IT started with a letter purportedly by a county official posted last week on the not-so-popular website Caing.com. It received 500 comments, and more than 6,000 comments a day later. Soon, it was posted on many other major websites.
Why did this letter cause such a commotion? Because it justified forced evictions and demolition, saying they were inevitable and necessary for urbanization and for building New China.
It seems that it was written by an official from Yihuang County of east China’s Jiangxi Province, a little-known agricultural county with barely 230,000 people. The county was in the spotlight recently after a violent and deadly protest against land seizures by the government.
An elderly man named Ye Zhongcheng died after setting himself on fire to protest against eviction from his home; two women were also seriously injured in this act of desperation. Two top officials of the county, one of whom allegedly tried to take away the body of the victim, were sacked and six others removed from their posts.
Wu Zhongmin, a sociologist with the Party School of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, closely followed the news from the start and he was not surprised by the violent protest. “Such things have happened before. Repeated incidents have made many people numb to the news,” he said.
A similar incident shocked China earlier on November 13, 2009, when a 47-year-old woman, Tang Fuzhen, in southwest China’s Sichuan Province, set herself on fire to protest the forced demolition of her house. She died in hospital 16 days later.
This March, a 92-year-old man and his 69-year-old son from Jiangsu Province torched themselves for the same reason. The son died.
In Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, 57-year-old Li Bingfeng is still waiting in her building – with eight bottles of gasoline. On the building there were banners with a statement Premier Wen Jiabao: :All the things we do are aimed at letting people live more happily and with more dignity.”
“I am not against the demolition of my house,” Li said. “I just want them to give me another one at the same location as compensation.”
Li’s house was by the sea. According to her neighbor Feng Guangmei, they could earn some 30,000 to 40,000 yuan (US$4,511 to US$6,024) from fishing, and 40,000 to 50,000 yuan from selling swimsuits. “The government wants us to move away, but that could make us lose our source of income,” Feng said. Feng’s husband Xu Kun has since been taken away and their houses had been razed. Yet Li stayed.
Talking about livelihoods in China, the tragedy of forced demolitions reflects just the tip of the iceberg. A poll by Xinhuanet earlier this year ranked the issues that concerned netizens the most, in descending order: income, housing, price controls, job-hunting, education, medical reform, and taking care of the elderly, among others.
Greater efforts were taken to improve the livelihoods of people during the past five years, during the 11th Five-year-Plan. More money was earmarked to help people: 318.5 billion yuan (up from 201 billion) for social insurance; 215.9 billion yuan (up from 53.6 billion) for education; and 138.9 billion yuan (up from 13.8 billion) for medical services
However, more needs to be done.
If the letter – under the name of Hui Chang – was really written by an official in response to the tragedy in Yihuang, Wu believed that it could highlight the mindset of many officials.
“The development of Yihuang in recent years is perfectly obvious … Its GDP in 2009 was 2.15 billion yuan, 2.12 times greater than in 2005 … The development of Yihuang epitomized the changes of Jiangxi and China at large,” the letter said.
“Demolition is the requirement of urbanization,” it said. “The residents, amid rising land and housing prices, dreamed of getting rich by selling their land to the government … As a result, forced eviction is inevitable.”
“Without forced demolitions, there would be no urbanization, and without urbanization there would be no ‘New China’. Maybe we can say that without forced demolitions, there would be no ‘New China’?” it concluded. The article provoked a flood of angry comments from netizens and experts.
A netizen nicknamed ldsxszx, calling himself a native of Jiangxi, said: “Have the officials asked local people what they need? Yihuang has no expressway, no railway, no port and no airport, instead, it has ‘image projects’ like a luxurious government building.”
Sociologist Wu Zhongmin said the article, in fact, showed the GDP-oriented philosophy of some officials.
“China has long attached much importance to economic growth and neglected social construction. Although the central government has realized the gravity of the situation, more work to address people’s livelihood needs to be done,” he said.
His view was shared by famed sociologist Lu Xueyi, research fellow with the Institute of Sociology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Lu believed that a lack of funding was one of the obstacles hampering efforts to improve work opportunities. “China is among the countries with the lowest financial allocation to the improvement of livelihoods.”
He also pointed out the formulation of public policies lacked transparency and democracy, and economic growth was still the top concern.
Wang Zhongwu, a sociologist with Shandong University, said: “In the three decades of reforms and opening up the economy, government officials believed that ‘effectiveness is a priority’, resulting in a huge gap between the rich and the poor,” he said. “In retrospect, the gap is the basic cause of social unrest.”
After the death of Tang Fuzhen, the woman in Sichuan who set herself on fire in protest at the forced demolition of her house, an article simulating a masterpiece by legendary Chinese writer Lu Xun was circulated on the Internet.
“I hope she is the last Chinese citizen who died protecting her property,” it said.
She wasn’t. Ye Zhongcheng from Jiangxi was next.