Housing rights advocate Mao Hengfeng
The incidence of forced eviction in China has not subsided since the 2008 Beijing Olympics. On the contrary, Chinese housing rights activists, lawyers and academics report that such abuses remain widespread and that the problem has intensified over the past three years amid a nationwide construction boom spurred by massive stimulus spending after the global financial crisis. There are no reliable estimates of the total number of people who have been forced from their homes or farms during this period, but there is little doubt the figure has risen significantly. In the countryside alone, a 2011 study by the Landesa Rural Development Institute, found that 43.1 percent of villages had experienced land expropriation since the late 1990s and that the number of cases each year have risen steadily since 2007.Our research indicates that evictions are common place in Chinese cities as well and that they are frequently carried out in violation of international standards.
In this section, Amnesty International has documented cases where the government has failed to provide adequate notice or genuine consultation to evictees; condoned or failed to punish abuse and violence during the eviction process or during the time period before an eviction agreement is signed; and used, or failed to stop, unnecessary use of force during the eviction process and failed to provide alternative accommodation, frequently rendering people homeless.
INADEQUATE NOTICE AND CONSULTATION
International standards require that those likely to face eviction must receive “adequate and reasonable notice” of proposed plans and “an opportunity for genuine consultation.” The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing has emphasized that evictions should only occur in exceptional circumstances and once all other feasible alternatives have been explored in genuine consultation with all affected persons. People should also be fully consulted on resettlement options.
International standards also require that people should be provided with written notification of each household affected well in advance of the eviction date, information on the proposed evictions and on the alternative purpose for which the land or housing is to be used. In particular the eviction notice should contain a detailed justification for the decision, including on: (a) absence of reasonable alternatives; (b) the full details of the proposed alternative; and (c) where no alternatives exist, all measures taken and foreseen to minimize the adverse effects of evictions. Due eviction notice should allow and enable those subject to eviction to take an inventory in order to assess the values of their properties, investments and other material goods that may be damaged. Those subject to eviction should also be given the opportunity to assess and document non-monetary losses to be compensated. In situations where evictions involve large groups of people, authorities must allow a reasonable amount of time for public review of, comment on, and/or objection to the proposed plan. Authorities must also provide people the opportunity for legal, technical and other advice about their rights and options. All final decisions should be subject to administrative and judicial review. Affected parties must also be guaranteed timely access to legal counsel, without payment if necessary.
China has taken some welcome steps to acknowledge these standards in law if not in practice, as evidenced by the country’s 2011 regulations on urban expropriations. The regulations require, among other things, that the public be consulted about development plans that involve evictions and that city and county governments organize feasibility studies on compensation for expropriation and “disclose information for public comment for a period of no less than 30 days.”
However, numerous examples suggest that Chinese citizens are rarely legitimately consulted in practice prior to evictions and that there is little to no transparency in most cases (see ‘Case study one: Xiaohongmen, Beijing municipality’). Victims, lawyers and housing rights activists told Amnesty International that residents often learn they are facing eviction only by word of mouth or by the sudden appearance of a poster on a neighbourhood wall just weeks or days before demolition is scheduled. In some cases Amnesty International reviewed, residents received no formal notice at all. Our research showed that local authorities routinely neglected to convene public hearings, and residents and their advocates told Amnesty International that on the rare occasions authorities convened hearings, those meetings were only for show. Local officials sometimes told residents they would be evicted and then refused to entertain objections or alternative proposals. In other cases, authorities pledged to relocate residents during the meetings but later demanded payment for new homes.
For example, in November 2010, local authorities forcibly evicted at least 527 households of Beisanli, a suburban village located in Weifang city, Shandong province, without formal notice, public hearings or any type of public consultation. According to Wang Jinwen, a law student at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University who had grown up in the village, local authorities told residents in March 2010 only that they would have to move so their farmland could be redeveloped. No information was provided about what would be built on the land, when they would have to leave, how much they would receive in compensation or where they would be resettled. Wang said his family never received written notice of an eviction.
On 17 November 2010, Wang learned that a demolition team had razed his parents’ home without warning. “My house was bulldozed and immediately cleared away – furniture, clothing, food, my books from junior high school to university scattered everywhere,” he wrote shortly afterwards in an open letter to the mayor of Weifang city that caused a national sensation.
“I am not against development; I welcome development. I do not oppose urbanization; I welcome urbanization. I am not against demolitions and resettlements; I am for demolitions and resettlements…. Why do villagers have objections and why are they unwilling to have their homes demolished and be relocated? As the person-in-charge, I think you know better than I. If there is no protection, nothing to rely upon and no remedial measures, it is only natural that villagers do not wish or agree with demolitions and resettlement. Until now, neither the villagers nor I have ever met this so-called developer or been provided with any information about the developer’s qualifications. Neither the villagers nor I have discussed or voted on any issues relating to evictions through a democratic process. To this point we haven’t even seen any relevant accounts or the basis for eviction, and we know nothing about any resettlement arrangements… According to the existing law of the People’s Republic of China, it is crucial that relevant information should be provided in an open manner to villagers who can discuss among themselves and bargain and negotiate directly with relevant parties…”
On 21 April 2011, Wang Jinwen filed an administrative reconsideration request alleging “illegal land expropriation” with the State Council but to date has received no response and continues to be denied any remedy for the forced eviction of his family. In December 2011, he went to the State Council Legislative Affairs Office to look at the documents relevant to his family’s case. He said several documents showed foul play by the local officials in the Beisanli case. One was a letter signed by the Beisanli village committee head waiving the villagers’ rights to a public hearing on the eviction. Another document showed that more than 26 million yuan (US$4.1 million) was to have been made available to the residents for monetary compensation and resettlement. However, Wang Jinwen said as far as he knew, the villagers did not receive any of this money.
Wang Jinwen’s case does not appear unusual, though his detailed and heartfelt account managed to capture national attention. None of the housing rights advocates interviewed by Amnesty International were aware of any genuine public consultations taking place before evictions that would meet international standards. Other studies conducted in China have also noted a lack of any form of consultation in the majority of evictions. Nearly 60 percent of farmers who reported land expropriation in a 2010 Landesa study indicated that the authorities never consulted them about any form of compensation before eviction whilst almost 30 percent said they received no advance notice before their farms were seized.
CASE STUDY ONE, XIAOHONGMEN, BEIJING MUNICIPALITY
On 13 January 2011, around midday, unmarked mini-buses with no license plates pulled into a suburban village in Xiaohongmen township in the Chaoyang district of Beijing. According to housing rights activists
interviewed by Amnesty International, witnesses said at least 100 men descended on the area, which had been slated for demolition by the authorities. The men did not identify themselves, but according to witnesses the group included local police and members of the chengguan (“urban management”), China’s para-police organization. The men dragged people from their houses and then razed what was left of the village.
Residents of four villages in Xiaohongmen township – around 10,000 households – were given notices by the township in late 2006 saying the local government would seize the land to create a “green zone”. Parts of each of the four villages were to be demolished. Later, villagers discovered the township officials had lied about the reason for their eviction. Secretly, they had colluded with members of the village committee to sign a deal with a real estate developer in 2005 to turn over the land. Villagers had never been consulted on this deal and given any opportunity to challenge it and/or present alternatives.
In September 2007, each family received a booklet outlining the procedure for securing a new home, including how much they would have to pay if they wanted a home that was larger than their current home. The notice did not include any information about where the families would be relocated or what type of neighbourhood it would be. The notice named two companies that would implement the relocation and said relocation would begin 29 September 2007 – just weeks away. “If you move out early, you will get a reward,” the document said. The booklet said villagers would find out details of the relocation in a meeting at a later date.
Villagers said when they finally learned where their new houses would be, they were stunned but had had no opportunity to complain. The new homes were four to five kilometres away, outside Beijing’s fifth ring road,
much further from the centre of the city than their current homes. Although their homes were single family homes, the new houses were located in tall apartment buildings that residents felt were of low quality construction. There were no schools or health clinics nearby and public transportation was unreliable.
Although the villagers had legally owned their previous homes, the new homes did not come with documents that would allow them to resell and could in fact leave them vulnerable to another eviction because the documentation they received for the homes was not legal. Resident Wu Lihong said her neighbours were distraught when they saw the new housing. “There were no businesses, no plaza, no supermarket, nothing.
Just these buildings standing alone,” she told Amnesty International.
From the beginning, many villagers demanded to negotiate with authorities and refused to sign the eviction agreement. Members of the chengguan began harassing them and threatening them to sign and at one point destroyed crops some of the residents had planted. Police also threatened those who refused to sign, and even detained some of the residents. Villagers said people broke into their homes and stole their belongings, and Wu Lihong said they suspected the “thieves” were actually men sent by the government. Sometimes when people refused to sign, police detained their family members. By 2009, the villagers and officials had not reached an agreement. But meanwhile, most people had already moved to the new housing having been effectively forcibly evicted due to the repeated harassments and
threats. Wu Lihong and other villagers filed several administrative lawsuits against various Beijing city departments and one against the Chaoyang district government on the principle of disclosure of information.
The suits were filed in several different courts, including the Beijing Xicheng District People’s Court and the Chaoyang District People’s Court, which refused them a hearing six times, saying that the villagers did not
have the right or the legal status to ask for this information.90 Many families moved out after realizing they would be forced out anyway. Housing rights activists told Amnesty International that those who remained to
fight for fair compensation reported they were followed by unmarked cars, harassed and intimidated by thugs.
Spotlights were trained on the homes of some holdouts. When residents complained to police, they were ignored, or worse, arrested and charged themselves.
On 23 June 2010, resident Chen Huan was walking her dog when she saw several men destroying a neighbour’s vegetable plot. The owner of the plot later told reporters the men had not identified themselves, but he determined they were members of the chengguan as well as people hired by the demolition office.
Always ready with her digital video recorder, Chen began filming the men. The men attacked her, grabbing her camera. In the struggle, Chen was bruised and her shirt was torn off. She called the police for help, but when they arrived they arrested Chen Huan, rather than her attackers. Several neighbours and housing activists went to the police station to ask for her release and to weiguan, (“surround and watch”; see below under
‘Suppression of resistance’ for more details). Police held Chen Huan for several hours, and then charged her with “indecent exposure.” She received one-week probation.
In January 2012, Wu Lihong’s house was the only one left standing in her village. She was living in a noisy construction zone with her 14-year-old son, her husband and her father-in-law. Authorities continued to harass her, sometimes shining a spotlight on her home all night. “I can’t sleep at night and I feel threatened,” she said. “My son cannot rest and this has affected his studies.”
Wu Lihong continued to fight the eviction “because it isn’t fair… I’m fighting to the end for my dignity.” She finally gave up in February 2012 out of fears for the safety of her family.
Neither Wu Lihong nor any of the other residents have ever been compensated or been able to access any form of effective remedy for what happened to them.
After evictions are announced, housing rights activists, lawyers and academics interviewed by Amnesty International said that local officials and developers typically begin a concerted campaign to persuade residents to sign papers agreeing to surrender their property and accept a usually inadequate compensation or resettlement offer. Many residents quickly sign and move out. Those who resist are subjected to a range of high-pressure tactics aimed at forcing them to cooperate, which many end up doing out of fear. Amnesty International was told of many instances where the authorities cut services such as water, heat and electricity in an attempt to drive residents from their homes long enough for a bulldozer to be sent in. Civil servants who resist face reprisals or dismissal from their jobs. In July 2011, residents facing eviction in the southern city of Shenzhen said a developer went so far as to release hundreds of scorpions into their neighbourhood after talks over compensation stalled. Often, the authorities also target family members in an attempt to use blood ties to put pressure on evictees. In January 2011, for example, a school principal in a town in Jiangsu province suspended several teachers who failed to convince relatives to sign eviction agreements. In the end, according to those interviewed by Amnesty International, usually only a minority of residents hold out.
Undue pressure on and harassment of residents facing eviction is a clear violation of international law which requires that everybody has a degree of security of tenure protecting them against forced evictions, harassment and other threats. Prior to eviction, all residents must have the opportunity to engage in genuine consultation with the authorities regarding alternatives to evictions, compensation and resettlement options, without fear of coercion or harassment. They must be provided with information on the eviction, options for resettlement and compensation. In addition they must be provided with legal remedies, including legal aid where necessary in order to be able to have unimpeded access to justice to challenge forced evictions.
VIOLENCE AND UNNECESSARY USE OF FORCE
In a number of cases, these campaigns to pressure residents into surrendering their property escalate into violence (see ‘Case study two: Pizhou city, Jiangsu province’ for an example of farmers surprised by a violent attempt to take their land). According to State media and sources Amnesty International interviewed for this report, people facing eviction have been beaten, abducted, murdered, and in at least one case buried alive by a bulldozer. In many cases, violence is carried out by state actors such as police, chengguan or other government employees. In other cases, local authorities are accused of conspiring with developers to send hired thugs wielding steel rods, wooden sticks or knives to intimidate and rough up residents. Police often refuse to respond to calls for help, arrive late, or stand by and do nothing when they are on hand to witness the violence. Amnesty International found that these crimes are rarely investigated, and the perpetrators are rarely punished except when a case involves a particularly violent incident that receives an enormous amount of public attention.
One case that illustrates the lack of accountability during forced evictions occurred in Wuhan city, Hubei province. At around 11am on 3 March 2010, a 70-year-old woman, Wang Cuiyun, attempted to stop a crew of about 30 to 40 workers hired by developers from demolishing her house. Workers had dug a ditch around the house to begin the demolition. According to her daughter-in-law, Huang Hongxia, Wang Cuiyun was either pushed or fell into the ditch. Then, an excavator buried her with earth, killing her. Initially, police detained the driver of the excavator, as well as one of his supervisors. However, the local government later declared the death an accident and Huang Hongxia said there has been no further investigation.
Huang Hongxia recalls:
“We were at home when a group of thugs arrived. They were driving something like an excavator and started digging in front of our house, a three-meter ditch. They dug up the dirt so much that it was pushing over the wall of the yard. After the wall was knocked over, all of our family members went outside. We asked them to stop, but they wouldn’t listen. So we called the police. After the police came, we told them what happened. But the police instead pulled us aside and asked us not to move. Those thugs kept working. They had weapons. After that, the thugs rushed toward us. We only had a few people, elderly and kids. There were another four of us inside the house. My mother-in-law then stepped up and asked them not to dig the ditch.”
Huang Hongxia said that her mother-in-law then either fell or was pushed into the ditch.
“When we turned around, they had already buried her…She was buried deep, deep down and it took a half an hour to dig and pull her out…The two police officers had been helping the thugs….It’s not until my mother-in-law got killed that they offered to help….They rushed her to the hospital for emergency treatment but after a person has been buried for half an hour, how could she be alive? She didn’t make it….”
Almost immediately after her mother-in-law’s death, the government blocked the road so that visitors could not come and pay condolences. Local officials also kept the family under surveillance. Huang Hongxia said her family attempted to petition the Hubei provincial government for justice for her mother-in-law’s death, but people they suspect were sent by the local government beat them up. Huang Hongxia said that lawyers they approached would not accept their case. “The government was involved, and they were quite scared,” she told Amnesty International.
In 2010, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development estimated that violence had occurred in only about one in 500 eviction cases in China in the last two years. But housing rights activists and lawyers interviewed by Amnesty International said that this figure significantly understates the true scope of the problem and that violence and the threat of violence are integrated into the eviction process because it is seen as key to the success of developers and local officials in clearing out neighbourhoods at minimal cost.
In some cases, the violence inflicted amounts to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. On 15 June 2011, in Wenchang city in Sichuan province, police reportedly took a 20-month-old boy from his mother, Xu Hua, and refused to return him to her unless she signed an eviction agreement. Xu had been among several residents resisting eviction who were detained after clashes with local authorities who cut off their electricity. Local officials have also deployed family planning authorities against women resisting eviction. On 17 May 2011, officials in Hexia township in Jiangxi province summoned family planning officials after residents from Pingchuan village arrived at the government building to complain about expropriation of their farmland. The family planning officials beat one of the villagers, Zhang Julan, and then forced her to undergo a tubal ligation thereby forcibly sterilizing her, a practice which Amnesty International and UN human rights bodies consider amounts to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Afterwards, officials tried to force her to sign both an eviction agreement and a statement consenting to the operation.
In some cases, violence is committed on a large scale. In November 2010, for example, some 500 police officers, fire fighters and riot police, along with German Shepherd dogs, descended on Shuangren, a rural village in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, to evict its 300 residents, many of whom were resisting eviction from farmland designated for a new automobile plant. It was the second incident in Shuangren. In September 2010 security forces bulldozed crops and indiscriminately beat residents. “The bulldozers levelled everything in their way, no matter whether you signed or not, or took the compensation money or not,” one villager, Qin Shujin, told Radio Free Asia. “When they came, we tried to argue with their bosses, asking, ‘Why are you destroying our crops?’ But the land was surrounded by police and we had no way to deal with them.” Developers paid 310 million yuan (US$45.6 million) for the land in a deal that residents allege local authorities had tried to keep secret and that provincial authorities had ruled illegal.
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