VIOLENT EVICTION IN CHINA – “Consultation, negotiation and litigation help little for land issues. Officials collude with businessmen to seize the land in the name of economic development and use land as a mortgage to harm the interests of villagers.”
Lin Zuluan, newly elected leader for Wukan village, Guangdong province
Late in 2011, the village of Wukan, in China’s southern province of Guangdong, made international headlines. For months, villagers there had been protesting what they said was the local government’s latest attempt to secretly sell off their farmland to developers, as well as what they said was a village committee instated after unfair elections. In media interviews the villagers said the local Communist Party officials had not consulted them on the sale and that they only learned of it after construction on their farmland began. Residents said they had endured the theft of their land by local officials for nearly forty years and they’d had enough. In September, villagers staged a demonstration, storming government office buildings.
In December, a thousand police descended on Wukan to arrest five people they claimed had organized the September protest. Villagers blocked police from entering, but finally police arrested Xue Jinbo, 43, and four others. On his third day in police custody, Xue Jinbo died. Family members and villagers told reporters that Xue Jinbo appeared to have been tortured, as he had dark bruises and cuts on his face. Officials from Shanwei city, which oversees Wukan, said they interrogated Xue Jinbo twice in custody, during which he “confessed” to being part of the September incident. Officials said that on his third day of custody, he appeared ill and they sent him to the hospital, where he died from cardiac failure.
After Xue Jinbo’s death, enraged villagers chased their Communist Party leaders out of town. To quell the unrest, provincial authorities stepped in, promising Wukan could hold new village elections. In March, villagers elected two new leaders – both of whom had helped lead the land protests. Many in China celebrated the election, saying it marked a peaceful resolution to the stand-off and could serve as a democratic model for China.
But the optimism might be premature. To this day, there has been no independent investigation into Xue Jinbo’s death. The villagers still have not got any of their land back. And there are now reports that authorities have been harassing and spying on activists in Wukan. The activists included Xue Jinbo’s oldest daughter, Xue Jianwan, who had reportedly been sacked from the local school where she taught after announcing she would stand in the village election (she later withdrew at the last minute).
The forced eviction of people from their homes and farmland has become a routine occurrence in China and represents a gross violation of China’s international human rights obligations on an enormous scale. 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. 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.
Chinese who lose their homes or land in forced evictions often find themselves living in poorly constructed dwellings far away from jobs, schools and public transport. Because there is not yet a comprehensive social welfare safety net in the countryside, rural residents are particularly vulnerable to severe economic hardship after evictions. Farmers who lose their land often end up in poverty. 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.
Premier Wen Jiabao and other members of the Chinese leadership have publicly acknowledged the gravity of the situation, with Wen recently saying in a meeting: “What is the widespread problem right now? It’s the arbitrary seizure of peasants’ land, and the peasants have complaints, so much so that it’s triggering mass incidents [protests].” But other Chinese officials have sought to minimize the problem and defended abuses in the eviction process as a necessary cost of modernization.
In January 2011 the central government issued regulations outlawing the use of violence in urban evictions and granting urban owners facing eviction new protections, including the right to air concerns in public hearings, file legal appeals and receive adequate compensation based on market value. Housing rights activists and lawyers say the new urban regulations are insufficient especially because they only apply to home owners and not renters, and that the government has not extended similar protections, however weak, to people living in rural areas. This would require long promised revisions of the 1986 Land Administration Law. Rural residents continue to face official discrimination when evicted. They have no say in the expropriation of their land and, under current law, they are entitled to compensation based only on the agricultural value of their land (including, for example, the value of the crops they have sold in the last three years), rather than market value. Ostensibly, the law restricting agricultural land-use rights is maintained, in part to enhance food security and the central government maintains a “red line” critical acreage of arable land to be protected. But local officials routinely violate national policy by converting the land expropriated from peasants into land for non-agricultural use and then selling it for commercial development.
The pace of forced eviction in China has accelerated in part because local officials have a fiscal incentive to clear land for development. Income from the sale of land rights comprises the single largest source of revenue for local governments, which have struggled with structural budget shortfalls since tax reforms in the mid-90s. The Chinese government’s response to the global recession has exacerbated the problem, with local governments borrowing huge amounts from state banks to finance stimulus projects and relying on land sales to cover interest payments. Officials have other incentives to engage in forced eviction as well: China’s ruling Communist Party promotes those who deliver economic growth, and land redevelopment – whether for new roads, factories or residential complexes – is seen as the most direct path to visible results.
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. 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.
According to the evictees, housing rights activists, lawyers and academics Amnesty International interviewed for this report – people facing eviction enjoy only tenuous protections under Chinese law, and they face significant challenges in asserting their rights. Access to effective remedies as required under international law, is often compromised because local party committees exert influence over both the judiciary and other agencies that hear eviction-related disputes. Courts rarely accept eviction-related appeals, and attempts to petition higher-level government agencies almost always fail. Local authorities also violate international standards by interfering with the efforts of evictees to seek adequate legal advice and representation. Housing rights activists and lawyers often face harassment, the loss of professional licenses, imprisonment and violence. At the same time, violence against evictees and their representatives is rarely prosecuted or punished. According to people interviewed by Amnesty International, some evictees sign “agreements” under coercion, including violence, and this makes it even harder for them to challenge their evictions later.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PROHIBITING FORCED EVICTIONS UNDER INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS LAW
This report uses the definition of forced evictions found in international human rights law and standards, that is the “removal against their will of individuals, families and/or communities from the homes and/or land they occupy without the provision of, and access to, appropriate forms of legal or other protection”.
Under international human rights law and related standards, forced evictions are prohibited and governments can only carry out evictions as a last resort after exploring all feasible alternatives. These legal standards reflect the catastrophic effects forced evictions can have not only on people’s right to adequate housing and to family life and the home but also on a range of their other economic and social rights including on their right to work, access to services such as water and sanitation, utilities, health and education.
As specified in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), ratified by China in 2001, governments may only carry out evictions when a range of procedural protections are applied. The Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR)24 has determined that such protections include:
* an opportunity for genuine consultation, including the discussion of feasible alternatives to eviction;
* adequate and reasonable notice; ␣
* information made available in a reasonable amount of time on the proposed evictions, including, where applicable, the purpose for which the land or housing will be used;
* government officials or their representatives being present during an eviction;
* the people carrying out the eviction identifying themselves;
* refraining from carrying out evictions at night or in particularly bad weather, unless the affected persons give their consent otherwise;
* the provision of legal remedies; and ␣ the provision, where possible, of legal aid to people who need it to seek redress through
Governments are also required to protect people from forced evictions by private actors.
China has an obligation to prohibit and end forced evictions as a party to the ICESCR and other international human rights treaties that require it to respect and protect the right to adequate housing and related guarantees including family and private life. The CESCR has stated that it “considers that instances of forced eviction are prima facie incompatible with the requirements of the Covenant and can only be justified in the most exceptional circumstances and in accordance with the relevant principles of international law.” The importance of the duty to prohibit and halt forced evictions is signified by its immediacy, as is the duty to respect and not to violate individuals’ right to housing.
The practice of forced evictions highlights the indivisibility of economic social and cultural rights and civil and political rights. As this report shows, victims can be subjected to torture or ill-treatment by the authorities or their agents and are frequently denied effective remedies and prevented from or punished for exercising their right to engage in peaceful protest.
This report demonstrates that contrary to China’s obligations under international law, Chinese people are rarely consulted in a way that complies with international law before evictions. Many times they do not receive adequate information on the timing or purpose of an eviction, and their efforts to appeal, whether via courts or government agencies, are routinely blocked and sometimes result in imprisonment. Chinese who are evicted often must relocate far from jobs, schools and transportation and those who receive new housing do not always receive the proper legal documents of home ownership – putting them at risk of future forced evictions and, in some cases, preventing them from being allowed to legally sell their homes, if they choose. Farmers are particularly vulnerable after evictions and often end up in poverty after losing land, which is one of the few social welfare safety nets available to rural residents. If they do receive compensation, it usually falls far short of what they would need to rebuild their lives after being forced from their land and community.
This report also shows that the Chinese government fails to protect people from violence by real estate developers and other private parties, such as corporations, with an economic interest in the eviction process, and that state actors, such as police or other state security forces, have incentive to – and in many documented cases have engaged in – violence against evictees as well.
In the cases Amnesty International reviewed, violence was typically the culmination of a campaign of escalating harassment aimed at pressuring residents into signing eviction and resettlement agreements. Academics, activists and lawyers Amnesty International spoke with and other reports show this pattern is common. These campaigns often employ coercive tactics in violation of international law, including the interruption of services such as water, heat and electricity. Physical intimidation of holdouts is common, and often followed by a range of violent acts. Beatings are the most commonly reported type of violence, however there have also been some alleged abductions and murders. In some cases, victims were killed or injured during the demolition process, including one case in which a woman trying to stop a demolition crew was buried by a bulldozer. Usually these deaths were at the hands of non-government actors, but at least one victim died while in police custody.30 In a few of the high-profile cases documented in this report, authorities investigated and punished those responsible for injuries or deaths. But more often, activists report that authorities do not investigate eviction-related violence. Sometimes, police have stood by as violence unfolded and did not intervene or arrived so late after being called that the victims believed they were purposefully stalling (See below under ‘Unnecessary force and violence’).
In some cases, evictees respond with violence, including attacks against police and government officials. One measure of poor redress mechanisms and the desperation of victims of forced eviction in China is an unprecedented surge in protests by self-immolation. At least 41 individuals resisting eviction have set themselves on fire in protest since 2009.
Throughout the report, Amnesty International cites cases that illustrate a range of human rights violations suffered during the eviction process. We also include eight, detailed, case studies for a more in-depth look at the dynamics and abuses involved in forced evictions. This report also includes an overview of current laws and regulations pertaining to housing rights and forced evictions. It includes a detailed analysis of the 2011 Regulations on the Expropriation of Houses on State-owned Land and Compensation, which apply to evictions carried out in the cities. In the analysis, Amnesty International points out the positive steps the Chinese government has taken in moving closer toward meeting its obligations under international law. We also provide recommendations on how to improve the regulations–for example, by extending similar protections against forced eviction to all residents, not simply homeowners and not only those living in urban areas. Amnesty International would welcome the opportunity to discuss these issues further with Chinese authorities.
The Chinese government should:
* Halt immediately all forced evictions, explicitly prohibit them under law and ensure that adequate safeguards and protections are put in place in line with international law, in part by ensuring implementation of the January 2011 Regulations on the Expropriation of Houses on State-owned Land and Compensation;
Develop and adopt guidelines for evictions based on the UN Special Rapporteur’s Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-Based Evictions and Displacement that comply with international human rights law and standards;
* Develop and adopt concrete and effective measures to ensure the entire population a minimum degree of security of tenure sufficient at least to protect them from forced evictions and other threats and harassment;
* Ensure that nobody is rendered homeless as a result of an eviction and is provided with adequate alternative housing;
* Ensure that all victims of forced evictions have access to independent and impartial adjudication of their complaints and to an effective remedy;
* Respect and guarantee the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law; ␣ Punish and prosecute state and non-state actors who violate the rights of residents,
including but not limited to the use of violence, during the eviction process; and
* Introduce an immediate moratorium on any new mass evictions until the above key reforms are implemented.
A more comprehensive set of recommendations is set forth at the end of this report.
Amnesty International conducted research for this report between February 2010 and January 2012. This included detailed interviews with around 30 victims of forced eviction, lawyers and housing rights activists from across mainland China. In addition, we conducted interviews with international scholars and other authorities on Chinese land and housing rights and international housing rights advocates. This report also draws on extensive Chinese and international academic research, studies by a Chinese human rights organization and published accounts in both Chinese and international media.
In our research, we examined in detail 40 instances of forced eviction, involving at least several households each, occurring between January 2009 and January 2012 in Beijing and Shanghai, in the provinces of Anhui, Guangdong, Guizhou, Heilongjiang, Henan, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Jilin, Shandong, Shanxi, Sichuan, Yunnan and Zhejiang and in the autonomous regions of Inner Mongolia and Guangxi. Each of these cases involved at least one violent episode. We also documented an additional 41 cases of self-immolation related to forced eviction in the same time period. Whenever possible, we confirmed details of these incidents through multiple channels, including interviews with witnesses, lawyers and activists, as well as reports in Chinese state media and international media, legal documents and written, first-hand accounts. Our aim was to explore the circumstances that lead to violence in the eviction process in China and to identify patterns of conduct by the Chinese government and its agents including any violation of international human rights standards.
The Chinese government severely restricts the activities of civil society and nongovernmental organizations, particularly those of human rights advocacy groups such as Amnesty International. As a result, our research was conducted with utmost attention to the security of those interviewed. Because of the possibility of reprisals, we are withholding information about when and where these interviews were conducted. All participants were informed of the purpose of these interviews and were offered the opportunity to remain anonymous in this report.
Amnesty International tried to document what happened to evictees at all stages of an eviction, including after the eviction itself. However, due to the difficulty in obtaining information from those who live in mainland China without jeopardizing their security – as well as restrictions on outside organizations wishing to conduct research on the mainland – it was difficult in many cases to follow up on the whereabouts of villagers after they had been evicted.
The findings of this report complement numerous other reports on the topic of forced eviction in China by domestic and international researchers, including Chinese Human Rights Defenders, the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), and the Building and Social Housing Foundation. The findings also are consistent with the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food’s findings and recommendations after his 2010 mission to China and recommendations to the Chinese government from the CESCR.
This report does not include research in the ethnic autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. Forced evictions have been reported in Tibet and Xinjiang, but the examination of the distinct features affecting the way the process is carried out in these areas – such as discrimination against members of the Tibetan and Uyghur ethnic groups – is beyond the scope of this report. The Chinese government also controls access to these areas even more tightly than it does to other parts of China, hampering independent research.
You can find the complete report hereEnter your email address to subscribe to China-underground and receive notifications of new posts by email.