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Chinese woman sets herself alight in 'land grab' protest

09 June 11 00:10
Zhang Shulan
By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

Zhang Shulan's scarred and deformed face is shocking to look at.

She was once a fit and healthy woman but now, with her hair gone and facial features distorted, she looks nothing like her former self.

The 64-year-old's visual change came about in a single act.

When "hired thugs" came to evict her earlier this year she poured petrol over herself and set it alight.

"I did it because they tore down my house without my permission. I set fire to myself because I didn't want to live - they forced me - I had no choice," said a tearful Mrs Zhang.

"Ordinary people don't have any rights at all. I feel so upset."

She is still fighting for what she believes is her right to proper compensation for her former home, now demolished.

She is not alone. Dozens of people in her district have similar claims, as have thousands of others across China.

'Hired thugs'

As the country races to develop, the government has not been able to stop hundreds of conflicts over land use.

The state council, China's highest government body, recently issued guidelines to prevent forced demolitions like that of Mrs Zhang's home.

But cases of people taking extreme action because they believe they have been treated unfairly continue - suggesting the government has a major problem on its hands.

Mrs Zhang is one of a handful of residents who have refused to move from their shabby, single-storey homes in Tongzhou, a suburb of Beijing, to make way for redevelopment.

The local government appears to have great hopes for the district, which has good transport links to central Beijing.

Some developers are suggesting Tongzhou could become the "Manhattan of China".

The centre of this suburb has been transformed with fancy shops and restaurants. New apartment blocks have sprung up and large areas have been cleared for future projects.

Selling off land to developers earns Chinese local governments billions of dollars every year - about 30% of their budgets on average.

But redevelopment means people have to move - and some do not want to go.

Forced demolitions

The basic complaint of all those refusing to leave the Shangying neighbourhood where Mrs Zhang lives is essentially the same - they feel they are being offered too little compensation, certainly not enough to buy a new home.

"The amount they are offering and the value of our homes is not the same. It's far lower," said Jin Xicheng, another resident reluctant to leave.

"We're very honest people. If our homes are worth a set amount, they ought to give us that amount. But it's not like that - it's plunder."

The residents are furious - as Mrs Zhang's desperate act testifies.

When the BBC went to speak to them, they gathered round, eager to tell their stories. Clutching dog-eared documents detailing their cases, a few of them cried.

Many have painted slogans on the walls of their homes expressing their desire to continue their campaign. "Fight to the end!" exhorts one.

Most of the buildings stand alone as others around them have been demolished - "nail houses", as they are known in China, a term reserved for people who refuse to budge from their homes.

Some households make sure there is always a family member at home just in case the authorities come to tear down their property.

Wu Yaxi, of the propaganda department at Tongzhou district government, said the local authority had done nothing wrong.

"The decision to demolish is made by the courts, which also enforce that decision. The government doesn't have a major role to play," he said.

That is only partially true. Court documents show it is local government officials who have decided to redevelop - they want the residents out.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this particular case, the central government is certainly worried about the high number of land disputes.

The state council said last month all evictions should be carried out in a "legal, civilised and harmonious manner", with fair compensation offered to those required to move.

It wants to put an end to forced demolitions - and the violence that often goes with it.

The on-going battles in Tongzhou suggests that is a long way off.

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