Chaoyang district has around 20 art zones, 12 of which are to be demolished, most of which are built on land leased from farmers or rural workers, referred to in China as ‘peasants.’ This building on peasant land is technically not allowed, as the land is supposed to be used for agriculture, only the peasants themselves are allowed to build agricultural use buildings on the land. This grey area of definition of land use, and the redefinition of this land for commercial and industrial use, has led to the disputes between artists and their peasant landlords. The peasants receive compensation from the government, both for the land and separately per meter of built property on the land. Artists were given long leases by the peasant landlords, up to 30 years in some cases, and artists spent large sums on building out studios. In most cases the peasant landlords, along with local cadres, then evicted the artists, and expanded the built areas by various ruses, such as adding extra fake floors and putting large roofs over courtyards, to receive additional government compensation, but offered no compensation to the artists. “The peasants cheated the artists,” Xiao Ge said.
The Chaoyang government and central government were at first confused as to the issues surrounding the protests, Xia Ge explained. Only after the protests received international attention did senior government figures investigate the situation, resulting in arrests in some cases of landlords, with 50 ‘mafia’ being arrested in relation to extremely violent assaults on artists at the 008 Art District. It is common practice in China for developers to hire thugs to intimidate and evict troublesome tenants. Once senior government figures became involved the majority of affected artists in the art zones have now received compensation, of up to RMB 250,000. Others, such as the Gao Brothers, who occupy a smaller compound with 10 other artists such as Liu Bolin, said their landlord was attempting to evict them, and told the Art Newspaper the landlord had restricted access already, and built a huge fake roof over the compound, leaving no daylight. “By day, its darker in there than at night now,” Gao Zhen said.