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    Charity Housing Project Sparks Community Quarrel

    Villagers promised free villas have been painted as ingrates for arguing over the development’s details.

    A multimillionaire got more than he bargained for when he promised to build new homes for the residents of his hometown in rural Guangdong province, proving that charity can require more than good intentions.

    Construction of 258 villas in Guanhu Village, Suixi County, was suspended after residents fought over who would get them, how many would be allotted to each household, and what amenities they would come equipped with, local media reported Tuesday.

    As part of the 200 million-yuan ($32 million) philanthropic initiative to replace the villagers’ old homes, Chen Sheng, the chairman and president of Guangdong Tiandi Food Group, had planned to start moving folks into new homes after this year’s Spring Festival ended in February. In addition to the 258 villas, Chen had planned to build two separate apartment buildings, as well as a kindergarten and a retirement home.

    Chen had previously built a primary school and a pig farm to create more jobs for the villagers of Guanhu. In 2011 — the year Chen hatched the housing project plan — the annual per capita income for Suixi County was just 8,688 yuan.

    So far, the housing project has been met with mixed reactions. “Whenever I returned to the village, I’d get all kinds of questions and requests from the residents,” Chen was quoted as saying in the article. “This caused me to avoid returning home for the past two Spring Festivals.”

    But their concerns aren’t necessarily unjustified. Demolition and redevelopment projects in China are often fraught, as property prices soar and residents worry about getting the short end of the deal, especially if their home is their only asset. Though the state owns all land in China, renting it out to citizens by means of decades-long leases, residents often rebel — against demolition teams, village chiefs, town mayors, and other officials — when they feel they’re being cheated.

    In the case of the Guanhu Village development, a lack of information has not assuaged residents’ concerns.

    Chen Guangwu, the manager of the construction site, admitted to the reporter that when the project began in 2011, none of the villagers were given written contracts to sign: Construction started after Chen Sheng and the village committee agreed on the terms, and the committee had made only verbal arrangements with residents. Moreover, the committee did not hold a public consultation with the villagers until recently, when the second phase of construction reached a stalemate.

    According to the report, some villagers wanted monetary compensation for their old homes that would have to be demolished in addition to their allocated villa, while others who had moved away from the village were trying to claim the new homes, too. Another villager had asked to keep his old house for himself and still receive an villa for his two sons, both recently married.

    The allocation plan for the project remains unclear, though some villagers have suggested that the 190 households registered in Guanhu be given one new villa each. The new units will share the same key features: two storeys, five rooms, and a parking space.

    But some residents have put in special requests. One villager, for example, had asked for a home with two kitchens for his sons, as rural custom dictates that two brothers living under the same roof should avoid cooking together. “Many of the villagers were contacting Mr. Chen directly with their individual requests,” the construction manager said. “But most of these were rejected, as they were impractical or didn’t fit into the original plan.”

    According to the report, the situation has left the philanthropist feeling “confused and upset.”

    By midweek, news of the malcontent villagers had attracted attention on microblog platform Weibo, with many users painting the villagers as ingrates. “Better to pour the milk out than give it to the poor,” read one upvoted comment.

    Sixth Tone’s phone calls to Chen’s company and the Suixi County government went answered on Thursday.

    Contributions: Qian Jinghua and Fan Liya; editor: David Paulk.

    (Header image: The unoccupied villas in Guanhu Village, Guangdong province, March 2018. Xie Yinan for Sixth Tone)