Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Mag Train, or Mega Pain?

While most of China is paralyzed by one of the coldest winters of nearly half a century, including the South, and Southwest, the citizens of one district in Shanghai is engaged in a potentially flammable protest against the Shanghai government. As reported by western media (NYTimes, and Washington Post) and in China (Chinese only), some citizens are waging their "battle" against the city government, which has proposed an extended stretch of the Shanghai mag-lev train. Under the proposed plan, the train line, connecting the Pudong Int'l Airport with the Hongqiao Airport, will cut across a densely populated residential area, potentially wrecking the peaceful life of thousands of residents (the number could be over one million based on one undisclosed source). As soon as those residents caught wind of the plan, they began vehemently opposing it, but in peace and through various forms of pleas and petitions. Their efforts so far culminated in a public hearing held on January 19, 2008; this event was attended on the one hand by officials from the city bureau of environment protection, bureau of city planning, the Mag-lev Project management team, and various district officials, and on the other hand by affected citizens of the proposed project.

One of the citizens' key concerns is just compensation for the loss to their property due to the project. Reportedly, the plan proposes to "condemn" property within 22.5 meters of the train line on both sides. In other words, the government will appropriate private property by way of eminent domain; however, it will only do so to property that it deems necessary for the consummation of the project—those apartments located on the plots of land lying within 22.5 meters of both sides of the train line. And the government will compensate the owners of property that it deems "affected" by the project, whereas those owners with property beyond the 22.5 meter boundary take nothing.

Many homeowners cannot stomach this Mag-lev project and the compensation methodology to be employed by the government. First, they disagree with the 22.5 meter rule as proposed, citing that it is arbitrarily set without adequate scientific evidence that the property beyond the boundary will be unaffected by the train. Of course, two sub-issues are embedded in this concern. 1). whether the government needs to "condemn" more land beyond the 22.5 meter line for safety concerns; and 2). whether the entire project will affect the health, safety, home value, and qualify of life of those residents alone the train line, irrespective of the 22.5-meter eminent domain proposal. Second, they disagree that this project is for public good. Public good is the prerequisite to eminent domain proceedings initiated by government entities (more on this later), but the construction project, linking two airports, does not either directly or indirectly benefit the people concerned. Rather, the benefit and convenience go to transit travelers. Third, they oppose the proposed plan all together because they believe that this project is a direct consequence of poor city planning, and that they should not bear the burden and consequence of substandard governance.

So far, the city government appears to be just listening. Officials have appeared at the public hearing, received complaints, and have "softly" pressured vocal dissenters. But, the severity of the issue, with homes and lives of thousands of residents on the line (pardon the pun), begs the question of "what next?" if the government turns a deaf ear. What other recourse do the citizens have? What are their rights under the Chinese legal system? How can they protect their rights in a country where the central government has been "pursuing" the Rule of Law? How should they navigate the complex and at times unfriendly legal system to enforce their rights?

To be Continued...