At 8:45 on the morning of September 15, 2003, forty-five-year-old farmer Zhu Zhengliang and his wife sat down in Tiananmen Square under the portrait of Mao Zedong. As his wife quietly watched, Zhu doused himself with gasoline and set himself alight. Police stationed in the square rushed to his aid, and Zhu was hospitalized in Beijing with minor burns on his arms and back. According to news reports, Zhu attempted self-immolation to protest his family’s forced eviction from their home in a rural region of Anhui province.2
Zhu’s was the most prominent, but by no means the only, attempted suicide to protest forced evictions in China in 2003. In August, a Nanjing city man who returned from a lunch break one day to find his home demolished, set himself afire and burned to death at the office of the municipal demolition and eviction department.3 In September, resident Wang Baoguang burned himself to death while being forcibly evicted in Beijing.4 On October 1, China’s National Day, Beijing resident Ye Guoqiang attempted suicide by jumping from Beijing’s Jinshui bridge to protest his forced eviction for construction related to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.5 These suicides and attempted suicides were the most dramatic in a wave of almost daily protests that swept cities across China from September to December 2003.
This report, based largely on published Chinese-language sources—including press accounts, Internet discussions, expert commentary, and government laws, regulations, and statements—details the problems many Chinese citizens face as they are evicted from their homes, sometimes violently, by state and private actors. Many of these forced evictions violate basic human rights protections in both Chinese and international law. The report also provides an overview of current eviction and demolition practices in China’s cities, the regulations governing such practices, and the parties involved. It traces the emergence over the past several years of a vibrant tenants’ rights movement and the government’s recent crackdown on some of the leading figures.
The issue of forced evictions in China has begun to receive attention in official circles, and has even prompted a constitutional amendment, but significant hurdles remain. If the deficiencies in implementation of laws are not remedied and rights of evictees not upheld, eviction practices can be expected to serve as a continuing source of high profile social unrest and at times extreme forms of protest. In Beijing, the clearing of new sites for Olympics venues likely will continue to be a flashpoint.
To some extent, the scope of the evictions and of protests against them detailed in this report are inevitable byproducts of China’s unconstrained development and the eagerness of many local officials for rapid modernization. In many cities, new high-end residential communities, shopping malls, and golf courses are replacing the stone houses, courtyards, and hutong (胡同, alleys) that characterized old China. After surviving long winters in unheated, drafty older buildings, many of which lack indoor plumbing, some urban residents now enjoy new and comfortable apartments. Many people in China express pride in their country’s rapid modernization, even while others mourn the loss of the country’s traditional architecture.
However, a rising tide of complaints by people around the country, reported in Chinese media and posted on the Internet, raises shared concerns. Residents in many cities say the process of “demolition and eviction” (chaiqian 拆迁)is arbitrary, marred at all levels by a lack of due process for those evicted from their homes. They point out that China lacks basic property rights protections, so homeowners are just as vulnerable as renters to sudden eviction with minimal compensation. Many point to widespread corruption and other deep-rooted conflicts of interest in local government that tie the interests of powerful developers to those of local officials.
China’s weak judicial system also frequently fails its citizens in this matter. Evicted residents have tried to seek redress in the local courts, but many find that courts refuse to hear the cases because of pressure on judges and lawyers by local Communist Party officials. In the rare instances when a court finds in favor of residents, their homes are likely to have already been demolished. Some have even complained of yeman chaiqian (野蛮拆迁)—“savage” or violent eviction by hired thugs, wrecking crews and bulldozers that maim or kill residents while clearing sites for new construction.
Given the lack of routes for legal redress, it is unsurprising that many angry residents have taken to the streets to protest. In September, many traveled to Beijing to stage peaceful sit-ins and marches on October 1, a national holiday; many more did so in the following months. In response, authorities cracked down on demonstrators, jailing many and preventing hundreds of others from boarding trains bound for Beijing. Beijing even passed municipal regulations prohibiting “suicide protests.”6 Frustrated residents have taken to contacting international media and human rights groups, and to posting their personal stories on Internet bulletin boards—all risky choices, given the government’s monitoring of the Internet and international telephone calls, and the ever-present danger of charges of “state subversion.”
The Chinese government has used politically motivated prosecutions to target many of the most outspoken advocates for evicted residents, including Xu Yonghai, a tenants’ rights activist in Beijing; and Zheng Enchong, a lawyer who advocated for the rights of evicted tenants in Shanghai. Xu, at the forefront of 2003 tenants’ rights protests in Beijing, was arrested in December and formally charged with revealing state secrets in February 2004. Police arrested Zheng in June and charged him, too with “circulating state secrets” because of faxes he sent to the New York-based organization Human Rights in China. Since Zheng’s imprisonment, lawyers and tenants report that fewer lawyers are willing to take on forced eviction cases.
Because most of the available information in Chinese media and on Internet bulletin boards deals with urban evictions, this paper focuses on problems in urban areas. In fact, urban evictions are just a small fragment of the whole picture.7 Demolition and eviction in China’s cities is part of a larger national context that includes dislocation of impoverished populations, especially of rural peoples in areas where land values are rising, and ethnic minorities in resource-rich areas.8 In some rural areas, land expropriation drives farmers to the cities to seek work. In other rural but urbanizing regions, populations may have to endure multiple rounds of demolition, relocation, and reconstruction, as areas “improved” once are torn down and “re-improved” two or three more times in following years, profiting well-connected construction firms and the government offices that charge them fees.9 Residents of ethnic minority regions face even greater procedural problems than most urban residents, as they face linguistic barriers that make it difficult for them to obtain justice in Chinese-language courts.10
Many of the problems with demolition and eviction detailed here have been publicly acknowledged by high-ranking members of the central government, who are aware of the high level of public outrage—and the potential challenge to the Communist Party’s rule—percolating in rural and urban China. Even state-controlled media, such as the People’s Daily, have published articles and editorials openly critical of the state’s handling of these issues. Senior Chinese legal scholars have argued for reform of the system.
In December, Beijing announced some modifications of existing regulations and planned changes to the constitution that would signal the government’s concern about lack of housing rights.Such steps, while welcome, will bring only limited change without a thorough reform of the system that implements them. China’s displaced residents desperately need a reliable system through which to seek redress—so much that some are even willing to die for it.
1 Xu Yonghai, Open letter to General Secretary Hu Jintao and the Central Committee, June 10, 2003, www.boxun.com, posted October 5, 2003.
2 “Farmer sets self on fire in Tiananmen Square,” China Daily, September 15, 2003; An Zhiyong, “Chaiqian jiufen shi daozhi Anhui nongmin zai Tiananmen zishade yuanyin [Demolition and eviction conflict caused Anhui farmer’s suicide [sic] in Tiananmen],” Nanfang dushi bao [Southern Metropolis Daily], September 17, 2003.
3 An Zhiyong, “Demolition and eviction conflict…”
4 “Beijing chaiqianhu yin hangyi zao qisu [Beijing evictees charged for demonstrating],” BBC Chinese service, November 13, 2003.
5 “Beijing evictees charged…,” BBC Chinese service.
6 “Beijing’s new self-immolation law,” Asia Times, October 31, 2003. Suicide as a form of protest has a long history in China, dating back to at least 3 BCE. Because the emperor ignored poet and official Chu Yuan’s memorials about political problems, Chu Yuan threw himself into a river and drowned. His suicide was seen as proof of his nobility, and the anniversary of his death on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month is a major Chinese holiday.
7 For further discussion of rural Chinese land expropriation, see reports and analysis of China’s land laws on the website of Rural Development Institute, www.rdiland.org.
8 For instance, there have been ongoing reports of protests and demonstrations by Inner Mongolians. China is in the process of relocating 200,000 Mongolian nomads from the grasslands in Inner Mongolia, and 800,000 in Qinghai. Human Rights Watch interview with Enhebatu Togochog, president, Southern Mongolia Human Rights Information Center, January 6, 2004.
9 This happened in at least two cases in Yunnan province. In Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, major traffic arteries were expanded and improved in 1997-98 as part of an urban development plan, only to be redone a year later for the Yunnan Flower Expo, a large exposition that was hoped would draw hundreds of thousands of international visitors but that failed to live up to expectations. In Jinghong, capital of Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture in southern Yunnan, streets and sewers were torn up and improved in 1998 in order to attract more domestic tourists, and were redone again two years later for the Flower Expo. Kunming now plans another complete reconstruction in which it will be transformed into four small cities connected by a superhighway (Human Rights Watch interview with Mary F. [pseudonym], architect, New York, January 12, 2004).
10 Human Rights Watch interview with Dao [pseudonym], ethnic minority community leader, Yunnan, December 2002. Where indicated, names and identifying characteristics of Chinese citizens and some international experts working in China interviewed for this report have been changed to protect interviewees against government retaliation.