The pace of forced property evictions in China has increased during the past three years, fueling social discontent and prompting at least 41 people to set themselves on fire in protest from 2009 to the end of 2011, according to a study published by Amnesty International on Thursday.
The self-immolation figure, which Amnesty compiled from Chinese- and English-language news sources and included eight deaths, represented a troubling rise from previous years. Fewer than 10 cases were reported from 1998 to 2009, the human rights group reported.
The Amnesty study acknowledged that there are no reliable estimates of the total number of people pushed out of their homes, but said that “there is little doubt the figure has risen significantly.”
“The problem of forced evictions represents the single most significant source of popular discontent in China and a serious threat to social and political stability,” said the 85-page report, which drew from sources that included interviews with those who’d been forcibly evicted, state media accounts and academic studies.
Land seizures are often at the core of disputes between locals and their governments in China, and frequently are accompanied by accusations of corrupt relationships between property developers and officials.
The Amnesty report traced the current spate of self-immolations to a 47-year-old woman named Tang Fuzhen in the southwestern city of Chengdu who climbed to the roof of her house and set herself ablaze with gasoline. Tang’s family had refused a government request to tear down what it’d deemed an illegal structure, and on the morning of November 13, 2009, a group of unidentified men with helmets and steel rods began beating them, the Amnesty report said.
She died 16 days later, and the case “became a rallying cry for critics of the Chinese government’s failure to adequately prevent and safeguard against forced evictions.”
The central government has clouded the issue by, on one hand, calling for an end to aggressive evictions while at the same continuing to evaluate leaders on the amount of economic growth they produce in their areas, a process heavily dependent on land sales.
Compounding matters, the Amnesty report pointed out, is that local governments now also rely on revenue from land transactions to cover the interest payments on loans they took from state banks during a massive push for stimulus projects to beat back the 2008 recession.
“These incentives create the potential for an intertwining of interests between local officials and real estate developers when it comes to removing residents from coveted parcels of land,” said the Amnesty report. “Opportunities for abuse proliferate because the Chinese political system allows local officials to operate with few checks and only limited public accountability. Corruption in the form of bribes from developers to officials has been widely documented in state controlled media.”
Such flare-ups are often particularly acute in rural areas in which local officials have been known to sign over collectively-owned land without the knowledge or consent of those living upon it. Last December, for example, an entire village in the coastal province of Guangdong temporarily pushed out officials and police amid allegations that local leadership had for years illegally grabbed land and sold it for personal gain.
A release from Amnesty that accompanied the report quoted Nicola Duckworth, senior director of research at the organization, as saying, “The Chinese authorities must immediately halt all forced evictions. There needs to be an end to the political incentives, tax gains and career advancements that encourage local officials to continue with such illegal practices.”
It wasn’t clear when, or if, the Chinese government might do so.