China

The evicted couple taking on China's authorities

  • 20 December 2013
  • From the section China

There is no shortage of shaky video footage of people being evicted from their homes in China.

It is just that it has usually been filmed by the victims, the many tens of thousands of people a year forced off their land by local authorities to make way for development.

So it is rare then to be given a bailiff's eye view.

In the video, filmed by the Chinese authorities themselves and shown to a Shanghai court, government agents can be heard sizing up a property prior to its demolition.

"These jade items, can we take them?" one man can be heard asking.

Another laughs. "They're all yours," he replies.

Liu Guangjia turned his plot of land into a museum displaying bonsai trees and other historical items

The owners, 75-year-old Liu Guangjia and his wife, 71-year-old Zhu Rongzhou, had lived on the 5000-sq-m (0.002 sq miles) plot in Shanghai for 40 years.

They had spent that time turning it into extraordinary museum and garden, to which they charged no entry fee, showing off their huge collection of bonsai trees and other historical items.

On the day of the eviction they were not able to protest or attempt to stop the ransacking of their home.

They had been woken up early that morning and forcibly taken away to spend the next 30 hours locked up in a small room.

They initially thought the men had come to look round the museum.

"I reached out to shake one of their hands," Mr Liu tells me.

Mr Liu, left, is seeking compensation from the Minhang district government

"But he twisted my arm behind my back and I heard a crack from my shoulder. One of them punched me in the back then they threw me in a van and covered my head," he says.

When they were released from their captivity they returned to find their home, the museum and the garden had been flattened.

Much of their collection, including gold, jewellery and jade, was missing.

'Significant case'

Violent land grabs by local governments are often the way development is done in China.

One estimate suggests that every year up to four million farmers have their land taken from them.

So the story of yet another defenceless elderly couple being disposed does not seem all that noteworthy.

What is unusual though is for a victim to be given their day in court.

"This case is very significant," Mr Liu's lawyer, Hu Jiongming, tells me.

"Normally it is very difficult for civilians to sue the government. It is hard to get a case accepted, it is hard to gather evidence and it is hard to win. So many people don't want to follow the legal route."

"If we can win," he adds, "it'll show that the courts can be above political control."

Mr Liu's lawyer, Hu Jiongming, says it is difficult for civilians to sue the government

The case is unusual for another reason in that the court has been open to the public and the case has been covered by Chinese state media.

Mr Liu is seeking 289 million yuan ($48m; £30m) in compensation from the Minhang district government - the largest ever claim brought against local authorities according to Chinese news reports.

Lawyers for Minhang district argue that the couple had been informed of the intention to demolish in 2009 and that it was carried out according to the proper legal procedures.

For once, though, that claim is being tested in court. A ruling is expected in the next few months.

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