By Emily-Anne Owen
BEIJING, Apr 11, 2012 (IPS) - Zhang Haxia and her husband received a knock on the door in the middle of one night last December. They were dragged from their home in south-west China and forced into a van. When they returned nothing was left.
The case against forced evictions - which have fast become the primary source for unrest in China - was thrust into the limelight this week with the announcement of severe prison sentences for two rights activists who have fought a lengthy battle to help victims.
Ni Yulan, 52, and her husband Dong Jiqin were detained last April after helping victims of land grabs. Ni has been sentenced to two years and eight months, while Dong will serve two years.
The couple - who lost a six-year battle to save their traditional courtyard home in Beijing from demolition in 2008 - were charged in December with "picking quarrels, provoking trouble and willfully destroying private and public property."
At the verdict hearing, which lasted just ten minutes according to the group Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), the Xicheng District People’s Court convicted the couple with "creating a disturbance".
Ni, who was left disabled after alleged torture during previous imprisonments, has already served a year- long and separate two-year prison sentence for "obstructing official business" in 2002 and "harming public property" in 2008, as she fought to save her home.
Property developers and corrupt local officials eager to cash in on booming development frequently coerce residents into vacating valuable land for minimal compensation. Such evictions lead thousands to protest across the country every month. Many protests lead to run-ins with the police.
The story of Zhang (whose name has been changed) is a common one. "On Dec. 4, at 3am, local government officials, along with the mafia, dragged me out of my house, put me and my husband in a van, and took us to a remote place that I didn’t recognise," the 55-year-old farmer told IPS on phone from her home in the city Chengdu.
"But I stumbled and fell, and it was then I saw the village party secretary’s son. Four hours later, at 7am, we were taken back. Our house was already gone and the bricks and tiles had been moved to somewhere else."
When Zhang travelled to Beijing to petition the central government, the police detained her and her husband and sent them back to their local police station in Sichuan province. She claims she was then beaten up before being released.
"We were asked to sign a paper. I didn’t want to because I know if I did, it means I would have agreed to be detained. I was beaten up. My husband called the superior police, then we got out," says Zhang.
Zhang is not alone. This week a website in Sichuan reported that three activists petitioning for compensation for forced evictions from their properties in the eastern province Jiangsu have disappeared.
Mao Jianzhong, Gu Xingzhen and Xia Kunxiang travelled to Beijing to petition the central government. Officials from Jiangsu brought the three back to their hometown Suzhou. They have not been heard of since, according to a report by Radio Free Asia.
Such petitioners, who often face rampant corruption from police and officials at home, see no choice but to take their quarrels to the central government. They are routinely swept up by law enforcers, says activist Huang Qi who first reported the incident on his Tianwang website.
Huang claims that many protestors are taken to one of the country’s thousands of "black jails" without trial or arrested on trumped up charges. Petitions are often blocked at the local level for fear that the claims and unrest will damage local officials’ reputations, expose corruption or prevent a promotion.
"Since the Hu-Wen (Chinese leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao) administration, land-grabs have increased. Therefore, cases regarding compensations and petitions have increased too," Huang tells IPS.
"Land grabs are not over. I received a call (last week): a Sichuanese farmer’s home was destroyed at 2am. Land grabs often happen at night, because the government doesn't want people to take photos, recordings or videos as evidence.
"Those not in the know think the hot topics (in China now) are the Cultural Revolution (revival, propagated by ousted politician Bo Xilai) or the reform of the political structure. Actually, common people are more concerned about protecting their rights."
Flares of rural unrest over land grabs are common. Last week, a website reported clashes with police in north and south-west China. Some cases, such as the village protests in Wukan, located in the southern province Guangdong, have made international news.
In Wukan, villagers succeeded in ousting corrupt officials and winning the right to local elections following land seizures.
The village has become the symbol for protest against land grabs in China, and is widely seen as a successful example of how the government should be acting to defuse widespread unrest.
Change is in the works, according to the NGO Landesa, which works to improve land rights for farmers in developing countries. Landesa claims on their website to have worked alongside the central Chinese government to enact a series of historic legal improvements.
According to the NGO, the government has begun guaranteeing farmers 30-year-land rights, and has started to document and publicise farmers’ rights. But many rural citizens are unaware of their rights, and the law is widely ignored by local governments who often abuse their power.
Back in Chengdu, Zhang has bought land and built another house. Like many she believes that the root of the problem lies with greedy local officials, rather than with the central government.
"I will continue to petition in Beijing because I have hope in the government - it is just the grassroots government that is too corrupt," says Zhang. She refuses to give up. "I am not asking for a ridiculous price, only for reasonable compensation." (END)