Standing Their Ground: Violent Evictions in China

A new report from Amnesty International (PDF) examines China’s forced evictions, a major source of social unrest. Heavy debts incurred to finance stimulus projects encourage local governments to sell off land, which accounts for a quarter of their revenue on average. Intimidation, beatings, hostage-taking, imprisonment and forced sterilisation have all been used to force occupants off this land without proper compensation or effective legal recourse. From Amnesty’s press release:

Local governments have borrowed huge sums from state banks to finance stimulus projects 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.

Some were in such despair they set themselves on fire in drastic protests of last resort.

However, China’s ruling Communist Party continues to promote local officials who deliver economic growth, regardless as to how it is achieved. Land re-development, at whatever cost – whether for new roads, factories or residential complexes – is seen as the most direct path to visible results.

[…] Of 40 forced evictions that Amnesty International examined in detail as part of the research, nine culminated in the deaths of people protesting or resisting eviction.

[…] Amnesty International collected reports of 41 cases of self-immolation from 2009 – 2011 alone due to forced evictions. That compares to fewer than 10 cases reported in the entire previous decade.

The report acknowledges measures by the central government to moderate the practice of land sales [PDF, p. 53], but stresses that these protections have yet to become a reality for many:

The Chinese government has increasingly recognized the threats that forced evictions pose to not just individuals but to society as a whole. In passing the January 2011 regulations on urban expropriation that outlawed the use of violence and granted home-owners facing eviction new protections – including the right to public hearings and to receive compensation based on market value – the government has made some progress toward fulfilling its responsibility under international law to protect against forced evictions.

But other Chinese officials have sought to minimize the problem and defended abuses in the eviction process as a necessary cost of modernization. And as Amnesty International has documented, a range of human rights abuses, including violence against evictees, continues.

The breadth and depth of resentment caused by these land seizures was illustrated by sympathetic responses to a suicide bomber who attacked a government building in Fuzhou last year. Farmer Qian Mingqi killed himself and two others, wounding seven, after a fruitless years-long campaign to win compensation for the alleged illegal demolition of his home.

Reuters describes the scale of the debts driving land grabs:

Local governments amassed debts of 10.7tn yuan by the end of 2010 as they also borrowed to build, compelling them to sell yet more land to pay back loans. In 2010 Beijing launched a campaign to restrict speculative sales and development, and there is some evidence that those restrictions are working as total land area bought by developers fell 16.2% in the first eight months of 2012 compared with the same period in 2011.

But Caixin reports that land sales have started to rebound in the second half of this year:

Land transfer revenues for ten major Chinese cities totaled 48.5 billion yuan in September, up 49 percent from August, a report by E-house China R&D Institute released on October 10 said.

[…] In a sign of the bite Beijing’s curbs have had, land transfer fees for the ten cities from January 1 to September 30 totaled 237.5 billion yuan, down 48 percent compared to the same period last year, the report [from by E-house China R&D Institute] said.

The drop-off prompted local governments to implement policies to trigger sales, to the annoyance of the central government.

[…] Beijing took in 25.7 billion yuan from land sales in September, more than the total for the first eight months of the year, data released by the city’s land bureau showed.