Rule of Law in China–Where is it? Advice for Future Expats Looking for Housing in the Mainland

This is a personal example of poor choice in housing in China and how it affected my stay:

When I moved to Kunming in December 2012, I first stayed in a hostel for less than a week. I then found a temporary housing situation for a few weeks with a foreigner through the Kunming expat website ( When looking for permanent housing, I used, as well as a popular Chinese “craigslist-like” website, I decided I did not want to go through a realtor. That was one mistake.

In total, I spent two weeks checking out many apartments around the city center. In the end, I found a place through The wife of the landlord showed me the apartment: I would get my own bedroom with a bathroom. I also would live with Chinese nationals, which was one of my requirements. I lived in the apartment for a couple days before signing the half-year lease. The male landlord visited the apartment with the lease in hand and asked for my 6 months rent and deposit up front. Before handing him the rent, I skimmed over the Chinese lease and then signed it. Thinking back on it, I recommend asking for the lease in advance, especially if it is written in Mandarin, and to read it over very thoroughly. At that time, I also assumed the man was the landlord. This was another mistake I made: I should have asked him to bring his certificate of property ownership(房产证)to clarify he was in fact the owner of the apartment.

After that, I did not see my landlord for months. I went on with my life and started conducting Fulbright research. Three months into my lease, I got a phone call from my landlord. He asked me when I planned to move out. I said sometime in June. After that, he did not contact me until the end of April, informing me that I needed to move out in May. I said that is inconvenient, but if I have to, I need at least a month for preparation. I would move at the end of May. A few days later, my roommates told me the landlord was forcing us all to move out in the next two days. We all agreed his sudden decision to kick us out was against the contract.

After calling to get more details, it turned out our landlord was in actuality a “middleman.” His lease ended at the beginning of May. That is why he needed to kick us out. I asked for the actual landlord’s number to see if I could persuade her to allow us more time in her apartment. She was not very understanding about our situation. I decided doing this over the phone was not efficient, so I organized the “middleman” and the landlord to come over that night.

Before the meeting, I asked the landlord to bring her certificate of ownership. She did not have one because “the building is still new,” but she did have a “house purchase document” with her daughter’s name of it. It was her daughter’s house. That night, the middleman came to our place very late at around 11pm. The meeting was supposed to begin at 9pm. He blamed it on “traffic.” When the entire group was together, my roommates and I directly told the “middleman” that he breached all our contracts. He did not give us a month’s notice to move out early. We wanted reparations (违约金). Since the contract was made and signed by the “middleman,” he would need to pay.

One clause on the contract specifically said that if either side breaks the contract, then that side must pay in total 3 months rent (for me, 1,200rmb x3) to the other party. The “middleman” said he would allow that, but not that easily. If I asked for reparations, he would not give us any money back at this time and would first force us to find a lawyer (around 5000rmb). He said at court he would wholeheartedly acknowledge his faults. Basically, his meaning was we would waste 5000rmb on the lawyer, just to get around the same amount of money in reparations six months later through the legal system. He did not want give us the three months rent up front. Either way, he would be losing a lot of money. However, he would rather us lose money on getting a lawyer before he was satisfied to give us our entitled reparations.

I did not want to find a lawyer, but I decided, I wouldn’t move out until I got reparations.

I became very frustrated with the “middleman” and how he was treating the law as if it can be bargained. It was his contract, but he was not following his written guidelines. I knew if I had broken the contract, he would have definitely asked me for three months rent for reparations. However, when the tables turned, he would not go through with it. After some discussion with my roommates, we decided we wanted to break ties with this man. But how?

Instead of paying reparations, his solutions were: 1) we could stay at his house and just continue the lease, but I did not trust him enough to do that. 2) He then suggested paying for our accommodations while we searched for new places to live, but I wanted to do it on my own. We then started bargaining over the reparations clause. After much coaxing, he sullenly accepted to pay one extra month of rent as reparations, as well as to pay back the deposit and unfinished rent.

In the end, I received almost 5,000rmb and my roommates got their money back too. The “middleman” did not want to lose any more face, so he kept on complaining how we were in the wrong and that he was going against the contract for giving us this money. We all knew he was embarrassed. The real landlord was present the entire discussion, but in the end, she did not allow us extra time to move out. Even though she knew we all did not have homes to go to, she still kicked us out. So, in the end, I had bad opinions of the both of them. I am glad I got my money back. Now I could finally break ties with these people and live on with my life.

This incident affected my Fulbright grant because I had to find a new home in the middle of my grant period. It was inconvenient, but not “the end of the world.” It would be best to find a stable home with a nice landlord to avoid this kind of problem.


1. Go through a realtor for the safest housing options.

2. Ask for the lease in advance so you have enough time to thoroughly read over it.

  • Be sure the lease mentions a penalty fee (违约金) for either party breaking the contract
  • Be sure the lease mentions that the landlord or renter must inform the other party a month in advance for an early move out.
  • Be sure to ask the landlord to bring a certificate of property ownership (房产证) before signing the lease to be sure s/he is in fact the apartment owner.
  • If there is a “middle man” (中间人), be sure the real owner of the apartment signs the lease.
  • If there is a “middle man” (中间人), be aware of the risks with signing under him/her.
  • If possible, ask previous tenants their thoughts on the landlord.

3. If you have to confront an unreasonable landlord, be sure to conduct the meeting calmly, but sternly.

  • Call in the local neighborhood committee (juweihui 居委会) for mediation.
  • Visit the local police station with your lease document to see if they are willing to assist you.
  • If you feel at all threatened, call the police.

4. Call for help and advice from your friends or law professionals. You should not go through this alone!

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