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 new report by rights group Amnesty International.
"Forced evictions—a longstanding cause of discontent within China—have increased significantly in the past two years in order to clear the way for developments," the London-based organization said in a statement on its website issued alongside the 85-page report.
It said local governments have borrowed huge sums from state banks to finance projects aimed at stimulating growth amid the global economic downturn, and now rely on land sales to cover the payments.
"This has resulted in deaths, beatings, harassment and imprisonment of residents who have been forced from their homes across the country in both rural and urban areas," the group said.
While some forced evictees try for years, usually without success, to seek redress through official channels, others have been in such despair that they set themselves on fire in drastic protests of last resort, it said.
"The Chinese authorities must immediately halt all forced evictions," said Nicola Duckworth, senior director of research at Amnesty International. "There needs to be an end to the political incentives, tax gains and career advancements that encourage local officials to continue with such illegal practices," she said.
Earlier this week, around 100 petitioners gathered outside county government offices in Shuangliu county in southwest China's Sichuan province, in pursuit of complaints over government-backed land grabs in the area.
"The local government illegally took the land and violently evicted us," said petitioner Hu Jinqiong. "This has forced us to start petitioning."
"A lot of people have been subject to oppressive tactics like detentions, and those who tried to stand as candidates for local parliamentary groups were detained by Shuangliu county police," he said.
Meanwhile, evictees in the Chinese capital and its neighboring port city of Tianjin, gathered together to talk strategy over winning redress or compensation for the loss of their homes in forcible evictions and demolition raids.
"Evictees' Rights Symposium" organizer Ye Jinghuan said the 39-strong group had gathered in a Beijing suburb to discuss their experiences of forced eviction. "We also learned a lot about actual techniques [for non-violent action]," she said.
"I think this will be very helpful to us in learning how to protect our rights in a legal way."
Beijing-based rights activist He Depu said his family was currently threatened with eviction, as the local government planned to demolish his apartment block.
And fellow activist Han Ying said the problem was now extremely common in Beijing. "It's also getting way out of hand, to the extent that they sent 70-80 people to forcibly evict a single household in [Fengtai district]; people who were completely unarmed."
"In Beijing, they do these things without the slightest scruple; nobody feels safe anymore," Han said.
The same stories seemed to be common all across China, however.
An evictee from the southwestern region of Guangxi surnamed Feng said residents of his village near Fangcheng city had been attacked by thugs after they opposed an eviction order from officials.
"They fired guns at us, and four of us were hit," Feng said. "One guy had eleven bullets in him, and another had nine."
Feng said powerful vested interests controlled the entire process, so that ordinary people with no friends in high places had little or no recourse to the law.
"They sent police and riot police to seal off the area; they had us totally surrounded," he said. "No one could get in, and then they broadcast a message over a PA system saying 'You must leave immediately. Anyone who doesn't leave will be arrested.'"
"I stood there on my land and watched them coming for us ... They came over and then they started shooting just like that. They fired bullets and tear gas. All of the villagers were injured."
"I tried to run away, but the police caught me and beat me up, and fired tear gas at me ... After that, they wouldn't let me seek medical help," Feng said.
Turning a blind eye
Of 40 forced evictions researched by Amnesty International, nine resulted in the deaths of people protesting or resisting eviction, the group said.
It cited the case of 70-year-old Wang Cuiyan, who was buried alive by an excavator on March 3, 2010 after a crew of about 30-40 workers came to demolish her house in the central city of Wuhan.
"Local officials continue to sanction or turn a blind eye to the harassment of residents by developers using ruthless tactics to force people out of their homes and sell their rights to land-use," the group said.
It said residents were seldom given a chance to voice their opinions on proposed redevelopment plans, nor were they given adequate notice of eviction as required by international law.
Very few evictees were given acceptable alternative housing, and most compensation packages fell far short of the actual market value of their homes, it added.
Residents who refuse to leave have essential services like water and electricity cut, and gangs of government-hired thugs are later sent in, often wielding iron bars and knives, to attack and intimidate anyone holding out. Such actions are rarely investigated by police, the report said.
Amnesty International said it had collected reports of 41 cases of self-immolation between 2009 and 2011 linked to forced evictions, compared with less than 10 cases reported in the entire previous decade.
Forced evictions are defined as the removal against their will of individuals, families or communities from the homes or the land they occupy without access to legal or other protections.
They are banned under international law, the group said.
Guangzhou-based rights lawyer Guo Feixiong said Chinese laws and regulations governing demolitions and evictions had "huge weaknesses."
"Disadvantaged groups have no real channels through which to secure judicial redress after suffering forced evictions," he said. "People at the lowest levels of society have been driven to despair."
Beijing issued new regulations in 2011, stating that compensation for homeowners must not be lower than market value and outlawing the use of violence in evicitons.
However, these laws and regulations still fall far short of the required standards and apply only to city dwellers, and homeowners, overlooking the rights of tenants, Amnesty said.
Reported by Qiao Long and Fang Yuan for RFA's Mandarin service, and by RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.