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Urban land grab sparks unrest in China

The struggle for urban land in China — heightened by a massive stimulus plan that eased construction loans  — grows increasingly violent as thousands lose homes to new projects.
Image: Houses demolished for new construction in China
Workers demolish homes in Shanghai to make way for an apartment complex. Scholars are calling for changes to what they call abusive tactics by developers.Qilai Shen / EPA file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Yue Xiyou died after trying to defend his fiancee's apartment from a wrecking crew. A woman named Tang Fuzhen protested another demolition by standing on the roof and setting herself on fire.

The struggle for urban land in China — heightened this year by a massive government stimulus plan that eased bank loans for construction — is increasingly violent as thousands of citizens lose their homes to new projects.

Upset at the social unrest, a group of legal scholars from China's top university is taking a rare public stand, calling for changes to a regulation that they say encourages abusive tactics by developers.

In a letter to the National People's Congress Standing Committee, the five law professors from Peking University say developers have wrongly taken over the government's role of seizing property and compensating residents, leading to "mass incidents" and "extreme events."

On Wednesday, the professors met with legislative officials from the State Council, or the country's Cabinet, about their demands. They told an online forum just after the meeting that "some differences of opinion" on changing the system remain.

Forced demolitions
In China's crowded cities, few issues are more sensitive than land. Property seizures are supposed to be limited to projects in the public interest, but complaints about forced demolitions for purely commercial developments are common.

Seizing land and negotiating with residents for compensation is the government's job under China's property law. But a regulation issued in 2001 allows developers to step in and handle the negotiations, say the professors, who want the regulation to be changed.

"The interests of the companies and people are sharply contradictory. So increasingly, more demolition cases end in a horrible way," Shen Kui, the professor who came up with the idea for the letter, told The Associated Press.

In a sign that officials may have similar concerns, their letter was published on the Web site of the People's Daily, the Communist Party newspaper. The government itself has not yet commented publicly.

Urban development is popular with local governments in China because it raises a city's profile, brings in money and guarantees jobs for low-income workers. But some residents find themselves under steady pressure by officials, developers or even hired thugs to get out of the way.

Displaced by Olympics
In Beijing alone, some activists said more than 1 million people were forced from their homes to make way for new sports venues for last year's Olympics. Elsewhere, government officials often have sided with developers, touching off riots and protests.

Once in motion, demolitions and relocations are rarely stopped. They sometimes turn violent.

Last month, Yue, a 29-year-old teacher in southern Yunnan province, tried to stop a demolition crew that wanted to knock down a wall of his fiancee's home to build a shopping center and apartment building next door. A fight ensued.

"Several of their men started to hit him with steel bars," said Liu Liping, the mother of Yue's fiancee. Yue died after two weeks in a hospital, Liu said. "He died of bleeding in the brain."

Three of the demolition workers have been detained. Local police would not comment.

Liu said negotiations with the demolition company over the wall continue.

The case of Tang Fuzhen was more extreme. In mid-November, she protested the demolition of her ex-husband's factory in the southern city of Chengdu by dousing herself with gasoline. Photos and video of her death exploded across national media, leading to outrage.

Last week, the five professors sent their letter calling for reform.

'Worsening situation'
"From common sense and personal experience, I have to express my concern over the worsening situation of resettlement disputes," Chen Duanhong, one of the professors, told the AP.

China's government has never liked organized challenges. But in the past, it has responded to high-profile calls for change after particularly shocking cases were made public.

In 2003, another group of university professors made an unprecedented appeal to the government to reform one form of detention after a young college graduate was stopped for not having his identity papers in order and died in police custody.

Three months after the professors' appeal and intense online interest by Chinese citizens, the government abolished the system.

Jump in development
Detentions, however, are not an economic engine in China. Property is.

Experts such as Gu Yunchang, deputy chairman of the China Real Estate Research Institute, say China's stimulus plan with its easier bank loans has helped fund a jump in development projects this year.

New loans for real estate development surged 121 percent nationwide in the first six months of this year compared to the same period last year, to 403.9 billion yuan ($59.1 billion), according to the People's Bank of China.

Land under new development is up as well. From January through November, the land where construction started was up 15.8 percent, with a combined size of 976 million square meters, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

That's about 375 square miles — adding up to combined construction sites larger than New York City.

Call for property rights
Reforming urban development might impact China's pace of economic growth, but the government must take back the role of taking land and compensating people, Shen said.

"Our purpose is to deliberately slow the process and let it be more close to the process in Western countries, so as to better protect people's property rights," he said.

Some in China say the pace of reform is slow as well.

One participant in Wednesday's online forum, using the nickname Iron Rice Bowl Era Left Behind, asked simply, "Why is it that every time before an evil law is changed, a price has to be paid in blood?"