- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 23, 2005

BEIJING - When Beijing homeowners learned that the city planned to move its main infectious disease hospital into their suburb, they did what ordinary Chinese increasingly do: They held meetings, organized a signature campaign and took their grievance to the government.

Yet these aren’t ordinary Chinese. They are lawyers, financiers, entrepreneurs — a class of newly rich in a system that once thought itself to be classless.

Their protest is another measure of how much China is changing. Besides their concerns about public health, they also are worried about property values — a turnabout for a society raised on the communist belief that private property is evil.

Twice in the past three months, when they traipsed to the city government’s complaints office, the dozen or so suburbanites stood out from the largely working-class Chinese also there to press grievances. “We were dressed very businesslike, so we were very obvious,” Margaret Zheng said of their first visit in late June.

The others waiting inside the reception area lined with plastic orange seats, she said, “were common Beijing people.”

The not-in-my-backyard struggle is turning the usual order of social conflict on its head and exposing some shifting political realities about China. The rural and urban poor, who have struggled under market reforms, often get shortchanged by real estate development as their neighborhoods are razed to accommodate rapidly expanding cities and towns, legal analysts and sociologists say. Meanwhile, the educated and the entrepreneurial have prospered in the booming economy.

But in the suburban area called Beigao, it’s the turn of the prosperous to fret. New houses in their gated, trimly landscaped communities fetch $400,000 and upward, in a city where income averages about $3,500 a year. The area is home to executives for multinationals such as Microsoft Corp.

Also, Ditan Hospital is where many patients were treated in the 2003 outbreak of the deadly disease called SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome.

“This will affect our physical health and our financial health,” said Andy See, a China-born, Hong Kong-raised attorney for telecommunications gear-maker Nortel Networks Ltd. in Beijing and a leading organizer of the opposition.

It is not clear whether Ditan’s move from its crowded city neighborhood to Beigao can be stopped. The Beijing Health Bureau says it has full approval for the 600-bed, $55 million facility after carefully weighing the public safety issues.

It says construction must begin within months if Ditan is to be up and running by the 2008 Olympic Games.

The hospital’s well-to-do opponents have pursued channels unavailable to many Chinese: hiring an attorney and using family friends and business contacts to deliver letters to Beijing Mayor Wang Qishan and to a vice prime minister with the health portfolio.

But they appear to be at a disadvantage against the larger backdrop of swelling unrest and sharpening class lines in a once egalitarian society.

The nation’s police chief said large protests last year numbered 74,000. Some have turned violent, with protesters venting their anger against government offices and, on at least three occasions in the past two years, against wealthier Chinese.

Sensitive to these trends, the communist government led by President Hu Jintao has tried to position itself as a champion of the underdog. It has clamped down on local governments transferring land for development and called for the displaced to be justly compensated for the sake of “a harmonious society.”

In such a political and social climate, Beigao homeowners worry that the government is not duly considering their interests.

“Poor people resort to violent means, protests, demonstrations,” said Mr. See. “For rich people, we dare not do it.”

Like other residents, he knew nothing of the relocation until the head of a film distribution company living in a nearby compound read a small item in a local newspaper in June and posted a leaflet at a neighborhood convenience store.

Soon, a group of about 20 held a meeting, organized the first of their two visits to the complaints office and began collecting signatures — about 1,200 to date. Their attorney drafted a petition asking for a review on the grounds that the neighbors weren’t consulted as regulations require.

Last month, the government accepted the petition without comment after rebuffing it on bureaucratic grounds.

Some sought out well-connected neighbors and friends. In response to one letter, the mayor toured the neighborhood in a 20-car convoy in early September, a witness said.

That letter, and another to Vice Prime Minister Wu Yi, pointed out that the proposed site is too close to schools and the airport expressway, people familiar with the letters said. Among the scenarios residents have sketched out are leaks of airborne diseases, contagious patients riding public transport and contaminated waste seeping into the groundwater or infecting mosquitoes that could pass on the infections to humans.

“If you build a hospital properly, if you run a hospital properly, then people should be happy to have a hospital in the area,” said Henk Bekedam, head of the World Health Organization office in Beijing. His two daughters attend school near the proposed site, and he said he is not planning on moving them.

Still, Mr. See and others can’t help feeling they are being treated highhandedly because they are rich.

“We’re not asking them to give up the hospital,” said Mr. See. “There’s a need for it. Just not here. Not in my back yard.”

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