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

An analysis of the suicides shows that many of those who took their lives, like Tang Fuzhen, tasted prosperity and were incensed that it was being taken from them. According to relatives and neighbors, the Chengdu city government had offered Tang Fuzhen 800,000 yuan (US$131,000) for her workshop. Given that commercial property in the same district sells for 20 to 30 times that amount, Tang Fuzhen was unwilling to sell.

The exact financial details of her garment business are unclear. Tang Fuzhen and her husband ran the business together, and after her death he left Chengdu. However, her sister estimates that Tang Fuzhen spent more than the government’s offer on fixed assets alone, like equipment and lighting.

“The government said it needed the land to widen the road, but we didn’t think they’d tear down the building,” Tang Huiqing said.

WORKSHOP UNDER SIEGE

After months of negotiations, Tang Huiqing said she was feeding her eight-month-old grandchild at 5am on Nov. 13, 2009, when men dressed in camouflage and carrying metal rods surrounded her sister’s workshop. Family members quickly arrived to defend it. The men and the family members began quarreling, and one of the Tang sisters’ brothers was beaten and suffered a broken rib, according to family members and a report on the compensation that he later received from the city.

Tang Fuzhen retreated to the roof and shouted down at the men, according to her sister, who watched the events unfold.

“When she was on the roof she heard us being beaten,” Tang Huiqing said. “She called out, ‘Brother, sister, are you being beaten to death?’ She didn’t get an answer. She said for everyone to stop, for everyone to sit down and consult and negotiate. However, no one listened to her.”

Then she doused herself and set herself on fire, an event captured by onlookers’ cellphones. A few days later the workshop was torn down and family members received compensation for injuries.

The impact of these suicides is impossible to measure, and there is scant evidence that the officials responsible for the land expropriations in these cases have been punished.

One of China’s leading newspapers, Southern Weekend, analyzed eight cases from 2008 to 2010 and found that in all instances the officials responsible were still in their posts. Certainly, the deaths continue today. The most recent self-immolation was that of Hu Tengping of Zhoukeng, a village in Jiangxi Province.

Hu, who worked as a migrant laborer in Changsha, returned home for the Lunar New Year this year to find that his home had been torn down for an undisclosed development. Later that same day he went to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) offices and set himself on fire. According to relatives, the family was never able to recover Hu’s corpse.

“There is no one helping us,” said Hu’s sister, who asked that her name not be used for fear of retaliation. “There’s no justice in the world. There’s no law.”

SOME CHANGES

A national activist who tracks unrest, Huang Qi (黃琪), said cases like Hu’s and Tang Fuzhen’s have spurred the government’s recent crackdown on corruption and forced it to rethink the idea that fast urbanization is the best way to stimulate economic growth. In Chengdu, at least, the party secretary behind the city’s ambitious urbanization drive, Li Chuncheng (李春城), was toppled last year, a move that Huang said was partly caused by unease over the methods used to take land.

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