BEIJING – Wanted: One live-in protester, $146 a month, no days off.
When the managers of a Beijing restaurant marked for demolition were too busy to fight it, they posted an Internet ad and hired a stranger to stay there around the clock. The job seems to be a first for China, where frenzied urban construction has led to violent evictions, protests and even suicide.
Huddled on a makeshift bed in the trash-strewn, freezing restaurant, Lu Daren said he once worked for a demolition crew and understands their tactics.
"I'm tired," the 46-year-old said Thursday, after a long night of fending off the latest visit from what he suspects were hired thugs by the landlord. "Tired, tired, tired." He stays — wrapped in blankets, reading the newspaper or writing idle poetry, occasionally taking short walks_ because he thinks the restaurateurs have been treated unfairly.
China has struggled for years with the issue of forced evictions. But some say the violent protests against forced evictions have increased this year, as a massive government stimulus plan has made loans for construction easier. Under law, land seizures are meant to be for public interest projects, but angry citizens have protested evictions meant to make way for shopping malls and luxury apartments.
It's not clear how many Chinese have been affected by forced evictions. But the Beijing restaurant is not far from the area where rights groups say perhaps 1 million people were kicked out of properties to make way for last year's Olympic venues. Next door, a separate demolition project has left a patch of rubble the size of a football field.
The landlord turned off the water and power at Fish Castle Restaurant Bar nearly a month ago. For the past two days, dozens of men the restaurateurs suspect were sent by the landlord have tried to pull Lu out of the building, along with people squatting in two neighboring restaurants. A shopping center with apartments is planned in their place.
The landlord, Zhou Jianguo, denied sending the men and said he has sued the restaurants because they stopped paying rent. A court began hearing the suit Tuesday.
"I'm staying until we get paid," said Qin Rong, who said she invested 500,000 yuan ($73,000) in Fish Castleafter signing a three-year contract last year and wants that money back. She said the couple has been given only 35,000 yuan in compensation so far.
But the 28-year-old also has an office job and is too busy to stay at the site. So she decided to pay someone to do it.
"This is a real ad," her online post began. It asked for people who could "eat bitterness" by living in the restaurant, resisting eviction efforts and calling police if things got out of hand.
Experience in demolition was a plus, the ad said.
Lu says he worked for a demolition company for years in northern Shanxi province and saw abuses on both sides. Some residents would use the evictions as an opportunity to extract high compensation, he said. On the other hand, companies like his sometimes used violence to force people off the land.
He said he remembers watching a woman in neighboring Hebei province get crushed by a wrecking machine several years ago as she tried to defend her home. "There was no time to stop, it was too sudden," Lu said. She later died at a hospital.
In another extreme case, a woman protested the demolition of her ex-husband's factory in the southern city of Chengdu in mid-November by dousing herself with gasoline and setting herself on fire. Photos and video of her death dominated national media. The case and other deaths prompted five law professors from the nation's top university to take a rare public stand, calling for changes to a regulation they say encourages abusive tactics by developers and wrongful collaboration with officials for profit.
In response, the State Council, China's Cabinet, said it would look into the issue.
In a sign that the government may really be ready to pursue reform, mainland media have been allowed to write about Lu and his unusual new job. Lu has pasted newspaper reports to the windows, next to a small protest banner with a poem that ends, "the landlord has no shame."
At another of the threatened restaurants down the street, Zhang Weimi wonders about Lu — and his past experience on the other side of the wrecking ball — but admires his dedication. When Zhang, who is trying to save his own restaurant, wakes up in the middle of the night, he sometimes sees Lu in his overcoat, pacing on the sidewalk.
"Maybe it's his conscience," the 30-year-old Zhang said. "Maybe now he felt he had to do something."
Inside the Fish Castle restaurant, half-burned candles cover tabletops and a flat-screen television sits dead on one of the walls. Chopstick wrappers and cigarette butts are scattered on the floor.
Someone brings in an armful of dishes for a hot lunch, and the squatters from the three restaurants gather for a meal.
In a corner is a chalkboard, carefully lettered with past optimism: "We're open today."