The people who would destroy the village came in the middle of the night last week. Hundreds of guards breached the wall surrounding the village and began banging on the doors of the 140 courtyard homes there, waking residents and handing them notices to get out.
Many tried to protest but were subdued by the guards, and by this week, the demolition was already in full swing. Backhoes moved house by house, laying waste to a community called Xitai that was built in a plush green valley on the northern edge of Beijing, only a short walk from the Great Wall of China.
“This was a sneak attack to move when we were unprepared,” said Sheng Hong, one of the residents.
The destruction of the village, one of several unfolding on the suburban edges of Beijing this summer, reflects the corruption at the murky intersection of politics and the economy in China. What is perfectly acceptable one year can suddenly be deemed illegal the next, leaving communities and families vulnerable to the vagaries of policy under the country’s leader, Xi Jinping.
Back when these developments were built, turbocharging China’s economy was priority No. 1 and many were blessed by local governments. Now, led by Beijing’s paramount leader, Cai Qi, the local authorities have declared that the projects in fact violated laws intended to protect the environment and agricultural land.
Those projects largely targeted poorer residents, with a thinly veiled goal of capping the city’s population at 22 million people. The latest campaign has landed on the comparatively well-to-do, people able to afford single-family homes — in some cases second homes — in the still-largely bucolic countryside outside Beijing’s congested urban core.
A common denominator of all these campaigns is that the people most affected have virtually no recourse once the government determines a policy, typically with no public deliberation or even much explanation.
“There is no hope under this system,” said Paul Wu, who leased a home in Wayaocun, another village about 30 miles west of Xitai. Demolitions began there in late June, targeting six different developments now declared a blight on the countryside.
The risk of such blunt government actions lies in sowing resentment and distrust of the Communist Party state, even among those in a rising middle class who have benefited most from the country’s economic transformation. The demolitions have already set off at least three clashes between protesters and police officers in riot gear wielding tear gas and pepper spray.
The impetus for the latest campaign, which began just as the country was emerging from the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, remains unclear. Mr. Sheng, the Xitai resident who is also a prominent economist, said the campaigns were driven by political — not economic or environmental — motives.
He cited Mr. Xi’s well-publicized anger in 2018 over the construction of illegal villas in the Qinling Mountains in Shaanxi Province. Since then, Mr. Xi has raised the issue of protecting green space on a number of occasions, creating pressure on local officials to demonstrate fealty by responding vigorously.
“The local officials are in a contest to see who can demolish the most,” Mr. Sheng said. “Nobody will punish you for demolishing more, but if you demolish less, you could go to prison.”
The State Council, the country’s top government body, met last year to discuss the issue of illegal residential construction, emphasizing that there should be an evaluation of any property’s environmental impact and due consideration paid to owners’ interests. Little of that appears to have happened.
In Wayaocun, Mr. Wu and his wife paid for the construction and lease of a wood-framed house in 2009, not long after the village created a new enclave of vacation homes. It was called Russian Style Scenic Park. The developer that built the cottages was a company on China’s northern border that imported timber from Siberia. Mr. Wu envisioned it as a place where he and his wife and parents could escape the city on weekends.
“I prefer a more natural environment,” he said in an interview outside the village, a quiet place where the roads are lined with morning glories and weeping willows but which is now surrounded by police checkpoints as demolition work continues.
The village, in the Changping District of Beijing, designated the developments as tourism and cultural projects, sidestepping zoning restrictions against purely residential construction on what was classified as agricultural land.
The village government ultimately allowed the construction of more than 1,000 homes. The projects brought money and jobs to the village, which also built the roads and utilities to the communities.
Mr. Wu, who with his wife owns and operates a company supplying kitchen equipment for Beijing’s hotels and restaurants, paid 660,000 renminbi in cash, just under $100,000 then, for a 49-year lease; China allows the leasing of land but not its sale.
“I had the psychology of a gambler,” Mr. Wu said, “but I thought the system would change.”
The contract was signed by a village official and the developer, Manzhouli Aiyingsi Timber Limited, so it had the appearance of government approval. Mr. Wu and his wife later spent another $40,000 on improvements and have since spent most weekends there.
The first sign that something was amiss came in 2010, when the developer’s corporate registration was dissolved. A year later, residents were told a court declared the developments illegal, but officials reassured them that their homes were safe.
Then, in 2013, Wayaocun’s party secretary, Xing Ruyi, and its elected village chief, Xing Quanpu, were convicted on charges that they had allowed construction on agricultural land without going through the process of rezoning it. They were sentenced to 51 months and 42 months in prison, and fined.
Still, no one moved against the homes, leading their occupants to believe the community would be somehow protected. Then, in June, notices appeared on the village’s gates and homes, citing the court order from nine years earlier.
On June 29, scores of residents gathered to protest, including Mr. Wu, and clashed with police officers in riot gear who fired tear gas and pepper spray, according to a video that circulated, briefly, online. A number of people were arrested, residents said. “We are all ordinary people,” a woman shouts repeatedly in the video, “why do you bother?”
A similar video showed a confrontation in yet another village facing demolitions in the same district, Yanshou. Both have since been censored inside China’s Great Firewall.
Mr. Wu’s village remains cordoned off as the demolition work continues. The twisted wreckage of homes can be viewed while hiking among apricot and walnut trees on stone-walled terraces in the hills nearby. Gray trucks line up outside the village’s ornate red and blue gate: They are driven by scrap dealers hoping to collect doors, windows, boards or anything else salvageable or at least recyclable.
Officials with the Beijing government did not respond to inquiries about the campaign. It is not clear how many developments like these might be targeted. An article in People’s Daily in 2013, around the time of the cases against Wayaocun’s leadership, cited 108 similar projects around Beijing that included thousands of homes.
For those affected, there is little recourse. Another person in Mr. Sheng’s village, Alon Bar, purchased a 70-year lease on his house in 2008, confident that it had the support of the authorities under a government policy then known as xin nong cun, or “new countryside.”
Mr. Bar is an Israeli agronomist who first went to China in 1988 on a government project to help develop agriculture and introduce water conservation techniques He ultimately stayed and settled down.
“This policy was the policy; now the policy has changed,” said Mr. Bar, 66, who has been in Israel most of the year because of the coronavirus travel restrictions. Since Monday, he has been receiving photo and video updates on the demolitions.
“They took the money — millions — and did whatever they liked,” he added. “There is no accountability.”
Emphasizing his fondness for the country, he described a Kafkaesque effort to understand the government’s decision and seek avenues for appeal before it was too late. A Chinese lawyer, he said, could not find the court decision that was cited by the authorities in ordering the demolitions.
A district official told the residents to sue the village for compensation, while village officials replied that they had no money to pay even if they lost. The nighttime occupation of the village by hundreds of guards, he said, was a tactic intended to intimidate any opposition before it could draw attention to the government’s actions. “This is not Kafka,” he said. “This is the Mafia.”
Steven Lee Myers reported from Seoul, South Korea, and Keith Bradsher from Wayaocun, China. Reporting and research were contributed by Chris Buckley in Sydney, Australia, and Claire Fu and Liu Yi in Beijing.