An ethnic Uyghur farmer in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region has been fighting a seven-year battle for justice over the seizure of his land that led to his home being flattened to make way for a building project while he was locked up in detention.
His case is one of many land grabs exacerbating tensions in Xinjiang, where ethnic minority Uyghurs accuse Han Chinese of displacing them from their traditional homeland and depriving them of economic opportunities under strict Beijing rule.
Semi Niyaz, 60, of Suntagh township in southwestern Xinjiang’s Atush city, has repeatedly petitioned authorities in the regional capital Urumqi and in Beijing since his 26 mu (4 acres) of land in Shoruq village were taken over by a government-linked company in 2006.
The land was part of 500 mu (82 acres) that residents said Junkun Company had seized illegally with the collaboration of local authorities, prompting Niyaz and other farmers to protest the move.
Niyaz, who was paid 300,000 yuan (about U.S. $49,000) for the 8 mu (1.3 acres) that his home and garden were on, but nothing for his farmland, has made several trips to Beijing and Urumqi seeking the return of his land.
But his seven years of petitioning have earned him no redress, only two stints in detention, he said.
“I cannot find any legal solution in Xinjiang, or in China,” he told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
In 2010, as Junkun prepared to sell the plot of land that his house and garden were on to a Han Chinese-owned company from the eastern province of Jiangsu to build a residential complex, local authorities pressured Niyaz into signing a contract for the land, but he refused.
Atush authorities detained him after he protested the sale by lying down on the ground on his land—his second detention, after an earlier 32-day stint in prison.
During the 10 days he was held, the Jiangsu company flattened his home and garden, along with all of his possessions, and started construction on a new residential building, Niyaz said.
“They detained me and put me in the police detention center for 10 days,” he said.
“While I was there, they flattened my house with all of my belongings and destroyed my crops.”
“All I had was wiped off the face of the earth,” he said.
Niyaz was given a 40 square meter (430 square foot) apartment in the new building for his four-child family.
Warned not to speak out
Since his house was flattened, he has faced continued pressure and harassment from local authorities over his case, with local police coming to his house this week to warn him not to speak to foreign media about it.
“Police threatened me and warned me, ‘Don’t do any interviews with foreign journalists again!” Niyaz said.
A local official of the ruling Chinese Communist Party claimed Niyaz’s case has been resolved but refused to elaborate, saying he couldn’t respond to queries over the phone.
“Semi Niyaz’s petition has already been resolved in accordance with the legal process,” said Kaiser, the Shoruq village party secretary, identified only by his first name.
Suntagh township government head Abdurusul, also identified only by his first name, refused to comment.
Land grabbing is a major problem in Xinjiang—the homeland of the mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uyghur group—as well as in the rest of China.
Land acquisition for development, often resulting in lucrative property deals for local officials, sparks thousands of protests by local communities across China every month, many of which escalate into clashes with police.
All land in the country is ultimately owned by the state, but is allocated to rural communities under collective contract and through the household responsibility system that replaced the state-run farms and communes of the Mao era.
Reported by Eset Sulaiman for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Eset Sulaiman. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.