China: Nation's first citizen reporter?

Meet Zola Zhou, independent citizen reporter, blogging live from the nailhouse.

But is Zola really China's first citizen reporter? Big-name bloggers like Herock, Doubleleaf and Zhan Bin say he is. Out of what Zola says is a ‘sensitivity to news’ and desire for fame, on Monday afternoon he hopped on the train, arriving in Chongqing two days later. Armed with a Lenovo cellphone and one thousand RMB, Zola is determined to cover the nailhouse story where domestic media currently cannot.

The subheading on Zola's blog reads (in English) “you never know what you can do till you try”; a March 23rd post which unpacks the meaning behind a meme now making its way around the Chinese blogsphere, ‘vote with your feet’ [用脚投票], and a second post from the same day looking at the nailhouse situation ends with a wager on how many more days the house would remain standing. Two blog posts later, Zola begins blogging from ground zero:


As everyone knows, some reports of news like this which involves the government will surely never be reported, and [online] stories will be deleted at the request of unknown “relevant departments”. There had been a Sina blog reporting 24 hours a day on the situation, but that blog later disappeared. That's why I realised this is a one-time chance, and so from far, far away I came to Chongqing to conduct a thorough investigation, in an attempt to understand a variety of viewpoints…


From Chongqing Train Station I took bus #207 to Yangjiaping station, and had some rice noodles, taking the chance to talk for a while with the noodle shop owner. The noodle shop owner's understanding is that Wu Ping is supposedly asking for twenty million RMB [in compensation for her nailhouse], with the real estate management authority having said in the newspaper it “will not accept a skyhigh demand”, and going on to say he feels Wu Ping is taking this too far. When I finished my hot and spicy rice noodles, I continued on in the direction of “the nail” in which they pointed me, ending up running into a newspaper-carrying young man on his way to work. He said he'd show me the way. I asked him for his thoughts, and he said he supports Wu Ping and Yang Wu. He also told me that Wu Ping's father was a National People's Congress delegate. Just before we arrived at the nailpit, he pointed through a space between two buildings, where I could see the flag Yang Wu had hoisted up on top of his house, and then we parted ways. I went to find a place suitable for taking a picture of this marvel and ended up coming across the lightrail tracks, at Yangjiaping Station. Chongqing has no underground, it only has the “aboveground”, the lightrail. When I climbed up onto the platform, I noticed the white “Citizens’ Legally-Owned Property Will Not Be Encroached Upon” white banner which Yang Wu had placed on the house. It's because of this banner that so many lightrail passengers took notice, and standing from the platform, started taking pictures of it with their cellphones. This is also another reason why the Chongqing nailhouse became so widely known. As well, this piece of land is golden real estate; nearby is a walking street, and the lightrail also brings in so much people-flow. This piece of land is clearly worth its weight in gold. Everyone knows, in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, cities with subways, commercial property located conveniently near subway exits are especially expensive.

我从站台上拍了几张照片后,然后绕到工地的围墙的大门口附近,也就是杨武的房子背向的那边。门口紧闭着,门内有六七个穿保安制服的人在里面聊天。门上面有一块牌子,上面写着”施工场地,为了您的安全,未经引领允许,不得进入”,我转了一圈,可能是去得太早的缘故,没有发现记者蹲守。然后我买了四份不同的报纸,找了一个地方坐下来慢慢看,结果没有发现与”最牛钉子户”的报道,旁边有人告诉我,昨天的报纸就有报导。后来,来了一个五六十多岁的老人,我以为他也想看报纸,我就把另一份报纸递给他,他没看,于是我问他知不知钉子户的事,想不到他居然不正面回答我,而是说了一句很让我震撼的话:” 啥子钉子户哦,那是当官的给他们起的名字!”这让我很惊奇,我于是掏出手机打开录音功能,我求他再说一次以便我将这么深刻的说法放到网上给人听听,可是他说,录音我就不讲了,然后告诉我”他们只是维权”就走开了。原来他们以为我是记者了。后来,又来了一位抱着孙子的退休教师,她告诉我,吴苹他们没有什么背景,长辈不是人大代表,杨武的儿子在读书(应朋友们提醒,已经隐去儿子的相关介绍,请转载的朋友相应改动一下)”。杨武一家在那里开火锅店是开得最早的,生意是最好的,他们没有开价2000万,他们的房子被估价250万,房地产开发商加100万价,共是愿意支付350万给钉子户,但他们只要求”原地点,原面积,原朝向”的房子,他们不要钱。她还告诉我,她说她以前在铁马集团的房子也是被恐吓下拆迁的,当时是”工人下岗、干部撤职”的行政手段让他们屈服的,杨武他们之所以敢硬颈,就是因为他们是个体户,不受体制内的胁迫。

After shooting several photos from the platform, I made my way closer to the entrance of the enclosure surround the worksite, at the back of Yang Wu's house. The gate was firmly shut, and six or seven uniformed security guards stood in front chatting. There was also a sign on the gate on which was written “work site, for your safety, do not enter without permission”. I walked around a bit; it might have been because I came too early, but I couldn't see any reporters standing around. I then went and bought four different newspapers, found a place to site and slowly looked through them, but was unable to find any reports on “the coolest nailhouse“. Somebody beside me told me that yesterday's papers had reports. Later, a fifty to sixty-year old man came by. I thought he wanted to read the paper too, so I gave him one. He didn't read it, so I asked him if he knew about the nailhouse and was surprised when he answered in the negative, again at another shocking statement: “what are you talking about, nailhouse! The government gave them that name!” This made me curious, so I pulled out my cellphone and turned on the recording function, asking him to repeat that deep statment so I could put it on the internet for others to hear, but he said he wouldn't talk if I had the recorder on. He told me “they're just upholding their rights”, then left. Guess he thought I was a reporter. Then, along came a retired teacher holding her grandson. She told me Wu Ping had no special family background, that her father is not a NPC delegate, that Yang Wu's son is a student. [She then told me that] Yang Wu's family were one of the first to open a hotpot restaurant on that [former] land, and had the best business. He didn't ask for twenty million RMB [in compensation]. The house was appraised at 2.5 million RMB, and the real estate company added a million on top of that, willing to pay 3.5 million RMB in total for the nailhouse, but Yang and Wu had only demanded for a [new] house “in the same spot, the same size, facing in the same direction”, and did not ask for any money. She also told me that she too once owned a house from [the same] Tiema Group and was terrorized out; at the time it was executive government means of forcing workers out of work and seeing cadres dismissed from their posts that led to their compliance. Yang Wu and Wu Ping only dare take a hard stance because they're private business owners and not subject to coercion from within the system.

From here, Zola goes back to the lightrail station and makes an unexpected discovery, those from around the country with experiences similar to Yang and Wu's who, in hopes of bringing attention to their cases, flocked to Chongqing, waiting around the nailsite for anyone willing to listen. He tells the story of a 64 year-old Mrs. Liu from Chongqing who insists she was greatly undercompensated for her house after it too was torn down in the city's Huaxin village, Yu district. Zola also tells the story of 48 year-old army veteran Mr. Chen from Zhuhai, in southern China's Guangdong province, whose building was torn down after residents were beaten and lured out, who lost with the house the money he had borrowed to pay for it. After petitioning to Beijing, a letter was sent down to petition authorities in Guangdong province, from there to Zhuhai city, where, Zola writes of Chen's story, it was not opened. Chen demanded it be read and addressed, at which point the Zhuhai petition office threatened to call the police unless Chen left, which he did. Chen rushed to Chongqing after seeing the Phoenix TV report on the nailhouse, hoping to make his story known to reporters there covering the story.

They asked if I was a reporter, Zola writes, which I told them I am not, that I only run my own small website, but that its contents would not be deleted:


I said I wanted to see some related information, so Mr. Chen took me to his house to copy some information from his jump-disk. Lady Liu then said she wanted to take me to Hualong bridge to [see her story] to see if I might be able to write about it. Lady Liu came with me to Mr. Chen's place where I got some more information and saw some photos and decided to put them up on my website, using SEO technology to let as many people as possible know about this matter. When I took the information and was about to leave, Mr. Chen took out several hundred RMB and pushed it toward me, saying it was for my travel costs. I'd never come across a situation like this before, and never thought to take money from people I'd help by writing about, so I firmly said I didn't want it, saying I only came to help him of a sense of justice, and that it might not necessarily prove successful. If you want to thank me, I said, buy me lunch. He agreed. Actually, what I was really thinking was that if I had accepted his money, what difference would there then be between me and someone like Lan Chengchang? After the first time I accept this kind of ‘money for your trouble’, I might accept it a second time. This would lead me to stray further and further from my emerging sense of justice.


I said goodbye to Mr. Chen, and took the bus with Lady Liu to Hualong Bridge. Mr. Chen phoned me, saying he wanted to pay for a hotel room for me, and I accepted with peace of mind. I actually want to stay in Jiulongpo for a few days to cover the nailhouse incident.


On the bus, I came across on middle-aged teacher, he used Mandarin to tell me that there was in fact no special family background to [Wu Ping's] nailhouse, but rather than her and Yang Wu had grabbed the government in a weak spot. The key point to this incident was that the developer had evicted all the residents against their will and then began excavation, that the government has failed in their supervision duties. He also told me that Jiulongpo district has not a single patch of green space, and that this piece of land was slated to become a park, but as the government sold the land to the real estate developer to be used for construction of commercial residential property, that the government was in the wrong. This was a decision made only on the 19th [of March], when demolition had been slated to begin on March 22nd, and the real reason the house has yet to be torn down is that this decision was made without public knowledge. He went on to say that the funny but inappropriate part is that when it should have been the real estate developer's role to take Yang Wu and Wu Ping to court [forcing them to evict], it was in fact the Jiulongpo Residence Management Bureau. In other words, a civil dispute over the sale of a house became administrative litigation.

到了化龙桥,那里一片狼籍,很多信宅楼都空了,还有百分之十的住户由于无处可去而不得不留在那里,都是一些老头老太,他们”摆开龙门阵”,跟我讲,政府用 “吓哄骗”的手段让他们服从,而且有不戴肩章的穿制服的人打人,不按市场价给补偿,安置房又是旧房。他们说他们的声音无法发出,所以希望我写写放在网上。我拍了一些照片

Arriving at Hualong Bridge, that notorious spot, there were many empty buildings, and the ten percent of the residents, left with no place to go, who had no choice but to stay there, all old men and women. They spared no energy in telling me that the government had frightened and tricked them into compliance, and that people had been beaten by people wearing uniforms with no badges, that compensation was below market value, and replacement accommodations were all old houses. They said they had no way to get their voices out, so they hoped I'd write about them and put it on the internet. I shot some photos.

In his next post later the same day, Zola writes of having met homeowner Wu Ping, blogging her answers to the two questions he asked her:

Zola and nailhouse owner, Wu Ping


1. Word on the internet is you're asking for 20 million RMB in compensation for the house, yesterday the Guiyang Evening News and newspapers here in Chongqing have all reported that the Residence Management Administration claims it “will not accept sky-high compensation demands”, many reports say you're demanding a house “in the same location, the same size and facing the same direction” [as the original]. What is your true attitude and what are your conditions?


Wu Ping responds: I don't want money. What I want is the same size, anywhere in this area currently being excavated.


2. Online and some of the people from my investigation today suggest that you have a [special] family background, saying your father is a National People's Congress delegate. Do you have a family background?


Wu Ping responds: The law is my background.

Is Zola on this story for the long haul? Nice work if you can get it, jump on the train and the story and worry about finances later. Zola's last post on the 28th lists several way readers can support his citizen media venture financially:

1. PayBaby (支付宝)

2. His Merchants Bank account: 0755-30718139

3. Put money into either one of his cellphone numbers: 13926536501 or 13467668333.

And aside from asking readers not to re-submit comments if they don't immediately appear, Zola leaves his Bullog space address in case one day his own blog is rendered unreachable, and urges readers to add links to either of those two spaces to their GTalk, MSN, Skype or QQ names.

Zola's next post goes through some of the photos he's been taking, starting with the people like Mr. Chen and Ms. Liu mentioned above, with others coming from Zhuhai, Chengdu, Shanghai, Xian and Guangzhou:


She has it tougher than the others, Zola writes. She spent all night standing outside and even tried a flashmob, going up into the lightrail station which overlooks the nailpit and whipping out a banner expressing support for Yang Wu:


Who along with his wife Wu Ping, had this banner made up for him by one resident of Xi'an:

“To Heroes in Defending Private Property Rights Yang Wu and Wu Ping”

There's Japanese and domestic (Guangzhou) TV crews still in the area, as well as patrol cops, who have installed surveillance cameras on buildings and even on a tree next to the gate to the fenced-off hole.

A post today presents two minute-long, soundless videos Zola shot with his cellphone, showing the nailhouse still standing, and who's still watching.

Not that much news yet today, but from the sounds of it, Zola has no plans to head home yet. One post from this morning expands on his motivation for experimentation with citizen reporting, possibly a follow-up from yesterday's post on ‘the impotence of mainland media‘, and a precursor to his latest post, an angry rant aimed at a Ta Kung Pao reporter to whom he proves to be of some help, only to then catch her in a lie.


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