Illegal Rooftop Villa in Beijing Reveals China’s Culture of Impunity

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Ng Han Guan / AP

A rooftop villa complete with rocks and flora stands on top of a high-rise residential building in Beijing

It was an abode worthy of a James Bond villain, but was ultimately bested by a foe slightly less charismatic than the British secret agent — Chinese planning regulations. The faux-rock villa complete with trees, patios and karaoke studio situated on a Beijing apartment-building roof will soon be torn down after a demolition order was issued by the city’s urban-management department. Zhang Biqing, who built the illegal 800-sq-m structure from plastic and resin, told the BBC on Tuesday that he would comply. However, critics allege that far from being merely an eccentric folly, the case demonstrates an ingrained culture of legal impunity for China’s wealthy elite.

That the craggy extension — sitting atop a 26-story building in the plush Park View residential compound in the Chinese capital’s Haidian district, amid government offices and universities — slowly took shape over six years has raised eyebrows. And then there is the owner: Zhang is a successful doctor of traditional Chinese medicine and former member of a district People’s Political Consultative Conference, a local political-advisory body. Reports in Chinese media claim that neighbors have long raised complaints about the structure, citing excessive construction noise as well as interference with shared pipes and other common amenities.

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One retired civil servant TIME interviewed at Park View, who asked to remain anonymous as he still occasionally works there part time, put blame for the extension’s longevity firmly on the local authorities. “The government has not been doing its job,” he says. “You hear about houses being torn down all over the place and people being kicked out of their own homes, but in this case they have left it alone. Obviously he’s well connected.”

Other neighbors are more philosophical about the illegal structure. Wang, 60, lives on the 26th floor next to Zhang and told TIME that many people have already moved out of the block because of the disruption caused by Zhang’s kitsch folly. “He has money,” Wang says, “so he can do whatever he wants.”

Many Beijing residents have taken to China’s Twitter-like social-media service Weibo to register their objections. “If the chengguan [controversial urban law-enforcement officers] can spend every day watching street hawkers, then why couldn’t they see Zhang Biqing’s rooftop villa? Does law enforcement only look down, but not up?” asked one user.

Chinese people are growing increasingly sensitive to the perceived flamboyant lifestyles of government officials and their close associates. In addition, rising land prices mean property is seen as a quick route to make a fortune, and corner cutting often takes place. A developer in the central city of Hengyang recently built an illegal complex of 25 villas on top of a shopping center, but was later allowed to keep the houses provided he did not sell them. Similarly, a series of luxury rooftop courtyard houses atop the dragon-shaped Pangu Plaza, by Beijing’s iconic Bird’s Nest stadium, were initially ruled “illegal constructions” but have been allowed to remain after the constructor paid a fine and pledged they would be rented rather than sold.

However, it doesn’t appear that Zhang is in line for any such reprieve. An ultimatum to dismantle his pet project within 15 days or face forcible demolition was published in local media on Monday evening. While Zhang initially played down the two-story structure as “just an ornamental garden” when speaking to the Beijing Times, this dismissive attitude has now been replaced by measured contrition. But he still insists that his powerful connections have no bearing on the case. This has “nothing to do with the government, I don’t have any deal with them in private,” he told the BBC. “I’m not a princeling.”

— With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang / Beijing and Jennifer Cheng / Hong Kong

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