December 27, 2009

C

hina’s urban housing demolition law is under increasing pressure after two recent protests that ended with the evictees setting themselves on fire and a call from some of the country’s top law professors to amend the controversial regulation.

A top Chinese official suggested earlier this month that the law, which gives local governments the right to seize private property if the land is needed for projects deemed to be in the public welfare, could be rescinded shortly after growing public unrest over a regulation that many see as draconian and easily abused.

Gao Fengtao, deputy director of the State Council Legislative Affairs Office, announced on Dec. 23 that revisions were under way and that people needed to remain patient.

“The State Council is very concerned about problems caused by the current regulation and has been working on a new regulation ever since the Property Law came out in 2007,” he told the media. “But please, give us a bit more time, because there are many issues related to this.”

On Nov. 13, Tang Fuzhen, a 47-year-old woman who lived in the southern Chinese city of Chengdu, set herself on fire as law-enforcement officials came to evict her and her relatives from her ex-husband’s place of business to make way for a new road. Standing on the rooftop, her fiery protest was caught on film and posted across the Internet, leading to a wave of online anger and articles in the Chinese press against the rough treatment of those being asked to make way for urban renewal.

This backlash increased 16 days later when the woman died of her injuries.

Beijing resident Xi Xinzhu, who holds U.S. citizenship, survived his ordeal in mid-December, but remains in the hospital with serious burns following his protest after officials tried to forcibly evict his family from their home in a Beijing suburb.

Both properties were torn down despite the protests and subsequent media attention.

Incidents such as these prompted a group of law scholars from one of China’s top universities to write an open letter to the Chinese government earlier this month recommending that the law be abolished as violating the country’s constitution and property laws, as well as basic human rights.

The letter, addressed to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee and reprinted in the state-run People’s Daily newspaper, called for the existing law to be drastically reformed and was co-signed by five professors, all faculty members at the prestigious Beijing University.

The current law was brought in to better regulate the sector and requires that those being asked to relocate be offered reasonable compensation. But with land prices soaring and local governments pushing development as a way to further stimulate local economies, landowners are finding their positions increasingly tenuous and are offered few avenues for dissent.

“The biggest problem is that the present law deprives people of their negotiation right,” said Wang Cailiang, head of CailiangLaw Firm in Beijing. “Even if the demolition is for the public good, it should not destroy personal interest.”

Mr. Wang, who specializes in land acquisition, also suggested that many of the demolitions are being pushed ahead because of commercial interests or corruption rather than to make way for public developments.

“There is a triangular relationship between the interests of the local government, businessmen and the mafia,” he said.

According to an article published in the state-owned China Daily, the local party chief of the area where Mr. Xi and his family until recently resided was also head of the land developer wanting to build on the space.

Mr. Xi was already suffering from a broken leg and arm at the time of this last protest after unknown assailants had beaten him three weeks earlier. Beatings and intimidation are common tactics used by developers when facing land disputes.

“There should be no demolition without due expropriation procedure and reasonable compensation,” Qian Mingxing, one of the five law professors behind this month’s open letter, told the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

Local governments often take a back seat in regards to negotiations on compensation and leave it up to land developers to fix a price and get the landholders to agree.

Some people are also worried that in the lead-up to a revised set of regulations, local officials and land developers might push through demolition orders before any new laws come into effect.

“Implementing any changes will face huge obstacles,” Mr. Wang said. “We can’t assume that if the law changes, it will be a peaceful world. Only if the local governments can free themselves from vested interests can the implementation be possible. Civil servants should not expect to make money from this business.”

Analysts estimate that upward of a million people were relocated in the Chinese capital alone to make way for developments needed in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Tens of thousands have been required to make way for the development of land needed for the 2010 Shanghai Expo, with some moving voluntarily and others being forced to make way.

“There have been many incidents every year,” Mr. Wang said. He estimates that the number of the cases this year is almost the same as in 2003. “It has just developed to the stage where we cannot wait anymore to solve the problem,” he said.