The artist owners of 164 unique villas at an idyllic colony in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong are facing down local government plans to demolish their homes and evict them to make way for roads feeding a huge residential complex, RFA�s Mandarin and Cantonese services reports.
The artists, who hold legal leases for their property on the peaceful island of Xiaoguwei in the Pearl River, have until the end of April to move out before the developer�s bulldozers move in to make way for a U.S.$1.4 billion Guangzhou University City residential project.
"The houses have been built one by one since 1994," a resident surnamed Qiu said in an interview. "It took us a number of years to have them completed as we did not have a lot of money to hand."
"The majority of us are unwilling to move, and we haven�t signed any agreements with them. This is a community where artists live and work, and it is protected by law. As we are unwilling to move, we have never discussed the issue of compensation with them." she said.
Residents told RFA's Cantonese service that bulldozers had already moved onto the peaceful island, demolishing some villas belonging to people who had given up the fight. "We will not give up our property. The constitution has just added rules to protect our personal property rights. We know where our rights stand," said one resident, who asked not to be named.
"Some people can't resist the pressure from local government. They have already given up. The local news media aren't reporting this," another said.
Others described the unique cultural qualities of the artists� colony.
"Over the years, a total of 165 villas of distinct styles have been built," Beijing-based civil rights activist Hou Wenzhuo said. "Sculptors have placed sculptures around their houses, while artists of traditional Chinese painting and artists of oil painting have had their houses built according to the different styles of their schools of painting. One can say each house is an exquisite work of art and architecture."
Since the artists' village began in 1994, three art festivals have been held there, adding cultural flavor to what is still a very traditional island. Many well-known Guangzhou artists and professors have their studios in the art village, and it has become the home base of the Lingnan school of painting.
Gao Zhisheng, a lawyer representing the owners' interests in the battle against the Guangzhou municipal government, said the entire University City concept was simply a way of earning money for the local authorities, now that Beijing had cracked down on the recent craze in 'development zones.'
"People became so obsessed with development zone projects that things were getting out of control," Gao said. "As a result, the central government had to apply the emergency brake. But within the next six months there emerged more than 50 University City projects across the nation."
Gao said the University City craze was simply the old development zone craze by a new name. "As the regional officials enjoy unlimited power and are not subject to supervision, they can get around laws and policies by simply changing the name of a project. This is the truth about the Guangzhou University City," he said.
Beijing cracked down on the proliferation of 'development zones' in recent years after many local governments used them as a quick and secure way of requisitioning land and selling it to commercial developers.
Hou said all the Xiaoguwei artists received property and land deeds in 2002, which should entitle them to the land for 70 years."The deeds are legal documents and should be taken as commitments made by the state," she said. "But the municipal government of Guangzhou has unilaterally invalidated the legal documents and announced that it will retrieve the land owned by the state to develop a University City."
Projects of this size are usually approved only by China�s cabinet, the State Council. But journalists covering the development said the Guangzhou authorities had simply parceled the land up into several smaller "projects" to get around this restriction.
An official at the University City development office didn't deny the claim. "It has been reported in the newspapers," said the official, surnamed Zhou. "I don�t know how the land will be used... We would not have asked them to move for the sake of commercial development."
Gao said the officials' motivation was purely "to pursue illegitimate personal gain."
"Those officials would risk being hanged if they see the chance of getting a 300 percent return. That's their mind-set," he said.
Hou said the Guangzhou University City and art village could in fact co-exist, but as the location of the art village had potential commercial value, the University City construction office was bent on demolishing it.
"The construction office said that it would build highways and green belts, but we�ve got reliable information that at least three lots have been auctioned for commercial use. And this happened even before construction of the University City had started," Hou told RFA.
"Their excuse for demolishing the beautiful art village is to make way for green belts and highways, but in fact they have sold the land for building luxury hotels or other commercial facilities. It is obvious that the deals were done in the dark, and that they were not in the public interest."