A land grab in the Chinese countryside

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    Villages throughout China are vanishing, thanks to a rise in land grabs on the part of city governments. It's being fueled by an eagerness to boost local economic growth (GDP) through urban development.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    The city of Wuxi in Jiangsu province has removed at least 11,000 villagers from their homes to make way for a massive surge in urban development. The practice has helped Wuxi's GDP rise from 17 billion USD ten years ago to 75 billion USD today, with an average 15 percent economic growth.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    But there is a human cost to this development. Many villagers who've lost their homes to make way for Wuxi's development say they've either not been fairly compensated or they've not been compensated at all. Several report being arrested by local police and detained in secret prisons for complaining about their predicaments.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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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.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    Xue Jihong stands in the doorway of her home. She lives here with her husband and 13-year-old daughter. She has fifteen days before the government will demolish her home. She says her family can't afford the apartment offered in return for the removal of their home. She fears she'll be forced to beg after she loses her home.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    Xue says she went to Beijing to complain to the central government, but when she returned, she says local police arrested her and detained her in a state-owned hotel room for nearly a month.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    Outside Xue's home, construction crews are building an opera house the size of a sports stadium.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    Xue's neighbors lost their homes earlier this year. This is what's left.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    Leftover ceramic pots and shoes from a home destroyed in Xue's village.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    Li Jinghua was one farmer who was able to afford a city apartment in return for the removal of his home. He says making a living in the city is difficult, now that he has to buy - instead of grow - his food. It took him 20 years to build his former home. He says the only reason he signed an agreement to demolish it was because the Wuxi police were physically threatening his wife.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    This is where Ding Hong Fen and her family used to live. They owned a spacious traditional house in their village on the outskirts of Wuxi. Six years ago, the local government sold this land to China Vanke, the country's largest real estate developer. The local government offered Mrs. Ding a modest sum for her house, but she refused to sign over the land. On June 27, 2009, crews demolished her home anyway.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    This is a rendering of the new villas that will be built on Mrs. Ding's land. The Wuxi government offered her the equivalent of $75 per square meter for her land. These villas are on sale for the equivalent of $3,000 per square meter.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    Ding says the Wuxi government detained her in this room of a local state-owned hotel for posting online complaints about her case. Several villagers Marketplace spoke to also said they were detained against their will in these secret prisons after they lodged complaints to the central government about Wuxi government's land seizure practices.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    Ding says one of her prison guards sympathetic to her case let her have this manifest that purports to be a daily schedule of her prison guards. Ding's name is listed on this document. The facility's name roughly translates to Study Room.

    - Courtesy Ding Hongfen

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    Ding says her husband, Shen Guodong, was arrested by police and detained at Wuxi's 'Peace Hotel,' pictured here, after he attempted to travel to Beijing to complain to the central government about land seizures in Wuxi. Ding says her husband escaped from confinement and soon after was arrested, charged with obstruction of justice and is now in a real prison. He's scheduled to be released in January of 2011.

    - Courtesy Ding Hongfen

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    Wuxi is just one of hundreds of cities throughout China that are seizing rural residential land in order to be able to expand their urban boundaries. The inertia for such activity is strong: 400 million rural Chinese are expected to move to cities in the next 20 years.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

Villages throughout China are vanishing, thanks to a rise in land grabs on the part of city governments. It's being fueled by an eagerness to boost local economic growth (GDP) through urban development.


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.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent, based in Shanghai.

Villages throughout China are vanishing, thanks to a rise in land grabs on the part of city governments. It's being fueled by an eagerness to boost local economic growth (GDP) through urban development.


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