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67-year-old farmer Xu Longgui and his 57-year-old wife Zhu Damei stand behind their home in Wuxi. The local government has told them their house will be torn down any day now. They were offered an apartment in the city, but like many villagers who lose their homes, they're required to pay for part of that apartment themselves. They can't afford the payment. Xu says he and his wife will be homeless once their home is demolished. - 

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: Over the next 20 years, 400 million Chinese people are expected to move from the countryside to the cities. Most of them go willingly, trying to get ahead. Many, though, are forced to the cities as local governments across that country are taking land from nearby and selling it to developers for quick profits.

Our China Correspondent Rob Schmitz reports.


Sound of walking

Rob Schmitz: Thirty-eight generations-that's how long Ding Zhongchu's family has lived on this plot of land outside the city of Wuxi in the Yangtze Delta. His ancestors have survived four imperial dynasties, war, famine, you name it. Ding says none of these was as savage as his modern-day local government.

Ding Zhongchu: My family's had a home here for a thousand years, and now it's been demolished and the land stolen by these corrupt local government officials.

Ding is one of millions removed from their homes by local governments across China. The central government needs more farmland to feed China's 1.4 billion people. Cities help out by demolishing rural villages on their outskirts, turning them into fields. Beijing then lets the cities use some of that land to sell for profit to developers.

Li Ping: It's currently very widespreading.

Attorney Li Ping has spent years researching how cities take land from rural residents.

Li: The local governments want to use this mechanism to expand their urban development.

And to fatten their wallets. Developers will build high-rise apartments on the land and sell them for 30 times what the city paid the villagers for their homes. In the past five years, the city has removed 11,000 villagers from their land. The combined revenue from the sale of the land and the taxes collected from it has grown Wuxi's economy by an average of 15 percent per year. It's the same story throughout China. But Li says these cities have a problem.

Li: They do not have any other assets except for land. So they have to mortgage that land to get a loan.

Chinese cities have taken out so many loans from government banks in their push for development that they are now in debt to the tune of more than a trillion U.S. dollars.

Li: Such a very large local debt, it could cause a serious problem for China's financial system.

Li says an even bigger problem is the resentment generated by forcing millions of villagers out of their homes. China's social fabric is starting to tear.

Sounds of keys, door opening

Xue Jihong's opens the door to her home. Inside, the walls are covered in crayon drawings by her 13-year-old daughter. Outside, her village has been reduced to piles of rubble. The government has given Xue 15 days to leave before it sends workers to demolish her house, too.

Xue Jihong: My daughter keeps asking me, "Mom, when are we goign to have a new home? What are we going to do when they pull down our house?" She's terrified.

The Wuxi government offered her a small apartment in the city in return for her home, but only if she pays the equivalent of US$15,000 for it. The city says she's moving into a higher-valued urban property.

Xue: We can't afford that, so we have nowhere else to live. We have no choice but to wander about. I have two legs; I can beg.

Last year, Xue traveled to Beijing to lodge a complaint with the central government.

Xue: After I returned to Wuxi, I was out for a walk when the police saw me, dragged me into their car, put a black bag over my head and took me to a hotel. They kept me there for 26 days.

Marketplace called 35 government officials in Wuxi with requests for an interview. None replied. Other villagers provided evidence appearing to confirm they were held in secret prisons, too. Last month, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao issued a stern public warning to city governments to stop these mass removals.

Even so, any day now the city of Wuxi plans to knock down the house where 67-year-old Xu Longgui has lived his entire life. He's livid.

Xu Longgui: Where can I live now? Nowhere! When they pull down my house, I'll camp outside the local officials' homes and live there.

Behind him, construction crews work on a new opera house the size of a sports stadium. Farmer Xu shakes his head.

Xu speaking in Chinese

The Communist Party, he says, is eating its young.

In Wuxi, China, I'm Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: Learn more about the new Chinese land grab on our website. Rob launched a new blog of our China coverage today. It's called Chinopoly.

Follow Rob Schmitz at @rob_schmitz