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Temporalités chinoises

The Politics of Housing

The Action of Rights-Protection and The Space-Transformation from Private to Public
La politique du logement. L’action de protection des droits et la transformation de l’espace du privé vers le public
La política habitacional. Defensa de derechos y transformación del espacio de lo privado a lo público
Guo Yuhua


La réforme du système de logement chinois a subi un processus historique complexe, depuis l’immobilier privé pré-1949 jusqu’à la propriété publique, avant la privatisation partielle. Ces temporalités successives des droits concernant le logement (les droits concernant l’espace) peuvent être considérées comme une expression concentrée du processus de transformation sociale en Chine. Cet article vise à mettre l’accent à la fois sur les processus et les structures, pour révéler la relation complexe qui existe entre gouvernement, marché et société, mais aussi sur les caractéristiques du régime présent derrière les événements et les phénomènes qui sont décrits.
La recherche est basée sur un travail de terrain longitudinal qui fut conduit par une équipe d’enseignants et d’étudiants de l’université de Tsinghua. Du point de vue des politiques et de la sociologie de l’action, le logement est le facteur le plus important de la qualité de vie ; préserver les droits légaux de résidence et les droits de propriété équivaut à préserver les droits humains, au sens du droit à la survie.
Ainsi, préserver les droits légaux de résidence, viser la justice sociale relève des questions politiques les plus pertinentes pour les citoyens.

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This paper stems from the key research project “Constructing community and arranging rights-claims during societal transformation process in contemporary China” in the section “Humanities and Social Sciences”, funded by the Ministry of Education of PRC. The author and Shen Yuan were the two principal investigators, both at the Department of Sociology at Tsinghua University in Beijing. (Translated by Dr. Wu Xiujie, and proofread by Dr. Chen Meixuan).

  • 1 In today’s China, shequ社区 “community” refers to a residential quarter or settlement but is also use (...)

1Since the mid-1990s, various types of housing practices have emerged, mostly in urban areas, accompanying a process of rapid urbanization and intensified reforms of the housing market. These changes gave way to a burgeoning of diverse urban communities (shequ社区)1. The inhabitants of these communities occupy various legal statuses, and must confront a complex range of local issues. Accordingly, different strategies of collective action and forms of community governance have come into being. Entangled in the complex relationships between the market and the state, the inhabitants of these communities are trying to publicly defend their interests, thus initiating different types of urban movements. Urban movements on housing issues have become a significant dimension of social life in the process of urban transition.

2The totalitarian government established in China in 1949 tried to achieve full control over civil society; the One-Party State was given the task to provision the population’s basic needs such as food, clothing, housing and transportation. Through the “Work Unit” system in the cities and the “People’s Commune” system in the countryside, the state effectively reached its goal. Through a series of political movements, citizens’ daily life was further politicized, and thus became subject to a strict ideological control.

3Since the “Reform and Opening up” policy launched in 1978, with “free flow of resources” and “free active space,” the residents gradually gained a certain space of autonomy in their daily life. The State allowed a housing market to develop, but never gave up its power to control and its leading role.

4Dwelling space should be the main territory of private life, but the current residential system is still commonly painted in political colors. Hence, different residential patterns reflecting residents’ different institutional identities, social statuses and resources. The actions undertaken to claim or protect residents’ rights constitute an important aspect of contemporary urban movements and public issues. The fundamental problem is the tension between rights and power, tackling the relationship between state, the market and citizens. Due to the reform of the housing system, Chinese society has experienced within a 10 year period a profound “residential revolution,” from a residential system based on welfare to one based on the market.

5This research is based on longitudinal fieldwork (from 2006 to 2012) and was conducted by a team of teachers and students from Tsinghua University; its methodology combined quantitative surveys, ethnography, as well as participant observation, ethnographic interviews, focus groups, and the organization of numerous owners’ forums, seminars, coordination meetings, and annual conferences. The analysis aims at emphasizing both process and structures, revealing a complex relationship between government, market and society, but also the characteristics of the regime behind the events and phenomena described. It sheds light on different temporalities related to urbanization and housing: despite the short period in which the so-called “residential revolution” occurred in the mid-1990s, many problems encountered by inhabitants have their source in the Mao era and its housing policies. Furthermore, as will be demonstrated in the following sections, the inhabitants are not only careful to initiate their collective actions in the right political timing but also, and despite several setbacks, manage to make their struggles last beyond the temporalities imposed by both the state and the market.

6Several key questions will be discussed here: the relationship between housing and politics; the interaction between social structure and agency in urban movements; and the process of change from simple housing interests to citizenship and citizenship concerns.

How Does Housing Become Politics?

  • 2 Identity politics is a broad concept that includes the ways in which people’s politics may be shape (...)

7The housing reform allowed the commodification of housing, proceeding with a gradual replacement of housing provision based on Work Units (Danwei单位) by a system of community-based residences. This process resulted in an increase of social divisions and interests-based opposition among the persons concerned, insofar as housing is the main locus of domestic life. The causes and consequences of these social protests vividly embody the complex interactions between state, market and society during the ongoing transition in China. Housing as a private sphere issue not only has political implications due to its identity politics2, but has also led to the awakening of citizens’ awareness as to their rights and the formation of public life via the expression of interests seeking. Citizen’s consciousness and their organized actions have become a relevant part of public life.

  • 3 Regarding the various types of urban movements, cf Xiangyang Bi, “From ‘Grass People’ to ‘Citizens’ (...)

8Social protests and urban movements involving housing interests can be generally categorized as follows3:

Fragmented individual protests conducted by peasants who lost their land due to urban expansion.

  • 4 The hukou registration is an institution by which the government aims at managing and controlling t (...)
  • 5 Next to the legal and judicial system, the petition is a special institutional arrangement in China (...)

9This type of social protest refers to the actions undertaken by peasants whose rights and interests were violated by expropriation or demolition in the urbanization process. Following the expropriation of their land and housing plots, the official household registration (Hukou户口)4 of these peasants changed from “agricultural population” to “urban residents”, but they experienced a substantial loss of their financial capacity. Many of them lost their source of subsistence. Their protests are generally individual and atomized, including petitions, litigations, negotiations, and sometimes also radical actions such as a hunger strike, suicide and physical confrontation. Petition (shangfang上访)5 and litigation are the two most frequent forms of action. But the outcome of the two methods is often similar: they offer no genuine solutions for their problems even after numerous litigations or typical petitions that last several months and even years.

Individualized, routinized and collective protests of those households stricken by “demolition and relocation” projects.

10The main actors are those whose houses, often located in old city districts, were officially designated to be demolished by government projects called “renovating deteriorated houses” in the name of urban development. They take action to defend their rights such as house ownership, equal bargaining power, fair compensation, sustainable livelihood and interest representation. In the course of this so-called urban reconstruction, numerous “relocated households” suffered heavy losses. Many of them lost shelter, source of livelihood and sometimes even life during the imposed demolition, sometimes on the fringe of legality. Their protests included individual petitions, litigations, and street demonstrations; many people chose to employ informal collective actions facilitated by internet communication, such as collective petitions, collecting signatures for public letters, collective litigations and reports. Some even reached tens of thousands of individuals. Regardless of the forms their actions took, most of the participants came to the conclusion that the core of their problems has an institutional origin: misuse of laws; administrative interventions in legal procedures; no protection of citizens’ rights. In this sense, their rights’ activism has gone beyond the pursuit of individual interests. Instead, it has reached the level of claiming citizens’ fundamental rights, such as property rights and legal rights.

Different types of private house owners fighting for their property rights.

  • 6 At the beginning of the “Cultural Revolution,” under the policy of abolishing private property, hom (...)
  • 7 The practices are as follows: An estate property of more than 15 jian or a dwelling area of more th (...)

11This heterogeneous category may be associated with the previous one, but it deserves separate attention here, as these private house owners show a stronger awareness of property rights and laws. Two sub-groups can be found among these owners: those whose houses are categorized as “standard leasing houses” (biaozhun zu标准租) and those whose houses are “mediated leasing houses” (jing zu 经租). These owners acquired or inherited their houses in Beijing urban districts before 1949. Their private estate was taken away from them for over half a century without clear regulations, and they became victims of the problematic legacy of historical issues. According to the official definition, “standard leasing houses” refer to the houses leased by private house owners before the “Cultural Revolution.” At the beginning of the “Cultural Revolution,” these houses were taken over by the administrative authorities of the Housing Management Bureau. Since the end of the “Cultural Revolution,” new policies have been applied: the property rights of these houses have been reallocated to their previous owners on condition that their current residents may continue to live there provided that a rent based on official standards is paid. The homeowners had to accept the government leasing regulations covering all the urban rented houses managed by the authorities of the Housing Management Bureau6. The “mediated leasing houses” status proved to be even more recondite than the “standard leasing houses”. Literally it means that these houses were leased only through the state. Since the Socialist Transformation Movement in 1955, the state has issued several guidelines: the way to transform private housing property is to lease it through the mediation of the state. This means that the state monopolizes the rights to lease and to allocate its use, and that it takes on the responsibility of maintenance and fixing. The former homeowners are also entitled to a reasonable profit distribution depending on each individual case7.

12With the urban expansion in the 21st century, the rights of both types of homeowners have been infringed: dispossession of or encroachment upon their estate property in unclear circumstances; lack of any compensation for the demolition and relocation or financial compensation unreasonably lower than the actual value of the property. Over time, their individual protests became collective. This exemplifies a rational process in which the owners acquired legal knowledge and put it into practice by fighting for their rights within the legal framework. The following strategies and actions can be observed: petitioning to the relevant authorities and subsequent negotiations; appeals for administrative reconsideration and promotion of policy changes; judicial litigations; organizing associations and demonstrations. These actions have led to certain positive outcomes. For instance, owners of “standard leasing houses” have won back the property rights for their houses and received land-use notarized certificates. But the struggle for property rights of the owners of “mediated leasing houses” continues to be caught in a long-lasting stalemate.

Cultural elites’ actions to protect cultural heritage.

13Some members of the cultural elites took part in the protection of old city districts in their own ways. Because of their genuine interest in the cultural and architectural heritage, they generally show much compassion to those residents facing demolition and relocation. They are able to mobilize their cultural capital and initiate actions aimed at defending their rights and the residents’ causes. Therefore, they have submitted jointly signed letters to high-level authorities, contacted media and relevant authoritative experts, and even sent appeals to the World Heritage Convention. They appealed and acted to protect traditional architectural culture. Their actions became a remarkable type of contemporary urban movements.

Homeowners’ rights. Activism and community autonomy.

14This category refers to homeowners’ activism in the newly-built communities of commercial apartments. They rose to fight for their property rights and to obtain better service from the real estate developers. The conflicts between homeowners and developers often arise from problems related to the actual residential area’s situation, the apartment’s quality (dissimilarity with the contractual description), building plan changes (often in the interests of the real estate companies), certificates of property rights, and various after-sale services. Other conflicts between homeowners and the real estate service company (wuye物业) arose also from issues such as service charges, quality of estate service, replacement of estate service’s previous offers, property rights concerning common areas. Conflicts between homeowners and the relevant government organs have often been entangled with the conflicts between homeowners on the one hand and the real estate developers and the estate service companies on the other. They often emerge when government authorities take sides for the developers and estate service companies, when the government is negligent in applying existing regulations, or interferes with homeowners’ rights to autonomy.

15Homeowners’ resistance, protecting their rights and interests in different ways, has become a remarkable reality in the course of Chinese social transformation. Their efforts also prove to be a positive and formative attempt to build new social organizations, community identity and community autonomy on the basis of protecting common interests.

16We have chosen to focus on three aspects among the previous types of rights activism: 1) owners’ resistance against demolition and relocation; 2) homeowners’ activism in the newly-built communities of commercial houses; 3) homeowners’ construction of and efforts towards community autonomy and organizations. Housing and housing space intrinsically fall within the private sphere; actions concerning housing interests are not immediately political in nature. However, just as Hannah Arendt states in The Human Condition (1958), “the central political activity is action,” so it is necessary “to separate action conceptually from other human activities with which it is usually confounded, such as labour and work” (Canovan 1998, p. 9). Action is the essential core of politics, the only fortress to rely on for campaigns against political terror or political betrayal. For Arendt, “action alone is the exclusive prerogative of man; […] only action is entirely dependent upon the constant presence of others.” This special relationship between action and being together, beginning with Aristotle and well-known through Thomas Aquinas’ translation: “man is by nature political, that is, social” (Arendt [1958] 1998, p. 23). Our highest capacity and uniqueness are manifest in action. Only through action can we be perceived by others, only through action can we participate in the general affairs beyond those of our own. In the view of Hannah Arendt, speeches and actions reveal the unique human distinctiveness, “a life without speech and without action […] is literally dead to the world; it has ceased to be a human life because it is no longer lived among men” (ibib., p. 176). From Arendt we know that to act, in its most general sense, means to take initiatives, to begin, to set something in motion. “With word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth” – This is the beginning of somebody, who is the beginner himself, the principle of freedom was created when man was created but not before (ibid., p. 176-177).

17The political implication of rights activism also rests on its publicity. According to Arendt, action is rooted in human diversity and uniqueness, but through the manifestation of “word” and “deed” we may enter into the polis, the public realm of the human world. The public realm and action are interwoven as well as interdependent. Public realm offers the space for actions and conversations. Word and deed in return constitute the public realm which is the sphere of freedom in which man exists as a “truly human being” (ibid., p. 46). The increased conformism of the modern age offers good soil for despotism, as Arendt sharply observed (ibid., p. 39-42). Just as the absence of political freedom impedes the development of a genuine public life, Arendt sees the remarkable symbolism of Athens as city-state in ancient Greece, since the political realm rises directly out of acting together, the “sharing of words and deeds” (ibid., p. 198).

18As far as housing rights are concerned, homeowners are subjected to identity politics; the situations they must confront are consequences of social structures. Only those expressions and activities that are aimed at claiming rights represent the active life and genuine politics. The publicity of political life lies in its double meaning: citizens’ participation depends on political freedom; yet it also leads to the achievement of political freedom. In the sociality of residents and homeowners’ activism and their legitimate claims lies the political nature of these protests.

Action is Superior to Structure in the Urban Movements

19“Political opportunity structure” is a core concept of collective behavior and the study of social movements. The structural analysis implied helps explaining the conditions, opportunities and motivations of collective actions. However, the particular institutional and social circumstances in contemporary China present few “opportunity structures” for rights activism to emerge. As demonstrated in our research, collective actors are confronted with a “double bind” (Bi 2006, p. 82). While individuals are atomized, alone and vulnerable, institutional pressure is highly constraining and meticulous. No matter whether actions are individual or collective, whether rights activism is a “legal claim” or “protest according to law,” rights activists have little chance of winning against rule makers. The final results can be highly detrimental for them: rights activists engage in the interest game through public interventions and diverse other strategies; through their activism, they may force the stakeholders of capital and power not to act according to laws or even to act illegally. The legal steps they take underline the distance between institution on paper and institution in practice. Most rights activists, however, see no success at the end. Does this imply that social actors are inevitably destined to be losers in the institutional structure? The answer is no. In their seemingly unsuccessful undertakings, action plays a more meaningful role: it forces one to constantly explore and test structural boundaries, to expand the free space and to make a dent in the repression. This process enables the emergence of a unique collective subjectivity, shaped in and by practice.

20The sociology of action and the theory of social movements developed by French sociologist Alain Touraine provide some inspiration to better understand the issue of rights activism as a whole. In his book Return of the Actor Touraine puts forward that: “classical” sociology was constituted as a model for analyzing social life that stressed “the conditions and forms of integration of the social system…” and “reinforced even more the correspondence between analyses of the system and of the actors.” “Sociology was solidly erected upon the complementary notions of institution and socialization, held together by the central concept of role.” As social actors and society stood at odds with each other instead of forming a perfect association, sociology was in a critical situation (Touraine 1988, p. 22). As Touraine suggests, two tempting illusions are to be avoided: one is to analyze actors without any reference to the social system; the other is to describe a system without actors. The first, related to liberalism as a political ideology, reduces society to a market, while the second is nothing but an extreme form of functionalism (ibid., p. 23). Critical of a certain form of classical sociology defined as the study of society, Touraine questions the equation correlating order and operation, and modernity with social organization (of the capitalist society). This central equation in classical sociology means that social action is excluded from social analysis. The deeper one undertakes investigations of society, the more one risks neglecting various social actors. Actors are viewed as persons who should possess certain attributes according to their position in the social system: their behaviours are explained according to the degree of correspondence of their roles within the social structure, or according to the degree of integration of various values, norms and organizational forms (ibid., p. 101-103).

21In short, Touraine’s call for the return of the actor comes from his strong dissatisfaction with the conventional sociology that envisioned only social systems but not the individual, since in that kind of analysis actors are assigned to a passive role in the social structure.

22Dissent over housing interests tend to have little political implication, but these kinds of actions unavoidably raise the awareness of one’s rights as well as one’s perceptions of the discrepancy between institutions on paper and institutions in practice. The process of action, or the temporality of action, makes actors realize their own position in society, and it may result in some changes in their position. No matter whether their protests are successful or not, the process will leave some traces behind within the community and in the collective memory. It may create far-reaching social effects beyond the duration of the disputes themselves. In this sense, the actors and their actions are changing grassroots urban social life in contemporary China.

  • 8 In February 2000, Mr. Luo and 6 citizens representing 10 357 residents organized in 57 judicial gro (...)
  • 9  Charles Tilly, Social Movements 1768-2004, Paradigm Publishers, 2004.

23Let us take the “litigation of the ten thousand” (wanren susong万人诉讼) as an example. It is one of the most important of this sort of event. Faced by the violation of one’s own rights, these people who went through demolition and relocation did not hesitate to react vigorously: they united to express themselves through lawsuits and legal channels to protect their legitimate rights and benefits. Such collective rights activism went beyond the “daily protest.” It resorted to the typical form of “open struggles.” The positive outcome relied on rational, law-binding forms of rights activism. Administrative litigations and collective accusations were carried out in a similar way (Bi 2006, p. 314; Shi 2007).8 This kind of public and collective legal struggle has become an important strategy for establishing the legitimacy of rights-activism, creating a space for fighting for one’s rights within a structure where initially no such space existed.9

24An excellent case of a law-abiding struggle is the “standard leasing houses” private owners’ campaign: solidarity among them had emerged from the struggle, and their actions led to policy changes. Their actions were characterized by a consistent decision to use legal channels to further their claims. For example, they used the administrative review to change regulations. The partial success of some private homeowners is due to the peculiar character of the power structure in Beijing, in comparison with other cities. In the capital, authorities of both central and local-government co-exist. This unique constellation—the distance between government organs of different levels as well as the variance of interests at stake between central and local governments—offers a certain leeway for the actions of rights activists, and therefore a kind of “political space for protest” is built up: in practice actors make full use of the structural relationships among state authorities of different levels and different bureaus to maximize their bargaining power. The “political space for protest” is also reflected in actors’ smart manipulation of tensions between suppressing the protest and “preserving stability” (weiwen维稳) (“stabilization must conquer all!”). This resulted in the largest urban movement in Beijing, in the middle of a city displaying the highest density of state administrations and political power (Bi 2006, p. 370).

  • 10 A typical example was the issue of a citizens’ collective signature in 2007 demanding changes in th (...)

25Actors use laws as their weapon. They also strive to change laws and administrative regulations through their actions.10 This phenomenon is related to their strategic considerations; it also embodies the actors’ civil consciousness. It can be regarded as a special “political opportunity structure” for rights-activism (Chen 2010; Liu 2010). Such actions have already led, or have the potential to lead to changes or adaptations of policies, even laws and administrative regulations. At the same time, organized actions have the ability of bringing about structural changes which in return will lead to social production and institutional reforms.

From Protecting Housing Property to Claiming Citizenship

26The political dimension of housing is also demonstrated by the fact that the actors involved in rights-protection extended their demands, from material interests, property rights and services to citizen rights. Our investigations showed that the struggle to safeguard housing rights led by homeowners’ associations is becoming a process increasing citizen’s consciousness. From a sociological point of view, property rights in practice are not only a symbol of ownership, they are also a practical, dynamic and cyclic process that impacts other issues. As demonstrated by Shen Yuan, homeowners’ effort to define their property rights from spatial and social perspectives leads to a process of citizenship construction in T. H. Marshall’s sense, on two levels: first on the civil rights level, embodied mainly in ownership, by drawing up effective contracts imposing legal justice for one’s property rights; the second is political citizenship, emerging mainly at the community level, whereby homeowners elect their own committee through a democratic process and establish democratic mechanisms for community autonomy (Shen 2007; Marshall 1992, p. 8). When we analyze and investigate homeowners’ rights activism at the citizens’ rights movement level, we can easily point out the trajectory that “goes from property rights towards citizens’ rights”.

27In order to answer the question: “what kind of rights are the homeowners safeguarding?” it is necessary to approach intellectually the connotations of the concept of “homeowners’ rights activism” (yezhu weiquan业主维权). Our investigations indicate that, theoretically, homeowners safeguard their rights on three basic levels, namely the rights of buildings (rights of things), the rights to community autonomy (rights of administration) and citizens’ rights (human rights). These three levels represent not only the three basic forms of homeowners’ rights-safeguarding, they also constitute three developmental phases. This is the dynamic process of step-by-step growth. A systematic scrutiny of existing research on this topic helps clarify the different theoretical focuses, their contributions and limits. We suggest that to further the research on “homeowners’ rights-safeguarding,” these three frameworks should be considered together, namely “the emerging citizens,” “the emerging middle-class” and “the emerging society” (Chen 2009).

28During the development process of rights activism, actors become increasingly aware of their rights through certain organized mobilizations and the gradual establishment of some social networks. However, various actors claim different types of rights at different levels and at different times: they vary within a broad spectrum, from the rights of land use, ownership rights, rights of using public space, rights of sharing profits, to the more universal rights of expression and solidarity. The latter is more related to citizen status and citizen rights. While activists fight for their own legal rights and benefits, they also learn how to define the boundaries of private and public rights, how to use available instruments like petition and litigation so that their legitimate and rational claims be acknowledged. This includes private homeowners and those whose interests were violated by demolition and relocation. Rights activism also helps actors learn how to make use of social grassroots organizations and of public life based on respecting each other’s claims. For the owners of commodity housing, it is particularly important to establish organizations regulating their relationship to the government and the market.

29For example, by tracing historical events and manipulating official discourses, “mediated leasing houses” homeowners relate their own sufferings to the propaganda slogans of the Communist Party. In this way they corner the relevant authorities in an awkward situation. They also take advantage of the contradictions in policies and official regulations to gain some leverage in the current institutional setting. For example, they relate to the corruption issue, criticizing official ways of handling the problems of “mediated leasing houses.” In this way they question the government’s legitimacy. They establish alliances with cultural elites and mass media to give more publicity to the issue. And finally they submit an application to certain authorities, appealing for a legal/constitutional review of the official regulations concerning the “mediated leasing houses” (Bi 2006, p. 278-283).

30Governmental organs have their own strategies to combat these activists, too. Certain government authorities can use political harassment to scare homeowners Making deliberate delays and shirking responsibilities are tactics often employed to increase the costs of rights activism. Due to the government’s monopoly on information, the original situations of the “mediated leasing houses” property rights are not easily reconstructed; government media reports that manipulations minimize the influence induced by rights activism. Due to administrative interventions into the judiciary domain, “mediated leasing houses” owners are deprived of their legal rights and the government’s legitimacy remains unchallenged. Soft governing techniques such as moral and ethical approaches are also adopted to weaken homeowners’ resistance; the selective application of institutional rules obscures the nature of the ownership of these “mediated leasing houses.”

31During conflicts over property rights, the nature of ownership becomes sometimes fuzzy, but is constantly clarified. It depends on the wise game-playing between different agents of interests and benefits who mobilize their respective strengths, resources and logics. In this interest game, the implementation of property rights has become a process of selecting the criteria for property rights. The rules at work are those of political competitions rather than the rules of law (Jiang 2006, p. 63). Having to go through this kind of complexity in fighting for their own rights, the owners of these “mediated leasing houses” have matured. They experienced four changes: individual rights activism became collective; they demanded property rights rather than houses and land use only; they pursued collective welfare rather than individual interests of obtaining private property rights; they themselves have grown to be citizens who have legal knowledge and know how to apply the laws (Bi 2006, p. 298; Jiang 2006, p. 64).

32Highly praised by the media as “the first case by common residents in Beijing, of protecting private property and upholding the dignity of the Constitution,” the case might be regarded as another example of transformation from obtaining property rights to obtaining citizens’ rights. Mr. Huang’s house was flattened in a second attempt of forced demolition. But the previous attempt to demolish had been stopped by the collective action of the residents referring to the Constitution, which took place probably for the first time in contemporary urban history of demolishment and improvement. Many media reported this event as a focus topic; some media reported the following: staff members of the “Cultural Collection Centre of Tiananmen National Flags” said that they wanted to collect the national flag that hanged on the door of Mr. Huang’s house for the museum, because it was the first flag which upholds the dignity of law ever since the laws to protect private property were passed. Only two weeks later, Mr. Huang’s house fell under the bulldozer. The national flag disappeared.

33The constitution was not the main reason behind the failure of the first attempt to demolish Mr. Huang’s house. The circumstance turned out to be more complicated: Mr. Huang played the drum speech, a kind of folk art consisting in narrating popular stories by singing. The onlookers and even the personnel of the demolishing crew were affected. In this way a spontaneous collective action emerged. The following two weeks were a period of relative silence, as both sides were involved in an ever more ritualized battle. “Legal private property of citizens should not be expropriated” is a sentence borrowed from the constitutional laws. It was written in big letters on a small piece of black board placed in front of Mr. Huang’s door. The next morning, a slogan was hung on the wall opposite his house: “To consider the general interest above everything else; moving out as soon as possible.” Later, after the demolition of Mr. Huang’s house, eight big letters written in red were added to the above-mentioned slogan: “safeguarding constitutional laws, protecting private property” (Bi 2006, p. 172).

34To sum up, economic interests are not disentangled with political and cultural rights. Attempts to safeguard economic interests will inevitably lead to demanding political rights and cultural rights.

Identity Change: from Resident to Citizen

35Drawn on his insights into the actors’ agency in social structure, Alain Touraine advocates a critical sociology that “discovered the violence behind prevailing order, repression behind consensus, irrationality in modernization, and private interest at the heart of general principles” (Touraine 1988, p. 5). In order to avoid “reduc[ing] the analysis of social activity to an inquiry into the position of the actor in the system,” as classical sociology did, he advocates a sociology of action that “sees in all situations the result of relations among actors defined by their cultural orientations as well as by their social conflicts” (ibid. p. 10). On this basis, Touraine upholds “the view that private life, and more generally, the entire cultural sphere, are making their entry in the field of politics today,… and ‘private life’ is more than ever a public thing, the stake of a social movement, the central theme of emergent social conflicts” (ibid., p. 14). The concept of social movement is based on recognizing the fact that “actors do not limit themselves to reacting to situations but actually produce situations” (ibid., p. 26). In light of debunking the essence of the totalitarian state—its main function is to destroy all kinds of social life and to suffocate them—Alain Touraine stresses the society’s ability for self-regeneration. From our point of view today, here lie the dynamics of his call for the return of the actor in both the academic and the political sense.

36As rights activism actors, homeowners and residents experience the transformation from passive to active subjects, their subjectivity emerges and is shaped in the struggle. This is also a process in which consciousness of being citizens and civil society are generated. The “litigation of the ten thousand” has been ongoing for 16 years now. It can be regarded as an outstanding example of citizens’ growth. They were ordinary urban residents; they used laws to safeguard their own interests and benefits; they showed their rationality, wisdom and especially massive courage; “they did not become cynical during the long-term process of litigation when they had to confront various obstacles and setbacks”. Behind such attitudes is their love for and loyalty to this country. They sacrificed time and energy and had to face huge pressures. This went far beyond pursuing private interests and benefits. Their civil courage and their self-discipline built a symbol for the dignity of citizens and the unbending belief in the rule of law” (Guo 2003).

  • 11 See footnote 8.

37The “litigation of the ten thousand” and the later “public accusation of the ten thousand”11 have to some extent restrained some illegal phenomena in urban demolishment and relocation. What is more important is that they shaped a group of modern citizens who are courageous and rational and who improve their knowledge of the law and their civil rights. Different from other ways of fighting, the “litigation of the ten thousand” is a way of protesting through legal means. Beyond this, these citizens redefined the boundaries of their legal rights according to the Constitution and other laws and revealed how their opponents acted unlawfully. In this sense, they represented the highest quality of urban movements in contemporary China (Bi 2006, p. 370; Shi 2006).

38The qualities citizens demonstrated in their actions of rights-protection—courage, rationality and creativity—were not there at the beginning, but developed gradually during the struggles. Developing from homeowners and residents to citizens can be seen most clearly in two features:

The Centrality of the Law in Citizen Activism

39In its essence, homeowners’ rights activism has become a process of constant learning, understanding, applying and safeguarding laws; the actors demonstrated a strong awareness of legal rights, invaluable civil courage and training for democratic autonomy. This indicates that homeowners’ behavior and ways of thinking have changed from those of traditional “grass-roots people” to those of modern citizens. In this sense, the struggles of urban homeowners may be taken as a process in which they transform themselves into citizens through laws and shape themselves into a potential (social) class (Chen 2010).

40The fights in which laws are the central guideline also create an “institutional space for protest”: actors distinguished and exploited the loopholes and contradictions—between different laws, between laws and politics, between administrative documents and practices—as their mainstay. They claimed on the one hand their legal rights, and on the other hand placed their opponents in illegal situations. The relevant institutional regulations then became a social battlefield: this is the key and subtle point of the practice of “safeguarding rights through laws.” For example, some actors who employed litigation took advantage of resources outside laws to add a bargaining chip to their litigation capabilities, thus changing the balance of power in the initial phase. This kind of strategies to increase one’s bargaining power turned out to be the main reason for their legal triumph in the end. The possibility of such litigation strategies relies on the fact that in the Chinese legal system there are tensions between “administrative logics” and “legal logics.” In the above-mentioned process, litigants were not the passive recipients of the legal system, but also the actors of constructing, influencing and shaping the legal system (Sun 2009, p. 141).

41In the process of rights-protection, efforts were made to affect institutional practices, to influence policy-making and adapt existing policies. This has promoted the rule of law in China. Meanwhile it has transformed numerous ordinary residents, by overcoming many problems and obstacles, into citizens who have knowledge and awareness of the law.

Emergence of public life and the production of society.

42Publicity and civil society organizations are indispensable to citizens. We have adopted “society” as the consistent theme and central thread in our observations and investigations of homeowners’ rights-protection. We adhere to the perspective in which the state, the market and the society are inter-connected as well as checking and balancing each other. In our analysis, “society” is concrete, practical and historical; this means that the production of society is not monolithic and cannot be accomplished at one fell swoop. Instead, it is scattered, fragmented, a long-term process characterized by hesitations, retreats and obscurity. It is a social field full of dilemmas and challenges (Guo Hua 2008).

43Actors well know that, in terms of the effects and efficiency of rights activism, individual action is not enough. The necessary choice for those who share common interests is to organize themselves. In this sense, solidarity is the catalyst of actions. As mentioned above, one of the most important functions of these actions is the training of citizens. This means that such practices and experiences are the necessary basis for a civil society. And at the same time, the process of rights activism is also a process of exploring the institutional frontiers and space for the development of organizations. Under the current political system, institutional frameworks and given China’s particular historical background, an independent “civil society” has to face the pressure and threats coming from both the state power and the market; like social stratification, homeowners’ own limits make it especially difficult for “society” in the sociological sense to be developed. The new type of autonomous organization, i.e., the homeowners’ committee, is mostly established in the process of rights-protection with the aim of effectively achieving their objectives. After all, this new type of social organization has started to develop, despite the fact that less than 20% of the new residential communities of commodity housing have established homeowners’ committees, despite the dissolution of some committees after they failed or even succeeded in rights-protections, despite the many difficulties that the committee had to tackle concerning its legal status, its relations with the governmental organ of “the residents’ committee” (juweihui居委会), the market-oriented developers and the housing service providers, and last but not least, homeowners’ identity. Those citizens who are part of social organizations and public life are citizens in the truest sense.

44The Bidding Committee of the Beijing Association of Homeowners Committee (abbreviated BCBA, yeshenwei业申委) has continued its work for six years. It provides a good example of institutional explorations undertaken by citizens. BCBA has organized many workshops and seminars to discuss issues such as community autonomy, the homeowners’ committee functions, the system of homeowners’ representatives, the property rights of public facilities and the estate services at the preliminary stage. They hold an annual conference and offer consultation services to homeowners as well as homeowners’ committees concerning issues of community building. These activities are significant. In practice they assist many homeowners, improve the influences of the BCBA and avoid being co-opted by the government. And to a certain degree they have found directions for the future. These community elites began with enlightenment ideas and ideals of community. But they did not stop there and rapidly engaged in diverse actions. They are aware of the importance of actions, and also of the fact that for ordinary homeowners even the best idea of an institutional system makes no sense without functioning and operating properly.

45Our investigations on homeowners has underlined the following three ways of developing civil society organizations: marketization, incorporation within governments and independent society. These take place under ordinary circumstances. In the Chinese institutional context, every social organization has more or less to confront these three conditions (Liu 2010: 82).

46Alain Touraine advocates a sociology of action, calling for the return of the actor. He figured out how private life is entering into the political sphere, and envisaged the development of more and more public issues concerning them. The actors do not just respond to the milieu, but they actually initiate the new condition.

47Action here means “word and deed” in Hannah Arendt’s sense, life without deed and word would be deathly stillness, that’s not the life of a human being. The public sphere which is created by “word and deed” is the space of freedom and the genuine “human condition.”

48The denizens and homeowners became within this process subjective actors shaping their environment rather than passive subjects; their subjectivity is growing and was conceived during the practice of protecting their rights; so resistance is also a process of producing citizen consciousness and citizenship: a group of modern citizens who are brave, rational, and deferring to the constitution is gradually arising. Action is the activator of solidarity and the basis of civil society. The urban movement in modern China is in the process of forming a new social class.

49The reform of China’s housing system has gone through a complex historical process from private real estate before 1949 to public ownership and then incomplete privatization. These successive temporalities of housing rights (space rights) can be seen as a concentrated expression of the social transformation process in China. Today, China’s urban land is owned by the state, but what does this mean? Is the government the owner? Is it a political party? Or is it the fictionalized notion of “the people” upon whom dwells the legitimacy of state power? Rural lands belong to the “collective”, but if property rights are not embodied by specific individuals or farmers, the collective remains an empty concept. The ongoing war and tragedy surrounding the rights to live in cities and rural areas of China today are precisely manifestations of the contradictory temporalities of the property rights system.

50Another important dimension of temporality is, as it has been shown, the process of protecting homeowners’ rights. This process of expression and action is taking place under dual constraints (high-pressure stability and lack of self-organization); it begins with material claims related to the most basic needs, but in the process of action it leads to the awakening of civic awareness, the enhancement of citizens’ abilities and the production of civil society. In a power game with political and economic power where citizens face the highest disadvantage, we seldom see successful cases of rights protection, but we still should not neglect the social significance arising from the temporalities of action and the hope of growth that it brings.


51Inhabiting is among the most important foundations and substance of living; so protecting legal house-property rights and residents’ rights means safeguarding human rights, as well as hankering for social justice, which is maximal politics for citizens.

52The advent of social rights (including economic rights, social welfare and social security rights) should be taken care of by politics: the common pursuit of property and of a good life and the practice of safeguarding rights pave the way for politics which include grass roots’ democracy, autonomy of community, and production of civil society.

  • 12 Alain Touraine & Derek Coltman, The Self Production of Society, 1977, p. 123.

53Two traditional notions have been given new meanings by Alain Touraine. The first is historicity. Before Touraine, the word was used to indicate the historical nature of social phenomena; but he developed this notion as “the set of cultural, cognitive, economic, and ethical models by means of which a collectivity sets up relations with its environment.” He reminds us that “the unity of our society can no longer be found in either its internal working rules or in its place on a long evolutionary line, but indeed in its capacity to produce itself” (Touraine 1988, p. 40). This means that historicity is not a set of values established in the center of society; rather it represents a set of instruments, cultural orientations, through which social practices are constituted (ibid., p. 41). “When one speaks of historicity, the essential thing is to recognize the link between two fundamental statements: first, that historicity is two in one, at the same time the distance and the bond between society’s production of itself and its functioning; second, that historicity is both practice and consciousness, work and knowledge, economic accumulation and cultural model, and therefore that the unity of social action must be recognized in order to avoid futile arguments about the causal role of such and such category of ‘social facts,’ arguments that usually simply refer to some metasocial warrant—religion, the state, economy—for the social order.”12 The second word Touraine also redefined is institution “which today must not mean that which has been instituted but that which institutes, is the mechanism through which cultural orientations are transformed into social practices. In this sense all institutions are political” (ibid., p. 40).

54According to Alain Touraine, “subject” is a constructing process of transforming an individual (or a collectivity) into an actor; it is formed through participation in the freedom that is enriched, acknowledged and redefined by life experience (Touraine 1997, p. 1-15). Therefore, democracy “must be defined by the politics of the subject” (Touraine 1996, p. 329). The democratic practices in subjects’ daily life must be regarded as the basis and conditions for democratic life (Qiu 2002, p. 39).

55From the perspective of the politics of action and sociology of action, housing is the most important basis for subsistence and quality of life; to safeguard legal residence rights as well as property rights of houses means to safeguard human rights in the sense of rights of subsistence. Therefore, to safeguard legal residence rights and to pursue social justice are citizens’ most relevant politics. Thus, actualizing social rights (socioeconomic rights, social welfare and rights of subsistence) is an indispensable part of politics: through protecting one’s own legal housing rights people act to pursue a better quality of life. During this process, people discover that their pursuit of material interests is closely related to issues of grassroots democracy, autonomy of community and production of society. Housing-related rights activism will ultimately turn out to be a political issue.

56Just as Alain Touraine recently wrote, “in more immediate political terms, a group of free, strong and creative individuals is more able to reject external and internal attacks than integrated and homogeneous communities” (Touraine 2010, p. 11).

57The predicament of resistance is also the trap of China’s social transformation. The action of citizens is needed to avoid it according to the following logic:

58Actions make citizens;
Resistance produces society;
Rights-defense movements can change China.

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1 In today’s China, shequ社区 “community” refers to a residential quarter or settlement but is also used as the unit of administrative management. See: Ferdinand Tönnies, Community and Society.

2 Identity politics is a broad concept that includes the ways in which people’s politics may be shaped by aspects of their identity such as social organizations based on age, religion, social class or caste, culture, dialect, ethnicity, language, nationality, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, and so on; here “identity politics” refers to people’s status as house owners, and how it shapes their social identity and collective behavior.

3 Regarding the various types of urban movements, cf Xiangyang Bi, “From ‘Grass People’ to ‘Citizens’: The contemporary urban movements in Beijing,” PhD thesis at Tsinghua University, 2006, p. 40-54.

4 The hukou registration is an institution by which the government aims at managing and controlling the population: it stipulates the area of people’s legal residence and social benefits, and is the basis of all rules of population management. See:

5 Next to the legal and judicial system, the petition is a special institutional arrangement in China for people who want to express their difficulties with local administration and address an official complaint to the government by visiting, mailing, or calling dedicated administrative services; but its effectiveness is close to zero. See: Liu Qiuxue李秋学, Zhongguoxinfang shilun中国信访史论, Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe, 2009.

6 At the beginning of the “Cultural Revolution,” under the policy of abolishing private property, homeowners “voluntarily” turned over their private houses to the state. At that time in Beijing, nearly all private houses were taken over by the government. In total private housing amounts to over 510,000 jian 间 (room units), which is equivalent to more than one-third of the total housing capacity. Of them, about 82,000 jian were used by different government departments and institutions, state-owned enterprises and organs of public sectors, or as welfare housing for their employees. (See Bi 2006, p. 232-237).

7 The practices are as follows: An estate property of more than 15 jian or a dwelling area of more than 225 square meters must be handed over to the state. Homeowners were allowed to charge 20%-40% of the leasing, and at the same time they maintained a certain area for their own use. (See Bi 2006, p. 272-278; Jiang 2006, p. 1-8).

8 In February 2000, Mr. Luo and 6 citizens representing 10 357 residents organized in 57 judicial groups handed the indictment over to the Second Intermediate Court of Beijing, and conducted a prosecution against the Real Estate Bureau because of their administrative omission. They collected more than ten thousand signatures, but the Court was off the docket; afterwards they submitted accusatory letters to the Party Central Committee, the National People’s Congress, the Ministry of Justice, and medias every term for over ten years; participants reached more than thirty thousand. This was called the “litigation and accusation of the ten thousand” (wanren susong yu wanren jubao万人诉讼与万人举报).

9  Charles Tilly, Social Movements 1768-2004, Paradigm Publishers, 2004.

10 A typical example was the issue of a citizens’ collective signature in 2007 demanding changes in the Property Law (Wuquan fa物权法) which partially succeeded. From January to February 2007, the joint association of owners in Beijing city initiated and organized a petition claiming the amendment of the sixth chapter of the Property Law in order to protect owners’ rights; many owners from other provinces such as Guangdong, Shenzhen, Shandong, Zhejiang, Hubei, Hunan, Liaoning, Anhui, Hebei, Guangxi, Hainan, Fujian, as well as Shanghai and Tianjin, responded positively and supported this initiative. Among the 7 suggestions made by the owners, 2 were eventually adopted in the Property Law. See: Peng Chen, “Dangdai Zhongguo chengshi yezhu de faquan kangzheng — Guanyu yezhu weiquan huodong de yige fenxi kuangjia” 当代中国城市业主的法权抗争——关于业主 维权活动的一个分析框架, Sociological Research (Shehuixue yanjiu社会学研究), 2010, no 1.

11 See footnote 8.

12 Alain Touraine & Derek Coltman, The Self Production of Society, 1977, p. 123.

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Guo Yuhua, « The Politics of Housing »Temporalités [En ligne], 26 | 2017, mis en ligne le 13 février 2018, consulté le 08 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Guo Yuhua

Professor, Department of Sociology, Tsinghua University

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