Before they were razed to make way for presidents and prime ministers, the three villages sat perched on the shores of Yanqi Lake, a short drive northeast of Beijing. Nearby orchards grew apples, pears, peaches, walnuts and apricots. The surrounding mountains flushed green in summer, and the lake waters swam with fish.
"When I stepped out the door of my old house, it was so spacious and open," recalled Shi Wenguang, who lived in Quanshuitou Village. "I could sit at my gate with a cup of tea in my hand and look out over the lake."
The villages were home to about 1,800 people. Many of them lived in sprawling courtyard houses with dozens of rooms, and had ancestral ties to the places dating back centuries. Then, four years ago, the residents learned their lives were about to change dramatically. Their lands, they were told, had been chosen for redevelopment – in fact for destruction – to make way for the new luxury resort that will host leaders of Pacific Rim countries, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, at the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation summit next week.
Where Mr. Shi's house once stood is now grass. He hears it may be a golf course. He hasn't been allowed back to check. "After it was demolished, we went for a look. My wife broke into tears," he said. "People miss the old houses where we lived for so many years."
The story of the villages is a reminder of how rapidly even the landscape changes in China, as the country races for economic glory, and the upheaval it causes to its people. For the villagers, the construction of the APEC site has revealed the avarice, corruption and psychological dislocation that have been the near-constant companions of China's economic expansion and reforms.
He had no way to oppose what happened. One villager who argued against the relocation was forced to divorce her husband, who worked in local government. Had they not legally separated, he would have lost his job.
"The people of the three villages are exactly the same as those relocated from the Three Gorges dam. Generation by generation, we lived there for hundreds of years," said Xi Furong, one of the villagers. "Now the land is gone."
The bitterness is palpable. When villagers who have been relocated heard a visitor had come to hear their stories, 10 people came rushing and crowded into a living room clutching documents and photos to illustrate their problems. Laying out their complaints to a foreigner is an act born of desperation. Their attempt to get the attention of the government has been stymied; when a group of more than 100 gathered last year to deliver a petition to anti-graft commissioners, local authorities stopped their bus and filmed them.
The villagers' anger stems largely from a conviction that they were not paid fair compensation for the land that was gradually taken away.
Many of the villagers had rights to use mountain lands. They planted trees and watched trunks grow fat with timber and branches become heavy with fruit. They were family plots, cared for over centuries. "This generation planted and the next generation enjoyed the fruits," said Lu Changfu, another villager.
But in 2009, before any of the villagers knew about plans to tear down their homes, the local government signed away the forest lands to a "stranger." When the government took the land to make way for the APEC site, the "stranger" got the compensation, estimated at more than 100-million yuan, or $18-million, Mr. Lu said. "Our county officials are very corrupt," he said.
When the villagers' houses were seized, they were entitled to compensation designed to let them buy living space equal to what they gave up. Some took the money – the equivalent of about $1,750 a square metre, or just over one-quarter the average rate in nearby Beijing. Others opted to take units in a complex of new apartments the government built. They were told the units would be discounted, and were surprised to discover they were instead obligated to pay the full price. The total shortfall, they claim, amounts to more than $185-million.
They also say they haven't been compensated properly for the value of their now-vanished collective property including machinery, buildings, trees, roads and farmland.
At least some of the problems may come down to a lack of understanding. Documents shown to The Globe and Mail suggest a government subsidy was used to knock down the apartment price for those who bought those units, but given as cash to those who did not – making it appear they were paid much more. Local authorities did not reply to several interview requests.
What's not in doubt is that the apartments, barely a year old, are already exhibiting signs of shoddy construction. Photos show splintered ceilings, cracked concrete and a wall gouged out to access a heating pipe that leaked when it was tested. The apartments appear to be settling, suggesting deeper problems from the hasty work of clearing the way for foreign dignitaries.
The villagers also no longer have income from orchards and houses used as inns; if they are over 60, the government gives them about $222 per month.
Still, for all their ill feeling, many of them are pleased that the government made a showcase venue for the world and bring glory to China, even if it meant they lost their land.
"It's worth it," Mr. Shi said. "There is nothing better than the strength and prosperity of the country."