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IBIT in CHINA: The final stand of a Chinese marine

Eighth in a series

The government wants to demolish an old soldier’s house to build an industrial park, but it’s been in his family for nine generations and he won’t budge. The standoff has made him a prisoner in his own home.

Of all the regrets I have about my two-and-a-half-day lightning visit to Shanghai, one of the biggest was that I didn’t get the chance to learn about Shen Peixin until after I got home.

Shen Peixin

Shen Peixin | China Daily photo

His story is emblematic of the huge wave of change taking place across China — and the casualties it sometimes leaves in its wake.

Mr. Shen is 78 years old, a retired marine officer from the People’s Liberation Army. He lives with his dog in an old, rundown house in Shanghai.

A house that is 270 years old and is believed to have been visited by emperors. A house that has been in Mr. Shen’s family for nine generations. A house that local government wants to tear down to make room for a new industrial park.

Mr. Shen’s reply: “I don’t think so.”

His neighbors have all left, their homes torn down and the land cleared. His family has all left. His water and electricity have been cut off. Mr. Shen, however, won’t leave.

He hasn’t left since this dispute began…in 2003. He fears, quite correctly, that the moment he leaves the property, his home will be razed.

He has since suffered a broken leg but remains holed up in his crumbling house. His lights by night are a flashlight and some candles.

The government’s argument is that his house is too dilapidated to be treated as an historic site, that there are 200 others just like it and that they need this industrial park to support a rapidly and constantly growing Shanghai.

I don’t know Mr. Shen’s finances, but I’m guessing he doesn’t have much money for repairs on a marine retiree’s pension of 900 yuan.

That’s about $141 a month.

The story of Shen Peixin has been told all over China and even in some Western media. It’s the kind of story that, in Mao Zedong’s China, might not have been told anywhere. Mr. Shen simply would’ve been forcibly evicted and that would’ve been the end of it.

Kind of like what happens in this country under the laws of “eminent domain.”

You can read the entire China Daily story about Shen Peixin and his home here.

My own family has felt this sting. My great-aunt and uncle used to have a terrific house in North Oakland, kind of a small Italian villa style, set on a very small rise just above 47th Street. It was my uncle’s reward for years of working in naval shipyards and being exposed to asbestos during World War 2.

The living and dining rooms, a kitchen and two bedrooms were upstairs, a cool den downstairs, and a separate “mother-in-law unit” stood discreetly in back, just behind the tiny backyard.

If you go to that spot now, you’ll find the Grove-Shafter Freeway.

Tales like this one apparently are not at all uncommon in China. Witness the mass disappearance of Beijing’s hutongs, for instance.

Most folks just accept the inevitable, along with the offer of a brand-new apartment in one of those thousands of high-rise apartment blocks springing up in every Chinese city.

Some, like Mr. Shen, do not.

Like everything else in life, progress has its price. When your country is 5,000 years old, it figures that you’re going to have a lot of ancient structures, historic sites. You can’t possibly save them all.

Still, I can’t help feeling that a 78-year-old man who gave the best years of his life to serve his country has earned a pass on the progress train. At the very least, the government in whose name he served should not now be throwing him under it.

Meanwhile, Shen Peixin sits in the cold and dark with his dog and his broken leg, waiting for death…or a bulldozer. Whichever comes first.


IBIT in CHINA: The series

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