Fri, Sep 13, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Suicide used to resist urbanization and land grabs

Lacking other options to prevent development at the expense of their land, farms and businesses, some Chinese have chosen suicide as a form of resistance. These acts may be beginning to change Beijing’s policy toward land owners

By Ian Johnson  /  NY Times News Service, CHENGDU, China

Every night now for the past eight months, residents have formed a ring around their village to prevent demolition crews from destroying it. Some of the houses have been torn down, but others remain, and cows still graze the fertile land — a surreal sight with the new city government buildings in the background.

“If we don’t oppose this, then we don’t have anything,” said Han Liang, a 31-year-old who is one of 80 to 90 villagers who keep watch each night. “We have lost our land.”

As in other land expropriation cases around Chengdu, government officials declined to comment. However, according to deeds and correspondence provided by the villagers, most were offered compensation of roughly US$1,500 per mu (one-sixth of an acre) — inadequate, in their view, because the payments amount to only what they earn in a couple of years.

While none of the residents of Zhuguosi have committed suicide, they have faced off with the authorities. The police have encircled villagers and carried them off, and photographs indicate that some have been beaten.

According to the Tianwang Web site, which monitors grass-roots protests, Chengdu routinely has several violent confrontations on its outskirts each day. Nationally, China has tens of thousands of similar conflicts a year, according to government estimates.

ANCIENT FORM OF DISSENT

The suicides, while not numerous relative to the overall population, represent the outrage that many farmers feel when their land is taken away. Suicide has been used as a form of political protest in China since at least the third century BC, when the poet and statesman Qu Yuan (屈原) drowned himself. Self-immolations have historically been practiced more by Buddhist and Taoist clergy members, and imitated by other people as a form of protest.

“It fits in with the historical pattern,” said Michael Phillips, director of the Shanghai Suicide Research and Prevention Center and professor of psychiatry at Emory University. “It’s a lever to change the behavior of powerful people who you don’t have influence over.”

The deaths come even as suicides in China are declining. After being among the highest in the world, rates have dropped 50 percent over the past 20 years, according to epidemiological studies.

Most of these rural self-immolations take place outside the public eye. Tang Fuzhen’s suicide was initially covered in the local news media and on the Web, but reporters were later barred from talking to the Tang family, journalists and family members say. Other families say that even local Chinese news media were often blocked by plainclothes police officers from entering their homes to conduct interviews.

That contrasts sharply with the government’s efforts to publicize self-immolations by Tibetans protesting Chinese rule of their region and to prosecute people accused of helping the protesters.

“It is striking how differently the two are treated,” said Corinna-Barbara Francis, a China researcher for Amnesty International. “They are trying to cover up the issue in the countryside.”

That may be because the government cannot claim, as it does with the Tibetans, that foreign forces are behind the suicides. Instead, government policies seem to be the cause of the tens of thousands of episodes of unrest recorded by the government each year. Exact statistics are not available, but Chinese researchers estimated that in 2010 the country had 180,000 protests, with the majority related to land disputes.

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