Property rights are a hot and complicated issue in China today, with both the left and right calling for (very different kinds of) reform. As property developers rush to build the “New China,” they push farmers and residents off of their land, with little regard for compensation—and by using all the political connections and brute force they can muster.
Forced relocation of this kind is fully legal under current Chinese law. Farmers don’t own land outright, but rather lease it from local governments for terms of up to 30 years. These agreements are considered binding, until a property developer (state-owned, private or mixed) sets its sights on a particular tract of land, and the families with the land-use rights are relocated. Compensation is generally a pittance, and developers and officials rely on intimidation to move people out of their way.
Recently, Chinese media has increasingly reported on instances of people protesting forced relocation and low compensation by taking rather drastic measures. This week, the China Daily (English version) ran a story about Yang Yongde, a farmer from outside the city of Wuhan in Hubei province. Mr. Yang successfully negotiated a compensation package of 761,00 RMB ($111,000 USD) for his 25 mu (1.75 hectare) of land, including houses and a fishpond. He only reached this agreement, however, after building a watchtower above his home and launching homemade rockets from a bamboo bazooka at developers as they approached his land. This fight went on for about five months, and near the end, his brother was attacked and severely injured while guarding Mr. Yang’s land while he was off filing a petition.
I first saw this story on an English language blog called China Hush in June. The author of the post summarized news reports from the Chinese press about Mr. Yang’s struggles, which are linked here and here. Apparently, this media attention helped Mr. Yang get the settlement he wanted. The developers and officials involved succumbed to his demands soon after reports of his standoff were made public.
Mr. Yang’s story, along with those of many others who have fought to keep their homes or to be fairly compensated for their losses, are probably most unique in the sense that they have been reported. Forced evictions and relocations are commonplace in China today, but most of them go unreported. So while Mr. Yang came out with a nice settlement, it is important to focus on the broader policy and legal changes that are needed to protect others in similar situations. Wang Xixin, a law professor at Peking University, is quoted is the China Daily article: “Yang's success was only accidental and may not be repeated. Offering property owners more channels and rights to appeal is the correct way to resolve the problem.”
I would also say that continuing to report on these incidents is another move in the right direction, so long as those that get reported don't serve to mask or silence those that remain ignored. In the past few days, The Guardian, the BBC, the Telegraph, the Huffington Post, and several local papers and blogs have picked up the story of the “rocket farmer” from the Chinese press. Forced relocations, and protests against them, will continue to be important issues to watch.
Mindi Schneider is blogging from China. She is a native Midwesterner currently living in China and working on her PhD in Development Sociology at Cornell.