Homeowners reject Beijing’s candidates for powerful local associations

Beijing is facing growing resistance over a flagship project intended to improve governance, after city residents balked at backing its preferred candidates in local elections.

Authorities want to expand homeowners’ associations, self-governing bodies that decide on everything from maintenance fees to the selection of property managers, in a bid to boost social stability.

Beijing plans to introduce the bodies in at least 30 per cent of the city’s neighbourhoods by the end of this year and 90 per cent by 2022.

But efforts to force residents to back official candidates have backfired.

David Li, a resident of the Jinmaoyue neighbourhood in Beijing, decided not to vote after the local government asked him to back its nominees. “I have never met with or spoken to any of these candidates,” he said, after facing pressure from local officials and complaints to his employer. “How do I know they will act in my interest?”

The policy initiative was introduced as China’s urban homeowners, the nation’s wealthiest demographic, have grown increasingly unhappy with local services.

“Clashes between homeowners and property managers break out almost everywhere and have become one of the biggest threats to China’s social stability,” said a Beijing-based academic and government adviser, who did not want to be named.

The central government traditionally had limited tools to solve local problems. Community residents’ committees, one of the few neighbourhood-focused government departments, pay more attention to enforcing social control policies such as birth planning than handling public service concerns. This combination has hurt homeowners.

“Property managers have an incentive to cut corners when checks and balances do not exist,” said Chen Fengshan, a Beijing-based consultant on community governance.

The government’s approach, however, has met with deep-seated scepticism.

“The Chinese government wants to develop self-governing community groups because it has realised it does not have the capacity to address every social problem on its own,” the adviser said. “But how could an HOA make independent decisions when all of its members are chosen by the authority rather than the public?”

The Beijing city government’s solution was to ostensibly empower the public. But residents in more than a dozen neighbourhoods chose HOA members based on government recommendation, even though the law encourages homeowners to run for the position.

A community governance scholar in Beijing said local governments would not allow a free HOA election to happen as that could have political implications.

“If you allow people to vote for HOA president out of their own will, they may one day expect to do the same for national leaders,” the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.

Residents in the Beijing neighbourhood of Shiyuyuan have spent more than a year trying to set up an HOA after their property manager raised maintenance fees by two-fifths.

“While individual residents have little say in the decision to hike prices, HOAs do,” said Jack Lu, owner of a two-bedroom apartment. “Too bad the government doesn’t want people to be organised.”

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