BEIJING — The job advertisement, placed on a popular Web site, sounded like a casting call for a superhero.
“Wanted: Someone with a strong sense of responsibility, tough, brave and physically strong. Ability to oppose and deal with forces of evil.”
Qin Rong, the owner of a restaurant facing imminent demolition, was looking for a foolhardy soul willing to save her from one of the most powerful forces in China today: the state-affiliated development company.
The company that bought the land that included her restaurant for $700 million — a huge parcel a few minutes from the Olympic stadium — was already busily clearing the block for another glittering mega-development. The sooner it broke ground, the sooner it could capitalize on property values that spiked more than 30 percent this year in Beijing and a handful of other cities.
The only thing in the company’s way was a squat row of buildings that included the Fish Castle Restaurant, a decidedly modest Sichuan-style seafood joint that Ms. Qin and her boyfriend opened just before the 2008 Summer Olympics. The couple, the very picture of modern Chinese entrepreneurial bravado, had signed a three-year lease, poured their extended families’ life savings into fixing up the space, and then learned in August that they had only two months to get out.
Ms. Qin, a fiery 28-year-old raised in the rough-and-tumble western region of Xinjiang, said she would never have signed the lease — with an agency affiliated with the developer that owns the property — had she known the building was about to be demolished. “We have no problem moving out,” she said last week, in front of her darkened restaurant. “We just want back the money we invested for renovations.”
She demanded exactly that amount: $74,000. The agency’s final offer was just over $5,000. This month, the electricity and water were shut off and a herd of orange excavator machines began tearing away at adjacent buildings, where the occupants had folded with less of a fight.
Chinese newspapers are filled with stories of battles involving so-called nail houses, the properties whose owners and occupants are like deeply embedded spikes that refuse to give way to redevelopment juggernauts. As an unceasing real-estate boom has swept the nation, much of it orchestrated by the local governments that benefit from soaring land values, property owners and occupants often protest unfair compensation.
A standoff ensues. Shady men are dispatched. Goliath rarely loses.
Sometimes the clashes end tragically, as they did for five people who in recent months set themselves on fire rather than yield to the demolition crews. One woman, a 47-year-old business owner in Chengdu, died last month after pouring gasoline over her head and igniting it.
The episode, captured on video and posted on the Internet, provoked widespread anger over policies that even the central government has acknowledged are flawed. After the self-immolations, the State Council, China’s cabinet, said it would consider changing the nation’s property compensation laws, a potentially momentous reform that would address one of the biggest sources of social strife.
Until then, however, Ms. Qin would need a superhero.
Although her job advertisement prompted a host of curious phone calls and a spot on the nightly news, fewer than a dozen prospects were suitable — or willing to live in the unheated restaurant 24 hours a day until the bitter end. She rejected the earnest college students and the aspiring thugs and settled on a jovial, ponytailed retiree with fly-away eyebrows. Even if he appeared older than his stated age of 47, the retiree, Lu Daren, the father of two teenagers, seemed the ideal candidate. What he lacked in brute strength, he made up for in experience.
For years, Mr. Lu worked for the other side, as a “relocation man” who helped developers remove the implacable. Most of the time, he was in charge of negotiating compensation, he said, but he acknowledged that the business could sometimes get ugly.
“I was injured a few times, and other people got hurt, too,” he said, lighting up yet another cigarette. Once, after a relocation agreement was successfully concluded, he said, the wife of the ousted owner ran screaming from their condemned home and right into the path of a bulldozer. She died a few hours later.
Although Mr. Lu told himself she was mentally unwell, he was so shaken by the experience that he quit the business. “I decided one day I would atone for my wrongdoing and do something good for the world,” he said.
The Fish Castle, he decided, was the redemption he had been waiting for.
Mr. Lu’s first trial came two weeks into the job. On Tuesday of last week, as he posted a handwritten sign on the window that read “To Die Gloriously Is to Live Great,” he and witnesses said, about 60 men crashed through the restaurant’s front door and dragged him on to the pavement. He said he looked up to see the owner of the noodle shop — another holdout business — being thrashed and the man’s pregnant wife being kicked in the belly.