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The Fall of Zhang Biqing: Razing the Rooftop Villa of Beijing

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Asia Life

The Fall of Zhang Biqing: Razing the Rooftop Villa of Beijing

The rise and fall of Zhang Biqing’s rooftop villa tells us much about China’s elite.

Last week, amid a slew of reports and public brow furrowing, authorities finally demanded that Beijing resident Zhang Biqing deconstruct his luxurious rooftop dwelling dubbed the “hanging villa” of Beijing. It can be seen here from above.

Prior to the order, the story of this villa made the rounds online and raised a number of questions about this mysterious “Professor Zhang,” a self-proclaimed doctor in Beijing. Zhang took it upon himself to illegally construct the now famous three-story residence (seen here), resembling a miniature setting from a Chinese landscape painting, complete with imitation rocks, shrubs, grass and trees. Trellises, walkways and seating areas crisscross the abode, which contains a karaoke parlor where Zhang once invited celebrities to serenade the neighbors below.

The 8,000-square-foot villa has sat atop Park View building, a 26-story luxury apartment building in Beijing’s western Haidian district, for the past six years. It cost Zhang an estimated $4 million to complete. The building’s longsuffering residents complained of noise during the blatantly illegal construction project, which caused the building’s roof to leak and walls to crack. Fears that that artificial mini-mountain would damage the building’s integrity seemed well justified.

“Since I dare to live here, I am not worried about complaints,” Zhang told Beijing Morning News. “Famous people come to my place and sing. How can you stop them?”

Until recently, that may have been true. But Zhang’s defiance now rings hollow. Last Tuesday Zhang was given 15 days to demolish the structure. The amazing thing to note is that it took six years for this to finally happen. The New York Times reports that Zhang continuously either dodged officials who tried to reach him or blocked them from entering. The elusive professor even managed to sidestep inspectors sent to confront him in the building’s underground parking garage. One man who confronted Zhang was beaten up.

“If we can’t calculate the scope of this illegal construction, we can’t issue a notice requiring him to dismantle it,” an official from Purple Bamboo Park told The Beijing Morning Post, as reported by The New York Times.

Zhang made his case, saying the structure lacked permanent concrete attachments, but conceded that he did not ask for permission to construct a sunroom. In the end, however, the media onslaught had an effect. Zhang’s hanging villa must come down. As seen in this video released by NHK yesterday, the dismantling process is underway. Zhang has until August 27 to finish the job.

“Now I realize it was a huge mistake,” he said.

It may seem hard to believe, but Zhang’s domicile is not an isolated case. Further, not all residents frown on such audacious rooftop palaces. A woman named Liu from Pingyuanli in Beijing’s Xicheng district was rather impressed by Zhang’s creation. “It really is a marvelous villa, atmospheric and luxurious,” she said. “The illegal building in my neighborhood pales in comparison.”

The existence of illegal constructions in China raises a core question regarding corruption and privilege. Do Zhang and others like him simply bribe authorities or use connections to skirt regulations? Far from it, Zhang claims. He claims to have borrowed “quite a lot” of money from banks to build his abode. “I still owe the bank money,” he said. “So it has nothing to do with the government, I don't have any deal with them in private. I'm not a princeling, so I don't need to speak for them.”

According to an employee of Park View who spoke to TIME anonymously, Zhang’s claims are suspect. Plain and simple, “The government has not been doing its job,” he said. “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.”

A resident of the building named Wang echoed this point. “He has money,” Wang said. “He can do whatever he wants.”

The chengguan, China’s notorious urban enforcement squads, didn’t interfere with Zhang’s plans either. A Weibo user said: “If the chengguan 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?”