The breakneck growth of China's urban property markets in recent years has led to a wave of protests�including suicides�by those whose homes are threatened by local governments' development plans, RFA's Mandarin service reports.

The massive profits available to developers, local governments, and speculators with the urban real estate boom has made relocation a growth industry in itself, as governments contract the work of eviction and land clearance to real estate developers and specialized eviction companies.

The strong-arm tactics used by these companies often produces alienation and despair. On Sept. 25, a 35-year-old man from Beijing doused himself with gasoline and set himself alight in a desperate attempt to avoid eviction, as the developer's agents moved in on his house and family.

"The developer broke into our house and started to break windows," said Wang Suhua, the man's older sister. "That's when my smaller brother lit the gasoline." The eviction agent�apparently a migrant worker employed by the real estate company�also caught fire.

Wang Baoguang was admitted to hospital in a critical condition with burns to 65 percent of his body, she said. The property agent was also taken to hospital with burns. Wang's self-immolation comes just a week after a similar protest attempted by a man from the eastern province of Anhui, also prompted by a property dispute. Many more have been reported in other areas.

"It was a forced eviction," Wang�s sister told RFA, adding that scores of people including Public Security Bureau personnel came in 30 vehicles to do the job. "They didn�t have any documents�this wasn�t done through any legal channel. When asked, they said they didn�t have any paperwork. They mobilized a force of such magnitude.... And we couldn�t tell their identities, because they didn�t show us any ID."

"We never expected that the eviction would come to such a mess," she said. "The police mobilizing such a big force to confront unarmed citizens in broad daylight�is this China�s socialism? Is this the world under the leadership of the Communist Party?"

A few hours after the incident in Pingfang township on the eastern edge of Beijing, hundreds of local residents gathered in the neighborhood, preventing three police vans from leaving the scene. They showered the trapped uniformed officers with abuse, occasionally pushing them around.

Elsewhere in the city, around 100 residents of a Beijing apartment complex marched to city government offices to complain that they had been misled by the developer who built their homes. "We were promised a nice environment, with just a green area and a six-storey building in front of our apartments," said Ding Shufang, a spokeswoman for the mostly middle-aged protesters.

"Now the plan is to erect three tall buildings right in front of our homes, with 18, 16, and 11 storeys," she said. The protest was low-profile, without banners or slogans. The protesters managed to speak to municipal officials but were merely referred to another department. "Our next step could be to sue the property developer in court," said protester Yang Bingshi.

Such protests, and even self-immolations such as Wang's, are increasingly common in connection with property disputes across China. The requisition of land by local governments and state-owned enterprises has become one of the most controversial topics in both urban and rural areas as new roads, factories, and housing and office developments have sprung up nationwide.

Local residents evicted from their homes often complain of poor government compensation and forceful removals, while many accuse the government of cashing in on the real estate market at their expense. Some residents' groups have lodged class-action suits against local governments and developers.

Beijing attorney Gao Zhicheng said the now-widespread aggressive demolition and relocation practices are simply government-sponsored thuggery. "This is actually a large-scale, society-harming act practiced by developers and corrupt elements that is legally defined as a criminal activity," Gao told RFA.

"The frightening thing is the law�s inability to adapt to this situation. In some regions, if one uses demolition and relocation as an excuse to loot an area, he can almost avoid prosecution."

Many respected Chinese sociologists and legal specialists share Gao's view. The Xinhua News Agency's Banyuetan magazine recently hosted a conference on housing demolition and population relocation. Many attendees identified current practices as a major threat to social stability, because they violate constitutional freedoms which economic reforms have begun to make possible.

"This is even more frightening than SARS," Gao said.

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