HENGSHI VILLAGE, China — After years of protesting plans to demolish his house to make way for a vocational university center, Wang Jiazheng's fight came to this: standing on his roof with a bottle of gasoline.
As the teeth of a green excavator moved closer to his home, Wang raised the small canister and doused his shirt and pants.
The excavator kept chomping away. A cordon of security guards looked on from below. Wang took a few steps, stumbled, stood up again and then burst into flames. He jerked around in a fiery dance, collapsed and rolled down the roof before plummeting to the ground. Neighbors screamed. A man ran up with a fire extinguisher.
Wang, 58, died eight days later, his body charred and his brain collapsed in a vegetative state. A rice farmer, he'd spent his entire life in this corner of southern China's Hunan province, married for 36 years to a woman from the village next door. There was little in Wang's background that suggested his life would end in an act of political defiance.
"My brother said, 'My old bones aren't worth much money, but I will fight until I die to get what I deserve,' " said Wang Jiashun, Wang's 63-year-old brother, who watched helplessly as his body smoldered that day. "He was a stubborn man. He said the laws and regulations all prevent the government from doing this."
Wang Jiazheng's death at the end of last month has become yet another symbol of a complex and at times dangerous imbalance: China's massive plans to develop its provinces versus the lack of rule of law for handling disputes between villagers and local powerbrokers.
In the frenzy of infrastructure growth that's remaking much of the nation's rural landscape, home to almost 800 million people, it's inevitable that farmers and laborers such as Wang would be caught in the path.
But with large sums at stake — said to be at least $1.5 billion in the case of Hengshi Village — and provincial potentates pulling the strings in the courts, law enforcement and political offices, ordinary Chinese are left with few effective ways to air grievances.
Those tensions were highlighted again Thursday, when a farmer named Qian Mingqi, apparently angry about the lack of progress in a court case linked to the demolition of his home, set off bombs at three government offices in neighboring Jiangxi province. In Internet postings before the attacks, which killed Qian and two other people and injured at least six, Qian accused a Chinese official of withholding compensation money. He also mentioned the plight of Wang Jiazheng.
The central government regularly expresses concern about stories of villagers turning to extreme measures to protest, and the underlying implications those incidents have for social unrest. Yet it continues to demand sky-high economic growth in areas where officials often are seen as corrupt.
"Farmers' awareness of democracy and freedom is rising, but the quality of their understanding of the law has not increased to the same extent," the propaganda office of the Communist Party in the city of Zhuzhou, which oversees Hengshi, said in a response to questions McClatchy posed about Wang Jiazheng's death.
Sitting in a small room next to the pond where he raises ducks, Wang Jiashun said his brother trusted up until the very end that senior Chinese leaders would step in and hold the local government accountable for what he thought was an illegal land seizure. That never happened.
Wang was far from alone in his frustration.
Government statistics show that "mass incidents" — a catchall that includes everything from a small dispute to a riot — shot up from 8,700 in 1993 to more than 90,000 in 2006. A report last year by Chinese state radio said the number had doubled again in 2010, a development that causes unease in a regime infamous for its insistence on "harmony."
"If (villagers) don't have that access and they don't have anywhere to go, and they're losing their most valuable asset — land — there are going to be problems," said Zhu Keliang, a staff attorney for the China team of Landesa, a U.S.-based nonprofit research group focused on rural land rights.
A survey of 17 major agricultural provinces in China that Landesa oversaw last year found that in almost 29 percent of land seizure cases, farmers hadn't been notified in advance. More than 58 percent of the time, the study said, they weren't consulted about compensation.
In an indication that the government takes those numbers seriously, the report was published this February by China's state-run Academy of Social Sciences.
The central government and the ruling Communist Party gave notice in March that rural officials should follow the "spirit" of regulations issued in January for urban property that require due process and fair payment for forced demolitions. The measure also specifically forbade the use of violence or coercion.
None of which helped Wang Jiazheng as he stood on his roof at about 8:30 a.m. April 22.
Wang had discovered that his village leader, a man named Guo Jianguang, had secretly signed over the community's land and also allegedly waived the right to public hearings.
Asked by phone whether he had, in fact, agreed to hand over village land without talking with others, Guo replied, "Yes, that is true," and then said in a loud voice that he didn't have time to talk and hung up.
The government planned to compensate Wang for about 3,000 square feet of housing. The 350,000 yuan payment, worth roughly $53,800, was more than enough to pay for the 2,600-square foot apartment the government wanted Wang to move into. Wang would have been left with 210,000 yuan, some $32,300, a significant sum in rural China, where the annual net income is about $1,000.
But from Wang's perspective, he'd been cheated. His family's two homes covered nearly 6,500 square feet, so he was ending up with less than half the compensation he thought he deserved and getting stuck with a smaller home.
Added to that, the development had scooped up all the farmland he'd tended. He worried that neither he nor his family would have a way to make a living in the future.
Wang complained first to local officials, then went to Beijing in 2009 to petition for an investigation of the case, all to no avail.
According to Chinese news reports, a friend of Wang's, Yan Shiming, collected almost 100 signatures for a complaint about the situation that he filed with a district court last year. The court ruled this March that it had no jurisdiction in the matter.
Wang's nephew and other villagers had traveled to Beijing sometime around January, looking for lawyers to discuss mounting a more serious legal fight.
"I told them to go to court, but that would have cost money," said Wang Cailiang, a lawyer who met with the group and who heads a law firm in Beijing that specializes in property law. "For farmers, they want to find the cheapest way. So (Wang Jiazheng) bought some gasoline."
Wang's wife, Yan Zhugen, said in the weeks since her husband's death that she'd come to understand that Wang acted out of deep panic and desperation. Yan was hauled away by dozens of men and held in a small room at the local courthouse earlier on the morning of her husband's last stand.
"There was no other way for him to solve this with the government," Yan said in an interview. "There was no other solution."
A few days after Wang's self-immolation, the provincial court said it was halting demolitions at Hengshi Village. After his death, officials agreed to give Wang's family 2.5 million yuan, about $385,000, an unthinkable sum for a Chinese farmer.
Then, with no notice from the outside world, a construction crew tore down the Wang home, leaving it in a pile of rubble on the morning of May 14.
Talking about the government payment during a recent conversation, his daughter, Wang Haiyan, didn't seem excited.
"The man has died and the house is gone; there's nothing left," she said. "Maybe during demolitions in the future, they will consider my father's case and pay more attention to the welfare of the people."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011