Beijing must heed rural discontent over land grabs

Nicola Duckworth says Beijing must not allow the problem of forced eviction to continue unabated in rural China, or discontent will fester

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 October, 2012, 1:59am

The downfall of Bo Xilai has dominated headlines. Yet as China prepares for a change in leadership, there is another tale of abuse of power that continues unabated - the forced eviction of people from their homes and farmland.

A year on from the Wukan protests, deaths, beatings, harassment and imprisonment continue as people are forced from their homes across the mainland. While not a new phenomenon, the pace of forced evictions in China has accelerated in the past two years and remains one of the greatest causes of popular discontent - as highlighted in Amnesty International's latest study.

Nearly half of all rural residents surveyed have had land taken from them, with the number of cases on the rise, according to a 2011 study by the Landesa Rural Development Institute.

This escalation is entwined with the central government's attempts to sustain high levels of economic growth. Local governments are dependent on land sales for revenue. Despite a slowdown in the pace of growth, local officials that deliver growth climb quickly up the Communist Party career ladder.

Land redevelopment - whether for new roads, factories or residential complexes - is seen by local officials as the most direct path to visible economic results. It is this pursuit of economic growth at all costs, mixed with career advancements and minimal oversight of local officials, that has fostered abuse and corruption across the country.

Forced evictions represent a gross violation of China's international human rights obligations. These standards demand proper consultation or notice as well as adequate alternative housing, but these are seldom given. Communities targeted for land grabs come under concerted campaigns including the cutting off of services like water and power. Thugs are often hired to rough up residents.

The lack of independence of the courts means those who seek to challenge an eviction or seek redress have little hope of gaining justice. People who stage resistance to forced evictions often end up in jail or in re-education through labour centres without charge or trial.

Some have turned to violence or even self-immolation. Amnesty International collected reports of 41 cases of self-immolation from 2009 to last year alone due to forced evictions. That compares to fewer than 10 cases reported in the previous decade.

Those who lose their homes in forced evictions often find themselves living in poorly constructed dwellings far from jobs, schools and public transport. There has been some progress: regulations adopted last year stated that compensation for homeowners must not be lower than market value and outlawed the use of violence.

Yet, this has not changed the reality for many. As China's urban sprawl continues, developers are relentless in seizing adjacent rural land. Rural communities, not protected by the new regulations, continue to be forced out, and priced out, of areas they have lived in their whole lives.

Government action is long overdue. When the political elite gather in Beijing next month, they would be wise to heed the warnings of the discontent and end this dark side to China's economic miracle.

Nicola Duckworth is senior director of research at Amnesty International