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Couple’s property ordeal captivates Chinese internet

  • Published
    20 hours ago
Image source, Social media

A young Chinese couple whose struggles to own a flat shed light on the country’s economic downturn have captivated the nation.

Zhang Yiliang and his wife Dong Lijun, both in their 30s, have documented the last two years of their lives, starting with the moment they purchased the flat. Their account “Liangliang Lijun couple” has earned more than 400,000 followers on Douyin.

What began as a celebration eventually ran into trouble, including rows with the property developer who they said owed them money. In recent weeks, they alleged they were assaulted and had their videos censored, which gained them the sympathy of millions online.

Their experience as small-towners who had big-city dreams appears to have resonated with so many ordinary Chinese people – and mirrored their challenges and dashed hopes amid a property crisis in a sluggish economy.

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“What you are posting is real life,” a Douyin user wrote. “In fact, life is hard for most young people. It’s not a party every night.” Another comment, which was liked hundreds of times, read: “Their story resonates because they are just like us.”

Some said their aspirations represented the so-called Chinese dream, a concept popularised by President Xi Jinping, which champions the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

“Liangliang and Lijun painted a visible model for the ‘Chinese dream’,” a former journalist said in a video on his social media channel. “This is to tell everyone, especially young people: The most diligent, law-abiding, and optimistic citizens do not deserve the Chinese Dream, let alone others. Thanks to the couple for helping us see the cruel side of China’s reality.”

But the video has since been deleted, and his Weibo account has been banned from posting.

At the centre of the couple’s emotional rollercoaster is their flat, which they bought in 2021. They first posted about their purchase on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok in November that year.

“Now among all the lights, there will be one lit up just for me,” the overjoyed couple wrote alongside the video they shared on their account, Liangliang and Lijun.

People attend a job fair for university graduates at a gymnasium in Hefei, Anhui province, China September 4, 2023.

Image source, Reuters

They posted constantly about the progress of the construction of their flat, and visited the site almost every month.

One month later, Ms Dong came home with bad news – she was forced to accept a salary cut, bringing it down to just 2,000 yuan (about $282; £222) a month. In a video, she is seen crying while delivering the news to her husband: “Our salary is already the lowest… What should I do?”

The video likely echoed similar stories across China as unemployment increased. “I can’t be the only one crying while watching their videos,” a comment read.

But for the young couple, the worst was yet to come.

In May 2022 the developer – Sunac China Holdings Limited – admitted to financial problems after missing an interest payment deadline on a bond.

This was a time when other property developers, such as Evergrande, were struggling to pay off debts and deliver homes. But Mr Zhang and Ms Dong were still optimistic. Days after the announcement, Mr Zhang said in a post: “We chose Sunac so we should trust them. We believe they will act responsibly as a company should, and deliver the project.”

But two months later construction stopped. They spent the next few months calling for the firm to resume construction, which happened early in 2023. During that time, they had a daughter.

Life seemed like it was back on track – but they said the company still owed them a 20,000-yuan rebate, which they had been asking for over months.

Then on 15 November, the couple went to an event hosted by Sunac and live-streamed their encounter. Their Douyin account has no posts after that day until 1 December.

Soon after the Sunac avent, social media was abuzz with posts and comments, saying the couple had been beaten during the livestream, video of which is no longer available. Screengrabs that have been shared by users also show a series of posts, where Mr Zhang appears to have visited a hospital. In another video posted on Ms Dong’s personal account on 18 November, he said, “There are a lot of rules in this society for us to follow. It’s not unusual that our videos got restricted or disappeared.”

The couple said they called the police immediately. Local police told the Southern Metropolis Daily that they had “punished” the attackers and would follow up on the matter. Sunac China did not respond to the BBC’s questions. The BBC also contacted Mr Zhang and Ms Dong for comment.

Ms Dong taping her husband's mouth up in a video

Image source, Social media

The incident drew enormous attention online and from Chinese media. It topped the topic chart on Weibo, China’s equivalent of X, with tens of thousands of comments and posts. While some cast doubt on their version of events, many sympathised with them.

“People get beaten up and they are not allowed to speak up. Are they still allowed to live?” a top-liked comment reads. “Can we help them, and help our society?” another Weibo user asked.

“They went to the developer again and again, because they are very poor and they really need that money. They recorded the process of being beaten, and they were wronged but had nowhere to go,” Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of the state-run Global Times, wrote on Weibo.

“It is very important for us to ensure ordinary people’s hard work pays off, and their passion and hope for the future stays alive,” he added.

Mr Zhang and Ms Dong say they are yet to receive the rebate. Last week they provoked fresh discussion – full of anger and disappointment – when they said they were going to leave Zhengzhou and go back to Mr Zhang’s hometown.

“Ordinary people like them are the majority, so the way things ended for them is particularly painful to us,” a Weibo comment liked thousands of times reads.

But the couple have since said they are undecided – suspicion joined sympathy as some users wondered whether Mr Zhang and Ms Dong are profiting from all the attention online.

Others asked if they were giving in to pressure from local authorities, who wanted to stave off the bad publicity for Zhengzhou.

A comment under their latest video, on Ms Dong’s personal Douyin account, reads: “It’s too hard. It’s too hard to be yourself.”

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How did 6 million people in China buy homes that don’t exist? Listen here for more on the societal pressures young people face to be home owners

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