their own people, I am angry because it hurts China and the Chinese people. But at the same time, being with locals also made me feel proud because this nation has endured so much in its long history and has always been able to rebuild itself. Today, despite the many problems about China that we hear about in the news or encounter personally, China is becoming a modern nation and its accomplishments are astounding.

On a more personal level, being in China constantly reminds that I belong to the people and the culture. I feel so accepted there. It is this deep connection that makes going to China kind of like going home. It is a very complex feeling that I have yet to find the right words to describe. My Chinese identity has enabled the locals to treat me as a zijiren, or one of their own. I was often surprised by how easily the locals opened themselves up to me, how they trusted me and welcomed me into their personal circles. While I interviewed them about their lives, they often questioned me about my life as if I was a long-lost relative, one who had gone to live abroad for the past fifteen years, and they wanted to know what I had been up to during my long absence.

It has been a wonderful summer and I have gained much from the various readers who have responded. Thanks everyone!