Cases of people being forcibly evicted from their homes and land have risen significantly in China, becoming the single greatest source of public discontent and a serious threat to social and political stability in the country, Amnesty International has said.
Forced demolitions have long been a way of life in China. Decades of economic growth have been driven by real estate development, much of it on the backs of millions of residents forced to relocate to make way for factories and business ventures.
But evictions have escalated over the past three years during a nationwide construction boom spurred by massive stimulus spending after the global financial crisis, the human rights group said in a report that cites Chinese housing rights activists, lawyers and academics.
Local authorities seize and then sell off land in suspect deals with property developers, relying on land sales to help pay off huge debts incurred to finance stimulus projects, the report said. Developers often hire thugs to threaten residents, sometimes with violence, it is claimed.
Of 40 forced evictions that the group said it examined in detail, nine culminated in the deaths of people protesting or resisting eviction. In one case, a 70-year-old woman was buried alive by an excavator as she tried to stop workers demolishing her house in Wuhan city in central Hubei province, the report said. In another, police in Wenchang city in southern Sichuan province were reported to have taken custody of a baby and refused to return him until his mother signed an eviction order.
Some people who resist forced evictions end up in prison or in labour camps. Amnesty said a woman in Hexia township in southeastern Jiangxi province who petitioned authorities about her eviction was beaten and forced to undergo sterilisation.
Some despairing residents have set themselves on fire. Amnesty said it documented 41 cases of self-immolations that occurred between January 2009 and January 2012.
Amnesty International called on authorities to immediately halt all forced evictions, ensure no one is made homeless as a result of forced eviction and punish and prosecute those who use violence during the eviction process.
The government technically owns most land in China and can seize property for projects deemed in the public interest. Compensation is supposed to be given to residents who are evicted, but that does not always happen or is not always fair.
Amnesty said there are no reliable estimates of the number of people who have been forced from their homes or farms, "but there is little doubt the figure has risen significantly."