Hunan Officials 'Cover Up' Self-Immolation Protest

A woman (C) attempts to protect her home as workers prepare to demolish it in Yangji village in China's Guangdong province, March 21, 2012.

Authorities in the central Chinese province of Hunan have muzzled local media after a woman set fire to herself in protest at forced eviction from her home last week, the woman's relatives said on Tuesday.

Zhou Lijun, 47, poured petrol over herself and set herself ablaze on the morning of May 22 after the ruling Chinese Communist Party secretary of her home village of Xiangshui brought in a demolition team to raze local residents' homes, her brother said.

"When she set fire to herself, there were around 20 construction workers there, including government officials," said the woman's brother, Zhou Haijun. "They made no move to stop her at the point when the petrol was soaking in, and they all left."

"Her husband was around 100 meters (328 feet) away, and he grabbed her and jumped into a nearby pond to put the fire out," Zhou Haijun said.  "We were really shocked when we got there because my brother-in-law's arms were all burned and bleeding, and he was shivering all over," he said.

"My sister spoke—something about going to hospital-—and then she lost consciousness."

Zhou tweeted about the incident online, prompting local officials to travel to Beijing, he said.

"I have heard through various channels that they don't want this made into a big they are obviously moving on this," he said. "I think they are trying to hush it up...No media in Hunan will dare to cover the story."

"I don't care about living, and I just want justice," Zhou said. "I'm not afraid of anything."

"Now I want them to do everything they can to save my sister, and we have certain demands regarding compensation ... which should be awarded according to law," he said.

Long-running dispute

Zhou said his sister and her husband had first entered into a dispute with the village committee of the Communist Party in 2009, after their farmland was included in a planned redevelopment site.

The couple had tried to fight the requisition on the grounds that the level of compensation paid to them was lower than that paid to other villagers.

An employee who answered the phone at the Xiangshui village government offices didn't deny the self-immolation had taken place.

"I heard my colleagues talking about this," the employee said. "At the time, I saw the photos, but I didn't realize she was from our village."

"This woman was over-excited. I said so at the time," she added. "But if you want the details of what happened, you'll have to ask our leaders."

"They are probably mediating this and finding out what happened, but I'm just here in the office, and I haven't been down there, so I don't know."

String of protests

Zhou's self-immolation was the latest in a string of similar protests from people who have lost their homes to redevelopment, often with scant compensation or chance to appeal.

In February, Jiangxi migrant worker Hu Tengping self-immolated over the demolition of his family's home, dying days later in a hospital in Xinyu city.

Violent forced evictions, often resulting in deaths and injuries, continue to rise in China as cash-strapped local governments team up with development companies to grab property in a bid to boost revenue, rights activists say.

Beijing-based rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said such protests should serve to warn the authorities that some people's rights aren't being adequately protected.

"Either that or there is no avenue of complaint left to them," Liu said. "They take their own lives in a bid to make the government take them seriously."

The London-based rights group Amnesty International collected reports of 41 cases of self-immolation from 2009 to 2011 alone due to forced evictions in China, compared with fewer than 10 cases reported in the 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.

Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by An Pei for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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