By Siqi Zhou

Urbanization and economic growth are rapidly increasing in China, but often at the cost of people’s rights, including the right to land. According to a 2011 study from the Landesa Rural Development Institute, 54.8% of 1,791 farmers surveyed from 17 provinces lost both their residential and farm land.

Throughout China it is hard for evictees to protect their homes and their rights. Even if they have the necessary legal documents, they are repeatedly stonewalled, detained in “black jails,” beaten, and harassed by authorities if they try to petition a higher level of government. Photos and videos of incidents are often deleted or blocked by the government, and therefore fail to reach a larger audience. This video report by Amnesty International Australia is an exception:

Forced evictions in China fit into many of the patterns also seen in others countries. Development companies and local governments put profit before people, a theme also discussed in WITNESS videos such as “Evict Them! In Five Easy Steps” and “People Before Profit.” Typically, after deciding on a new construction site, the incoming company or the government  announces to villagers—who have no say in the matter—that their houses will be torn down. They offer evictees minimal compensation, usually much lower than the market value of their property. Villagers who try to resist often face threats and human rights violations during the demolition process.

Faced with common threats and pattern of violations, activists around the world use various methods to protest forced evictions. For example, evictees in Brazil and Colombia make videosengage in advocacy, and seek help from the international community. In the Chinese context, however, protestors often adopt a method that is not seen elsewhere—suicide. Amnesty International documented 41 cases of self-immolation in China related to forced evictions from 2009 to 2011.

Suicide has been used as a form of political protest in China for at least 1800 years, and has a place in China’s cultural and political history (read more about the origins of this practice through the story of the famous patriotic poet Qu Yuan.) In 2010, a group suicide spurred by the threat of eviction in Yihuang drew nation-wide attention to this issue. In order to stop the demolition of their home, three members of the Zhong family doused their bodies with gasoline and set themselves on fire. One person died; the other two suffered severe burns.

The suicides did not move the government to action. The Party Secretary and the Head of Yihuang County were removed from their positions a month after the Zhong family incident, but were reassigned important positions in Fuzhou government within a year.

The story of Hu Tengping, a migrant worker from Jiangxi province, further illustrates the abuses that many in China face. When he returned home for Chinese New Year on January 30, 2014, Hu found that his ancestral home  had been razed to the ground and his family had been forcibly evicted. A small subsidy of $16,000 USD was not enough to assuage his anger or erase the shame of being disrespected. With no hope of redeeming his loss, Hu set himself on fire in the Yuxiushan government building. He suffered severe burns over 95 percent of his body, and ultimately passed away on March 17, 2014.

[pullquote] Evict_Them_Promo_2Along with partners, WITNESS took part in an international campaign to end forced evictions from 2011 until early 2014. For more information, visit Resources on advocacy and filming forced evictions can be found in our Forced Evictions Advocacy Toolkit.[/pullquote]

During Hu’s hospitalization, local village-level governmental officials and police watched him closely. After his death, cell phone footage captured the police quickly and forcibly removing his body from the premises. Hu’s sister complained that “they sent more than 1,000 special police, who beat up our relatives with truncheons, pinning them to the ground, and then they lifted his body and we only got to see him for a minute or so.”

A few months earlier, on December 10, 2013—International Human Rights Day—13 protesters staged a mass suicide attempt in the Chinese capital after they failed to win compensation over forced eviction. One of the suicide protestors, Mei Cuiying, said they had written down their individual cases on paper, but the police took these sheets away and tore them up. “After my home was demolished, I filed lawsuits to no avail,” Mei told a reporter from Radio Free Asia: “I have been to Beijing several times, but the local government won’t respond, and I am physically and mentally exhausted.”

Some petitioners took photos and videos of the demonstration, but the police confiscated their cell phones and deleted all documentation.

Protesters who drank pesticide slumped on the ground along a wall in Beijing, Dec 10, 2013.  Photo by Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch, via Radio Free Asia.
Protesters who drank pesticide slumped on the ground along a wall in Beijing, Dec 10, 2013. Photo by Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch, via Radio Free Asia.

As evidenced by the events that follow in these cases, suicide significantly harms protestors and their families, but frequently is not powerful enough to force local or national governments to change their behavior. In eight suicide cases in China prompted by forced eviction from 2008 to 2010, the officials responsible for the evictions are still in their posts.

While forced eviction is a worldwide issue, government oppression and media blockade in China make protest and advocacy even more difficult. Drawing more attention to the problem and leveraging resources to empower evictees are among the big challenges facing forced eviction advocates.

Featured image above: Cell phone video footage showing riot police arriving at the Xingang Center Hospital in Xinyu, Jiangxi province, to take Hu Tengping’s body away on March 17, 2013.

Siqi Zhou interned this summer in WITNESS’ External Relations Department. She is studying Public Administration at the Maxwell School, Syracuse University. 

Special thanks to Alexandra Zaretsky at WITNESS for her contributions to this article.

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