An elderly man in the central province of Hunan set fire to himself in an anti-eviction protest this week, eyewitnesses said Tuesday amid reports that forced evictions in China have accelerated and remain a key cause of popular discontent.
The man doused himself with petrol and set fire to himself on Sunday in Hunan's Xiangtan city after a demolition crew of at least a dozen people began tearing down his house, according a local resident surnamed Zhang, who witnessed the incident.
"A lot of people came, I'm not sure who," she said in an interview on Tuesday. "But they were sent by the government for demolition work."
"He set fire to himself," she said. "I watched him set fire to himself, and then he fell to the ground."
The man's personal details, including his name, were not immediately available. He is reported to be in serious condition in hospital.
The incident was first reported online by microblogger Zhu Shiyu, who declined to give an interview when contacted by RFA.
Zhu's post gave a similar account to Zhang's, adding that at least one of the old man's relatives fainted at the sight of his self-immolation, and was taken to hospital.
He said local media had failed to report the protest.
Violent evictions rising
Violent forced evictions, often resulting in deaths and injuries, are continuing to rise in China, as cash-strapped local governments team up with development companies to grab property in a bid to boost revenue, according to a recent report by rights group Amnesty International.
"Whilst not a new phenomenon, the pace of forced evictions in China has accelerated in the past two years and remains one of the greatest causes of popular discontent," Nicola Duckworth, Amnesty's Senior Director of Research said last week, highlighting the group's latest study.
Amnesty International collected reports of 41 cases of self-immolation from 2009 to 2011 alone due to forced evictions. That compares to fewer than 10 cases reported in the entire previous decade.
Nearly half of all rural residents have had land forcibly taken from them, with the number of cases on the rise, according to a 2011 study by the Landesa Rural Development Institute.
"This escalation is entwined with the Chinese government’s attempts to sustain high levels of economic growth," Duckworth said.
"Local governments that have borrowed huge sums from state banks to finance stimulus projects are now dependent on land sales to cover repayments."
On the same day as the self-immolation protest, Lu Huaijin, a 60-year-old resident of Luoshan village in the neighboring province of Hubei, attempted to commit suicide following a period of mental instability triggered by the loss of his farmland, his family said.
"We went to see the village committee, but they wouldn't give us a penny in compensation," Lu's son told RFA on Tuesday. "I think my father drank pesticide that same day, because of this issue."
"I don't know how many times we had been to talk to them about this."
He said the problems had arisen when the local government had appropriated some of the village's collectively leased farmland, which included lucrative fish-farms, to build a highway.
He said his father had been unable to accept the lack of compensation for the loss of the family business.
"My family developed this plot from a piece of wasteland," Lu's son said. "At the time, we had the agreement of the village committee."
"We leased it from the committee for an annual fee, and we invested 300,000 yuan (U.S. $47,894) in the fishponds."
Huang Qi, founder of the Sichuan-based Tianwang rights website, said that many people are now in a position in China where they have no redress against "oppressive" government policies.
"Mostly it's the result of accumulated fear ... and they have already been oppressed to such an extent that they feel they might as well use their death as a protest," he said.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has acknowledged the gravity of the land eviction problem, and there has been some progress towards protecting some people against forced evictions, the Amnesty report said.
Regulations adopted in 2011 state that compensation for homeowners must not be lower than market value and outlaw the use of violence.
"Yet the rhetoric and regulations have not changed the reality for many. As China’s urban sprawl continues, developers are relentless in seizing adjacent rural land," the report said.
"Rural communities, not protected by the new regulations, continue to be forced out, and priced out, of areas they have lived in their whole lives."
Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.