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Burning protest moves China to protect homeowners

A proposed law to ban intimidation by developers springs from the case of a woman who burnt herself to death over the forced demolition of her home.

Demolition workers walk past the wreaths laid for Tang Fuzhen, who took her own life by setting herself on fire in a forcible demolition of her home in Jinhua village, Sichuan province.
Demolition workers walk past the wreaths laid for Tang Fuzhen, who took her own life by setting herself on fire in a forcible demolition of her home in Jinhua village, Sichuan province.

BEIJING // One year on from a case in which a woman burnt herself to death over the forced demolition of her home, Calhina appears to be edging closer to a law that will restrict the rights of developers to flatten people's houses.

New regulations on the requisition of urban land could be released as soon as next month, according to state media reports, potentially ending one of the most controversial practices in modern China.

While many families of modest means have received financial security by accepting compensation for their homes, there have been countless cases of alleged intimidation by developers keen to eject residents so neighbourhoods could be flattened to allow for lucrative redevelopment.

Under the proposed rules, coercive methods to get people out of their homes, such as cutting off water and power supplies, would be banned.

The latest proposed legislation dates back a year, when five professors at Peking University called on the authorities to revise current laws.

Their appeal came in the wake of the death of Tang Fuzhen, 47, who set herself on fire in November last year when she and her relatives fought a demolition crew over the razing of their property in Chengdu, located in western China's Sichuan province.

While Ms Tang's case has become notorious, it is far from the only one to have grabbed headlines in recent years.

Another high-profile incident took place in April, when a female resident, Meng Jianfen, was crushed to death by a vehicle moving in to demolish her home in Hebei province in the north of the country. Shortly before the tragedy, Ms Meng's mother drank pesticide in protest at the planned demolition. The family had earlier failed to agree to compensation with developers over the demolition.

There have been countless other reports of residents being threatened or attacked if they resisted pressure to move out.

In January, a draft amendment to current legislation was released for public consultation and, according to state media reports quoting Shen Kui, a Peking University law professor, more than 60,000 views on the proposals were submitted.

Important changes include a requirement for at least 90 per cent of residents to agree to a compensation proposal before they can be moved out. Compensation must be received before residents move out - a key clause, since compensation paid is often less than that promised - and only demolitions in the public interest would be allowed. In reports this week, Prof Shen said he believed a revised version could be published by the end of the year, amid campaigners' disquiet that the delay since January's original publication may indicate the legislation is on the back burner.

According to Yip Ngaiming, an associate professor at the City University of Hong Kong who specialises in housing policy, the new law would be "a big improvement".

"In big cities, with improvements in the law the situation will get much, much better," he said. However, unease centres on its implementation away from major metropolitan areas. Aside from concerns the law will not cover rural areas, which the central authorities have said they would address, is the question of whether officials in smaller provincial urban areas will flout the regulations. Prof Yip said in such places it was "a completely different story" to the larger cities, where regulations were enforced more thoroughly.

Local authorities have major financial interests at stake. Many forced demolitions have been driven by authorities keen to profit from redevelopment. Last year, according to the ministry of land and resources, land transfers generated 1.59 trillion yuan (Dh879.74 billion).

"The problem in China is not the law on paper, but the law in practice," Prof Yip said. "The local officials seldom use brute force, but some other persuasion strategy to intimidate local residents to get off their land."

Linda Wong, a professor in the department of public and social administration at the City University of Hong Kong, said the implementation of laws was "the biggest challenge in public policy in China".

"When you have so many tiers of government involved, it's terribly difficult to enforce any regulation," she said.

"The central government cannot dictate to the local governments what they should do."

As well as offering greater protection to householders, the revised regulations, if implemented, could be "very beneficial to China's cultural heritage protection", according to He Shuzhong, the founder and chairman of Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre. China's rapid development has sparked dismay over the destruction of historical buildings, leading a vice construction minister to brand the country the "land of 1,000 identical cities".

While welcoming the proposals, Mr He said he did not expect the law to be implemented "any time soon", especially as restricting demolitions would have significant financial implications for the authorities.

 

dbardsley@thenational.ae