Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu have deleted a hard-hitting online documentary about the harsh realities of forced eviction, filmed and produced by a group of evictees whose complaints through official channels led nowhere.
The documentary, titled "Let the Images Fly," a reference to the title of a well-known movie "Let the Bullets Fly," includes interviews with people evicted suddenly and violently from their homes by demolition gangs after they refused to sign a compensation deal with the local government.
Director and evictee Wei Xifeng said the film was initially very popular after he posted it to online video-sharing sites like Youku, but wasn't allowed to remain there for long.
"It has already been released in mainland China, and there was a large number of hits," Wei said in a recent interview. "On Youku there were more than 200,000 views, but the government has deleted it from all websites in recent days, and won't allow us to release it."
"They are afraid that this scandal will be revealed," he said.
Wei's film has since been posted on YouTube, which is blocked by China's Great Firewall of Internet censorship.
Wei's film documents a story that has become increasingly familiar across China, as cash-strapped local governments seek to turn a quick profit on China's booming property market, often bulldozing homes in midnight raids regardless of whether the occupants had agreed to a compensation deal.
Forced eviction in Yangzhong
"They hired thugs from criminal gangs to threaten and intimidate us, and restrict our freedom," Wei said of his own experience of eviction in a small town near Jiangsu's Yangzhong city.
"They forcibly evicted us by smashing [our homes]," he said, adding that 90 percent of local people only signed the agreement for demolition and eviction and left because of government persecution.
"No one wanted to move," he said.
He said as many as seven townships near Yangzhong had been affected by forced demolitions and evictions in recent years.
"People were beaten up, besieged, and they called [the emergency services number] 110, and the police came but did nothing," Wei said.
"We went to the police, and they said they couldn't do anything because these were the actions of the government."
Requisitioned by the government
Fellow evictee Zhang Mingtao, who collaborated with Wei on the film, said the local government had turned large tracts of agricultural land to commercial use, flouting central government guidelines.
"The Yangzhong municipal government is out of control," Zhang said.
"They have requisitioned our homes and our farmland. They didn't care that this was all high-yielding land, and they just gave us 100,000 yuan (U.S.$16,520) per mu."
"Then they sold it to the developer for four or five million," he added.
According to Zhang, local officials currently requisition about 4,000-5,000 mu (about 700-800 acres) of farmland every year near Yangzhong.
"They have sent us to live in temporary housing, which is poorly constructed," Zhang said. "They wanted us to sign an agreement but we refused."
"When we didn't, they brought in the demolition company, who are all utter thugs. They came and smashed our windows in the middle of the night," he said.
Wei said the evictions hadn't appeared in state media, which is tightly controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Police called to the scene had also declined to take action, saying that the evictions were "the actions of the government."
He said the evictees had lost two lawsuits appealing the eviction, at the local and municipal levels.
An official who answered the phone at the Yangzhong municipal government declined to comment on the case.
"Sorry, you'll have to ask the eviction company, not the municipal government," the official said. "We don't deal with evictions and demolitions here."
He added: "If the demolition company acts illegally or uses violence, you can call the police at any time."
He said that any cases in which evictees had signed agreements wouldn't be taken up.
"Only if someone literally holds a knife to your throat and forces you to sign at a certain price would we get involved," he said.
A 'two-way process'
Calls to the Xinba and Sanmao township government offices went unanswered during office hours in recent days. However, an employee who answered the phone at the evictions and demolitions office confirmed the case.
"I know about this; they have already sued," he said. "Evictions are being coordinated by the party secretary now, and he is preparing all the paperwork and informing the evictions and demolitions office."
"All we do is issue the permit."
He said eviction was "a two-way process."
"If the tenants set their price too high, then it will fall far short of their expectations," he said.
"These are public works. We're building roads to make life easier for the next generation, so of course some people are going to have to make sacrifices."
Crackdown on filmmakers
The Chinese Communist Party has stepped up a nationwide crackdown on independent filmmakers and festivals, rounding up film students who attended an independent film summer school in Beijing last July.
On Jan. 11, independent Chinese filmmaker Liu Yimu was ordered by authorities in the central province of Hunan to halt production of his documentary, "These Changsha People."
Interviewees in that film included forced evictees, petitioners, independent labor leader Zhang Jingsheng, a student follower of late supreme leader Mao Zedong, and veterans rights activists, including retired People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.