As she drove down a busy four-lane road near her old home, Tang Huiqing (唐慧青) pointed to the property where her dead sister’s workshop once stood. The lot was desolate, but for Tang it lives.
Four years ago, government officials told her sister that Chengdu was expanding into the countryside and that her village had to make way. A farmer who had made the transition to manufacturer, she had built the small workspace with her husband. Now it would be torn down, officials said.
“So my sister went up to the roof and said, ‘If you want to, tear it down,’” Tang said.
Her voice trailed off as she recalled how her sister poured diesel fuel on herself and after pleading with the demolition crew to leave, set herself alight. She died 16 days later.
Over the past five years, at least 39 farmers have resorted to this drastic form of protest. The figures, pieced together from Chinese news reports and human rights organizations, are a stark reminder of how China’s new wave of urbanization is at times a violent struggle between a powerful state and stubborn farmers — a top-down project that is different from the largely voluntary migration of farmers to cities during the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.
Besides the self-immolations, farmers have killed themselves by other means to protest land expropriation. One Chinese nongovernmental organization, the Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch, reported that in addition to six self-immolations last year, 15 other farmers killed themselves. Others die when they refuse to leave their property: last year, a farmer in the southern city of Changsha who would not yield was run over by a steamroller, and last month, a four-year-old girl in Fujian Province was struck and killed by a bulldozer while her family tried to stop an attempt to take their land.
Amid the turmoil, the government is debating new policies to promote urbanization. A plan to speed up urbanization was supposed to have been unveiled earlier this year, but it has been delayed over concerns that the move to cities is already stoking social tensions. New measures are also being contemplated to increase rural residents’ property rights.
In the past, many farmers chose to leave their land for better-paying jobs in the city. Many still do, but farmers are increasingly thrown off their land by officials eager to find new sources of economic growth. The tensions are especially acute on the edge of big Chinese cities. After having torn down the historic centers of most Chinese cities and sold the land to developers, officials now target the rural areas on the outskirts of cities like Chengdu.
However, such plans are opposed by local farmers. Many do not want to leave the land, believing they can earn more in agriculture than in factory work. Farmers on the outskirts of Chengdu, near the workshop where Tang Fuzhen (唐福珍) committed suicide, say they can easily earn several hundred dollars a month, pay that dwarfs government compensation offers. Others, like Tang, have already made the leap from agriculture to industry.
A mile north of Tang Fuzhen’s demolished workshop is the village of Zhuguosi, whose residents have been involved in tense standoffs with the police since 2010. The village is to be torn down for Chengdu’s New Financial City. The district abuts the city’s extravagant new government complex, which has buildings modeled on Hong Kong’s waterfront exhibition center and the Beijing Olympic stadium known as the Bird’s Nest.