The Battle of the Fish Castle

An extraordinary article by Andrew Jacobs in the New York Times recently told the story of Qin Rong, owner of the Fish Castle Restaurant in Beijing.  She was told to clear out by a state-affiliated development agency that had purchased the land out from under the restaurant.  Her landlord knew about the pending sale at the time she entered her 3 year lease, but didn’t tell her.  She still had two years left on her lease but was willing to go – if the developer would fully compensate her for the renovations she had made to the building.  The agency said no.  She refused to budge.  That’s when things got crazy.  

In China, impasses like this are sometimes resolved violently; specifically, the development agency dispatches ‘relocation men’ who either reach agreement with, or beat the hell out of, the tenant.  Knowing what was coming, Qin Rong hired an ex-relocation man who had switched sides to help protect her and her business.  Apparently she hired the right guy, Lu Daren.

When 60 – yes, 60 – thugs showed up and dragged Lu Daren and other holdout tenants out onto the street, a pitched battle ensued, and the thugs left.  Police investigated but refused to intervene.  For the next few weeks, without heat or electricity, Lu Daren, Qin Rong, and the restaurant employees slept inside the Fish Castle, while thugs occasionally circled outside.  The standoff ended when the agency agreed to renegotiate.  The parties reached an agreement for full payment, and the Fish Castle was abandoned.  

To some, this story may sound like Kelo in China: a mom and pop business driven out by developers supported by the state.   But there are a lot of critical differences.  Among them: the crux of the Kelo opinion was not that under a set of particular circumstances private property rights must give way to the interest of the state, but rather that in the United States, local political institutions provide a forum for resolving local land use decisions of general application.  Qin Rong, and others angered by the actions of the development agency, had no political means of redress; they could not throw the bums out, so to speak.  The result was violence, as it often is in the absence of a peaceable means of redress. 

In many ways, both the reaction in the United States to Kelo, and the battle for the Fish Castle in Beijing, have proven the Supreme Court correct: political fora provide adequate means of redress for people angered by local land use decisions of general application; it is only when such institutions are unavailable that alternative means — whether judicial review or occasional self-defense — are required.

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