A migrant worker at a construction site in Beijing takes a lunch break. China's… (Associated Press )
BEIJING — Forced evictions of poor and working-class people from their homes and property are accelerating in China, leading to violent disturbances and deaths, a report released Thursday by Amnesty International asserts.
The human rights group said it had collected reports on more than 40 cases from January 2009 to January 2012 in which people resisting relocation by local governments had set themselves on fire, a sharp rise from previous years.
Forced evictions are a well-documented issue in China. For years, local governments have been seizing land, selling development rights and relocating people as part of urban renewal and redevelopment projects, including the 2008 Beijing Olympics and Expo 2010 in Shanghai.
Momentum for such projects continued during the global financial crisis as Beijing ordered local governments to help stimulate the economy. Localities stepped up their sales of development rights, often displacing poor farmers and working-class urbanites to raise cash for infrastructure investment.
Local governments also borrowed heavily from state banks to finance building projects and now are heavily in debt. Without the power to levy property taxes, many localities are stepping up land sales to cover the payments.
"Despite international scrutiny and censure of such abuses amid preparations for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the pace of forced evictions has only accelerated over the past three years, with millions of people across the country forced from their residences without appropriate legal protection and safeguards," Amnesty said in its 85-page report, titled "Standing Their Ground." The document is based on media reports and interviews with rights activists, lawyers and academics, the group said.
"These evictions are often marked by violence, committed both by state and private actors in pursuit of economic gain and, less commonly, by frustrated residents in desperate acts of protest and resistance."
Quantifying forced evictions is difficult, and in asserting that their rate is accelerating, Amnesty cited two main sources, one a regular survey of about 1,800 farmers last conducted in 2011, and the other a 2010 housing report by rights lawyers and experts on evictions in the city and countryside.
Amnesty said it had examined 40 forced evictions in detail and found nine that ended in the deaths of people protesting or resisting eviction. Of the self-immolations, Amnesty said it had collected reports of 41 cases, with eight resulting in death. That compares with fewer than 10 cases reported in the previous decade, it said.
Evicted residents often did not receive proper notification or compensation, and many faced ruthless tactics to force them out of their homes, including beatings, cutoff of essential services such as water and heating and spotlights beamed at their houses throughout the night, the group said.
People who complained about such incidents often found that local officials, police and courts ignored them, it said.
Premier Wen Jiabao and other officials have acknowledged that the land seizures are a serious issue.
"What is the widespread problem right now?" Wen asked at a February meeting, according to the official New China News Agency. "It's the arbitrary seizure of peasants' land, and the peasants have complaints, so much so that it's triggering mass incidents."
The Amnesty report does include several incidents in which enraged citizens managed to effect change through protests, including a case in the southern town of Wukan. When a land grab there generated violent protests in 2011 and one man died after being taken into police custody, villagers chased their Communist Party leaders out of town and were allowed to hold new elections.
In another case, Meng Jianwei, a doctoral student at Fudan University in Shanghai, won $169,000 in compensation after his father died from a beating suffered when officials tried to evict him from his home in Shanxi province. Meng blogged about the event, drawing national attention. Seventeen people were put on trial, receiving sentences ranging from probation to death.
The Amnesty report also notes that the central government last year issued regulations outlawing the use of violence in urban evictions and granting urban owners facing eviction new protections, including the right to air complaints in public hearings, file legal appeals and receive adequate compensation based on market value. However, the new rules do not apply to renters or people in rural areas, the group said.
Nicola Duckworth, senior director of research at Amnesty International, called on Chinese authorities to halt forced evictions and change the criteria by which local officials are evaluated so that there is less incentive to seize land.
"Political incentives, tax gains and career advancements … encourage local officials to continue with such illegal practices," she said.
The Chinese government reportedly said the report lacks credibility.
Officially, land in China is owned by the state or rural collectives, but citizens can buy and sell rights to use it for as long as 70 years.