'I HOPE Deng Xiaoping will bless me,' says watercolour painter Tian Canghai, who has just finished a portrait of the late Chinese leader. Tian is commemorating Deng's open policy under which artists and businesspeople were finally allowed to work in relative freedom and prosperity in the years after the Cultural Revolution. The reason Tian is seeking Deng's blessing now is because he's the head of an artists' village being bulldozed to the ground as part of what residents say is an illegal move by greedy local government officials. So far, more than 100 of the artists' home and studios in Guangzhou's Panyu district have been razed. Li Shiru, former deputy head of the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts' sculpture department and famed for carving the 14-metre Guangzhou Tower, is worried. He was one of the first residents in this unique village on Xiaoguwei Island, where he still lives with his wife, daughter and granddaughter. 'My house represents the art I've created over the past 10 years. It's my home and my career. No money can buy it,' he says. The village began in 1994 when the local government asked the academy to turn the area into a cultural hub. Back then, Xiaoguwei was barren farmland with no running water or electricity. The only way to get to downtown Guangzhou was by boat. Artists from the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan paid from 200,000 to 1 million yuan for plots. At its peak, this sprawling community consisted of 165 houses artfully decorated with sculptures and statues, and held three major art festivals that drew audiences from all over China. The trouble began in August last year, when the Guangzhou municipal government sent the villagers a demolition order. The artists say the order is illegal, but by April about 100 houses had been bulldozed. Gao Zhisheng, the artists' lawyer, says they brought their case before the Beijing People's Immediate Court in May, but they were told it had to go through a local court first. However, no courts in Guangzhou would agree to take on the case, leaving the artists in a Catch-22 typical of the mainland's convoluted judiciary system. 'I was told the court rejected the appeal,' says Gao. 'But I haven't received a written confirmation yet. I don't know how to proceed now. It sounds ridiculous, but it's very common in China.' With no legal bar, the demolition continued. By June, there were only 56 homes left. A month later, six more homes were destroyed. The remaining residents were told they would have to evacuate by the end of this month. The artists have kept up the fight, staging a silent protest outside the Guangzhou city government building on July 14. 'This is the worst calamity for artists since the Cultural Revolution,' says Tian. 'The Cultural Revolution was the most barbaric and ruthless era in Chinese history. Now the demolition is as barbaric and ruthless. One cannot believe such things can happen in a civilised society, but it's happening.' As recently as June, the State Council General Office told local officials all over the country to reduce the scale of demolition and reconstruction projects amid fears of an overheating economy, and to stop what they called 'uncivilised evictions'. Tian says Guangzhou officials are trying to get away with as much as they can before they're caught. 'The local authorities are trying to raze as many houses as possible before Beijing comes after them,' he says. 'They know Beijing is concerned about illegal demolition and our case has been brought to the attention of the highest [authorities].' Part of the problem is that the village is no longer cheap farmland. It is now on prime land outside one of the country's most affluent cities in the Pearl River Delta. It covers more than 17 hectares in the south of Xiaoguwei, which has a total area of 43.3sqkm. Tian estimates that his two-storey, 2,700sqft house, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, is now worth about 5 million yuan. The Guangzhou municipal government says the village needs to make way for a 5 billion yuan project for a Guangzhou university city that would include several different schools. But residents claim the local government is mostly concerned with acquiring land on the cheap and using it for commercial purposes. 'We don't think it's going to be a university project,' says Tian. 'Instead, it might be a real-estate project with highways and hotels. The government will make huge profits out of it.' Gao, an outspoken lawyer, says local officials are trying to slip under the radar of the national government. He says they divided Xiaoguwei into 39 pieces and submitted 39 individual applications to acquire the entire island - to bypass limits on the maximum area they could obtain in one application. He also says that no approvals were obtained from the Ministry of Construction and the State Council, as required by law. Local officials also allegedly ignored a March 1 statement by the ministry that public hearings and discussions must be held with residents before demolitions, and that officials using threats to evict will face criminal punishment. Gao says that the decision by the National People's Congress in March - to include the 'right of private property' into the country's constitution - hasn't had the desired effect in Guangzhou. The China Daily quotes an official from the Guangzhou Municipal Bureau of Land as saying the government had every right to take land from property owners for construction of 'key state and government projects', because all land belongs to the state. 'China knows how to perfect its laws in writing; but it is never serious about implementing them,' Gao says. Liang Xingwah, a spokesman for the Guangzhou municipal government's press office, refuses to comment. The demolition of this particular artists' village is only one of many in a nation in the grips of a development craze. Such abuses from local officials, however, have been getting attention overseas. In March, New York-based Human Rights Watch released a report titled 'Demolished: Forced Evictions and The Tenants' Rights Movement In China'. The organisation says victims were sometimes evicted by hired thugs or had their homes knocked over by bulldozers while they were asleep in bed. Its report also said local officials did little to stop illegal practices and often benefited financially from them. Watercolour painter Ken Zhu Jiaquan, an American citizen teaching at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts has decided to take matters into his own hands. 'Houses standing around mine are being torn down one by one,' he says. He has filed a complaint with the US consulate in Guangzhou. A consulate representative has visited the site, but declines to comment. Meanwhile, all the residents can do is protest and wait. 'The environment was perfect when we moved in,' says Tian. 'But now, you see some beautiful houses standing amid a war zone like in Iraq. There's no way the art village can be recreated anywhere else. 'Over the past two years, I've worked with constant interruption from officials,' he says. 'Although they've never used force on us, there are always a few men from the government waiting around our houses.'