When Xu Haifeng’s home was razed three years ago, she went to China’s capital, Beijing, to complain about the city and county governments that ordered the demolition.
Since then, family members have been kidnapped at least 18 times, typically having black bags thrust over their heads before being taken to a hotel-turned-
illegal jail in the eastern city of Wuxi and locked for weeks in a tiny, windowless room, she said.
Xu’s story is shocking even in a country that has become used to tales of arbitrary and sometimes violent land expropriations. It illustrates how the stresses from the deep indebtedness of China’s local governments extend beyond banks into the lives of ordinary Chinese, as hard-up authorities resort to any means they can in a desperate scramble for funds.
“Our Wuxi is now steep in debt,” Xu said. “Wuxi today relies on drawing from residents’ financial wealth and stealing residents’ land to survive.”
Her 74-year-old mother has been abducted nearly a dozen times and held illegally for almost a year in a campaign to silence the family’s demands for proper compensation, she said.
Land seizures rank as among the biggest causes of social tension in China, spotlighting an ugly side of the urbanization drive that has raised it to the world’s second-biggest economy.
Amnesty International said in a report last year that land grabs have increased as the economy slows and local governments have sought cash to pay off debt, though other experts dispute the finding. There is no official data on land grabs.
DEEP IN DEBT
Wuxi lies in the coastal province of Jiangsu, home to China’s most indebted local governments.
Public records show provincial, city and county governments in Jiangsu have borrowed heavily from banks and investors to fund big construction projects and investments.
Pressured finances may be capping land payouts and fueling state-sanctioned violence, said Li Guoxiang (李國祥), deputy director of rural development research at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a top government think tank.
“The logic is simple: if there is no fiscal health, how can the government hand out fair compensation?” Li said.
Residents of the Binhu district of Wuxi, where Xu’s family owned several properties, say authorities took their land on the cheap, accompanied by threats, beatings and illegal detention of those who did not acquiesce.
The allegations, which included claims that the harsh treatment had caused deaths, could not be independently verified.
The government of Binhu, a county overseen by Wuxi city authorities, could not be reached for comment. The Wuxi government also could not be reached for comment, with repeated telephone calls over several days going unanswered.
Although the allegations in Binhu are extreme, land grabs are not uncommon. According to Li, local authorities across China derive between 20 and 90 percent of their income from selling expropriated land.
Land disputes are one of the main causes of the tens of thousands of protests across China each year. Most go unreported, although some, like a revolt in the southern village of Wukan in 2011, have attracted a high profile and prompted promises of action by Beijing.
On Thursday last week, a four-year-old girl was killed by a bulldozer that was razing her home during a land grab in Fujian Province, local media reported.