“I don’t want to be a princess, I don’t even want to know who the princess is,” says Anna Lai, a grandmother who’s been living in an abandoned home in the mountains of Taiwan’s Hualien province for years.
“I just want to live in a house and eat rice and drink tea and play games with my grandchildren.”
She’s not alone.
Across China, thousands of Chinese people have found themselves living in abandoned homes since the end of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1980s.
A survey by the Pew Research Center last year found that at least 8.4 million Chinese people, including nearly 3 million children, were living in “abandoned houses” in 2017.
The government has attempted to stamp out these problems by creating more than 2 million new housing units for low-income households in 2017 alone.
But it’s difficult to measure the extent of these new housing projects, and experts say there’s still a lot of work to do.
“I think we’re just starting to understand the extent to which the government is actually managing these new developments, and how they’re managing the infrastructure,” says Paul Gao, a professor of urban development at Boston University.
“But it seems to me that we are seeing more and more projects that are starting to become really problematic for the Chinese people.
They’re not just a bunch of abandoned houses, they’re actually quite problematic.”
The problems start with the people who live there.
For most of the past decade, many of the country’s poorest families have been living inside abandoned houses in rural areas, which makes them vulnerable to floods and landslides.
“There is no infrastructure that you can access from outside these villages,” says Gao.
“People are forced to live inside these houses.”
Some of these abandoned houses are owned by family members, so the families have to get permission from the local government before they can live there and have access to basic services.
The situation in Hualiien is different, because most of these buildings are owned directly by the local municipality.
As a result, the families who live in these abandoned buildings have to go through the hassle of paying the government for permission to live there, as well as obtaining the proper permits to set up a new home.
“They are forced into the process of obtaining permission to build the new home,” Gao says.
But some of the most disturbing stories come from those who live next door.
For years, Chinese people in Hurali had to pay the government to build a new house for their family.
“The first time that they were going to build that house was after they were arrested for having a family, and they had to go back to the village to pay their fees,” says a woman surnamed Wang.
“And then, they had this very long process of trying to find a house that could be rented by their neighbors.”
“The houses that they built were very, very expensive,” Wang says.
“Even the houses that we built were expensive.
Even the ones that we bought for a couple of thousand dollars each were very expensive.
The new houses were just so expensive.”
In 2017, Wang, along with other elderly women living in Hualaien, filed a lawsuit against the local authorities over the issue.
Wang claims that the government failed to properly monitor the construction of the homes, and that they weren’t properly registered with the city.
In 2016, the case went to the Supreme People’s Court, where the judges ruled that the homes were illegal, and ordered the local governments to stop building them.
Wang says the government has since been unable to provide her with any documentation to back up its claims.
“The authorities have not told us anything, they just said we’re not going to take any action because we don’t have the documents,” Wang said.
“That’s really not true.
They have to do the paperwork.
We have to fill out forms.
The officials have not even done anything.
So, it’s really really not fair to us.”
Since the case was filed, the authorities have been busy renovating some of these houses, but others have remained empty.
“It’s just been really hard to see this old building deteriorate,” Wang told The China Brief.
“We’ve been living there for about five years, and we’ve still not been able to see it deteriorate.”
“I really want to say that this place is just absolutely gorgeous,” Wang continues.
“It’s beautiful to see the mountains, and the sky, and everything.
It’s just really gorgeous.
And it’s not going anywhere.
I don, you know, I have to tell you that I just can’t get used to it.”
Despite the problems faced by those living in these houses—and the thousands of others across China—there is hope.
Last year, China