The "nail house" in Southwest China's Chongqing Municipality was finally torn down in early April, marking the end of a three-year David-and-Goliath struggle between home owners and developers.
In the end, the owners of the house that earned its name because it stood out like a nail in the stalled development reportedly got a much larger settlement than their neighbors. And they got it by refusing to give up. Much of the extensive press coverage focused on their valiant struggle but very little noted the fact that the developers stood on solid legal ground – regardless of right or wrong.
Developers have traditionally had the backing of governments hungry for tax revenues and growth. Although private property legislation is developing, it is still early days. Private property may be a right in the West but, constitutional change notwithstanding, it is not in China. Not really. Not yet.
But that is not stopping Chinese citizens from grabbing on to whatever rights they can – sometimes to rights that are not legally there yet. Their increased awareness is based as much on their desire for more rights than on any they actually have. Quite simply, people are not willing to be pushed around.
This attitude is partly fed by a backlash against the 130,000 illegal land seizures last year, 17.3% more than in 2005. Much of this land was taken from poor urban and rural residents and handed over to factory owners, developers and captains of industry.
The government is ostensibly taking action. Last year, some 3,593 people, including two provincial government officials, were punished in connection to real estate violations. In April, eight government agencies began a year-long campaign to wipe out price manipulation, swindling, tax evasion and irregularities in the market. This is expected to result in local authorities introducing better-regulated project approval processes.
This will not retroactively redress any wrongs or wipe out the bitterness among the millions that saw their homes razed. And it may be some time still before the government truly protects the property rights of the citizens.
But the "nail house" fight in Chongqing and others like it across the country cannot be ignored. They are the top layer of an irrepressible undertow of awareness that will inevitably make its way deeper into the countryside. Last year alone, there were some 26,000 protests, many of them linked to illegal land seizures. This is a level of instability that the government simply cannot abide.
The tricky part for China will be balancing local desires for economic growth with the central government need to keep social instability to a minimum.