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

Fri, Sep 13, 2013 - Page 9

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.

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.


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.

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.


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.”


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.

Political analysts in Beijing also say that economic reforms that could be unveiled in November would increase compensation for expropriated rural land, while other measures could give farmers more rights to determine how their land is used. Currently, all land is owned by the government, and farmers have only usage rights.

“Li Chuncheng’s problem is mainly due to the efforts of the Chengdu people,” Huang said. “There have been more protests against land expropriation in this one city than in many provinces. The cases were terrible, but I think they had an effect.”

Tang Huiqing thinks so, too.

“My sister’s sacrifice brought a change,” she said. “Right now they don’t dare tear down so many homes. There’s more consultation. At least here, they don’t tear down as much. Maybe in this village it’s better.”

The effect on her family, however, was grim. The sisters’ mother joined the CCP shortly after it took power in 1949, elated at its promise to take land from landlords and redistribute it to poor peasants like the Tang family. Her daughter’s death broke her will to live, and she died a few months later.

“She was heartbroken,” Tang Huiqing said. “She couldn’t understand how they could act like this to unarmed, ordinary people.”

Additional reporting by Sim Chi Yin