Minami Funakoshi senior contributor

A Chinese Official Realizes the Dream of Home Ownership — 31 Times

An apartment complex in Shenzhen. (dcmaster/Flickr)

In modern China, a home is a symbol of financial independence, social status, and success. Many people toil away to realize this “Chinese Dream” of owning a home, even if it means working tirelessly to pay off the mortgage, becoming what the Chinese call a fangnu — a “slave to the house.”

Introducing a new Internet persona: “house sister” 

So when the Chinese public heard that a girl in her early twenties named Zhai Jiazeng owned eleven government-subsidized “affordable apartments” in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, they were shocked. “How many people do you think there are that can’t afford to buy houses! We must kill these termites!” wrote @刘斌笑对人生, a user on Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblogging platform. Web users took to calling Zhai Jiazeng fangmei, or “house sister.” The word fangmei, no doubt stemming from the word fangnu, accentuates the gap between the lifestyles of ordinary Chinese citizens and corrupt government officials.

The scandal first erupted last year on October 31, 2012, when one Web user wrote on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, that Zhai Zhenfeng, the girl’s father, “flipped” — i.e. bought and quickly resold at a profit — over 300 subsidized apartments. Through this transaction alone, Zhai allegedly made 60 million RMB (about US$10 million). Some who have purchased the apartments from Zhai stated that he had charged 50,000 RMB (about US$ 8,000) extra as agency fee. Within 16 hours of its posting, this information had been shared over 3,000 times.

About two months later, on December 26, Hong Kong’s Sing Pao newspaper wrote via Weibo about Zhai’s daughter’s own substantial holdings. On January 13, 2013, after eighteen days of investigation, the Zhengzhou police announced their decision to arrest Mr. Zhai.

Along with members of his family, Mr. Zhai, former director of the housing administration bureau in Henan, owns a total of 31 different apartments, according to recent reports. Fourteen of the 31 apartments belong to Zhai’s son, Zhai Zhenghong; eleven belong to daughter Zhai Jiazeng; and four belong to wife Li Shuping.

Results of recent investigations seem to refute Zhai’s claim of innocence, portraying him instead as a shockingly prolific criminal. According to Zhengzhou police reports, Zhai not only embezzled 30 million RMB (about US$4.8 million) in public funds, he also violated the one-child policy, and while he was at it, household registration regulations, which stipulate that a Chinese citizen can only possess one hukou, or permanent residency permit (every one in Zhai’s family possessed two). 

How did he do it?

Observers appear to assume that Mr. Zhai’s scheme involved availing himself of a well-meaning government policy, although the precise details remain unclear.

Mindful of the potentially crushing costs of housing as prices spiralled, starting in 2007 the Chinese government sponsored an “affordable housing project” that promised to provide inexpensive housing for low-income households. In the first eight months of 2012, the government invested 820 billion RMB (about US$132 billion) in the project. Jiang Weixin, the current Minister of Housing and Urban-Rural Construction, announced the ministry’s plan to construct 4.6 million affordable housing units in 2013.

Despite such efforts, however, demand for affordable housing exceeds its availability. To cope with the situation, some regions such as Chongqing use a lottery system to allocate government-subsidized apartments to eligible low-income residents.

Zhai Zhenfeng, who operates a real estate company whose registered capital reached 8 million RMB (about US$1.3 million) in 2002, does not come close to qualifying for the housing subsidy. When asked how he obtained his apartments in an interview with Beijing News, Zhai answered that it was the result of his wife “doing eleven years of business” in the real estate world, as well as family savings.

Mistrust of officialdom rears its head, again

Faced with yet another case of local government corruption, Chinese Web users responded with disgust and disappointment. “Why do such officials exist? They’re completely useless…shouldn’t we just get rid of the ministry altogether and get the people to oversee everything?” wrote @招财猫_y. “Our nation has already rotted to the extreme…the officials’ words have lost all integrity whatsoever,” wrote @超级大老虎. Another Web user, @爱与巴巴拉, wrote simply, “Kill them.” Perhaps tellingly, this post has not been deleted by censors.

Other Web users viewed this scandal as further proof of the inequality that exists in today’s Chinese society. @妈妈爱宝贝99, whose handle literally means “mommy loves her darling,” lamented, “Ordinary citizens can’t afford a house, and even just giving birth to a child requires us to go through countless procedures. Look at this official: He has multiple houses and more than one child. This is what we call ‘distinctly Chinese.’” Another user, @黑黑黑黑黑黑皮, commented, “One third of those who live in ‘affordable housing’ drive around in BMWs. One half of them either have favorable relationships or power and status.”

Perhaps what angered the public the most is Zhai Zhenfeng’s disregard for the many Chinese citizens who work tirelessly to pay their housing bills, giving the hyperbolic name “mortgage slave” the ring of truth. In a market of limited subsidized housing stock, observers seem to feel that Zhai used his status to steal what rightly belongs to them. Weibo user @涟涟雨迤逦行 asked: “The girls who have no choice but to work, the girls who cry tears of blood…what of them? Who can answer them?”

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Minami Funakoshi

After spending her childhood in India, Malaysia, and Japan, Minami moved to the U.S. to attend Yale University. Currently, she is studying abroad in Beijing and Taipei to improve her Chinese. She will work as an editorial intern at the Wall Street Journal Hong Kong Office through the Robert L. Bartley Fellowship Program.