China's Property Wars: Fighting Fire with Real Fire

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The "nail house" has become a symbol of China's growth — as ubiquitous as new black Audis and smog-choked skies. It is a property whose owner refuses to make way for redevelopment, and thus sticks up like a nail among the rubble of a demolished neighborhood. As China's economy has boomed, cities have undergone rapid transformation. Old neighborhoods are torn down and rebuilt with remarkable speed. And while some homeowners come away with substantial compensation and improved accommodations when their former residences are demolished, complaints of underpayment or outright corruption are frequent. Official investigations have uncovered more than 1 million incidents of illegal land takeovers in the first half of this decade.

Now, as government stimulus money has spilled into property markets, and prices climb as developers struggle to acquire new stock, some Chinese have grown desperate as they struggle for what they see as fair payment for their property — or simply want to hang on to their homes. The media often carries stories of the struggle getting violent. Late last month protesters shut down several major intersections in the southwestern city of Guiyang after a dozen residents were kidnapped so workers could demolish their homes.

In recent weeks two landowners have immolated themselves to protest confiscation of their property. In November a 47-year-old woman in the southwestern city of Chengdu lit her self on fire to protest an effort to tear down a commercial building that the authorities said was illegally constructed. State television broadcast footage, shot with a bystander's cellphone, showing the woman igniting herself on the structure's rooftop and flames rising up around her. The woman, Tang Fuzhen, died two weeks later from her injuries. And, on Dec. 14 in a suburb of Beijing, a man, attempting to prevent his home from being demolished to make way for a new development, soaked himself in gasoline then lit it as workers were attempting to force his family out. The man, Xi Xinzhu, is now being treated in a Beijing hospital.

The violence has spurred proposals for reform. Legal experts say the current rules, which were passed in 2001, give authorities too much power to push through demolitions even before compensation disputes are settled. And the involvement of government officials in property development creates potential conflicts of interests, with the officials who make the decision to confiscate property sometimes benefiting from future developments on the site. The current law "completely overlooks the protection of private property in the process of housing demolition and it's strongly biased towards the local government by facilitating their management, while neglecting individual property rights," says Wang Xixin, a law professor at Peking University.

Wang is one of a group of Peking University professors who this week urged the government's top lawmaking body, the standing committee of the National People's Congress, to draft changes to demolition rules. They say the rules aren't in accordance with other property rights protections that have been enacted since 2001. Because of clashing interests, property rights have yet to be fully recognized in the demolition and relocation rules, Wang says. "Rapid urbanization across the country pumps up the demand for property, and therefore has made it harder to pass a bill that might thwart land acquisition," he says. "This boils down to the inevitable clash between urbanization — in which local governments and some real estate developers are often the biggest beneficiaries — and the protection of private property."

There are signs the government is taking the problem seriously. The State Council, China's cabinet, is planning to change the existing law, the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily reported this week. Wang and other scholars say the need is urgent. "The revision of the existing housing demolition regulation should not be delayed for another day," he says. "The central government, which has been extremely wary of instability in society, has also come to realize the high political risks caused by the existing regulation." So far the government hasn't outlined the proposed changes, or when they might go into effect. That means that China's recent spate of violent standoffs over property demolitions is unlikely to end soon. With reporting by Jessie Jiang/Beijing