They Took My House, Then My Husband

There's a dark side to China's amazing economic growth. 43 year-old Ding Hongfen is one of millions who remind us of it. Ding lives in Wuxi, a city of five million on the Yangtze Delta. In 2003, the land she lived on was transferred from a village collective to her local government. Like many rural Chinese at the time, she was given land-use rights as if she owned the property. In 2004, the city of Wuxi sold her land to Vanke, China's largest developer. Problem is, nobody told her until 2007. That's when she says her family was instructed to leave.

View a photo slideshow with more of the characters and places featured in this story. And listen to the radio story.

Vanke wanted to build luxury condominiums on her land, and city officials helped the developer remove thousands of people to make way for it. Officials offered villagers the equivalent of $25/square foot for their homes, as well as an opportunity to collect social security after they reached retirement age. In return, villagers had to give up their homes and pay the equivalent of thousands of US dollars for an apartment in the city. Most villagers signed on the dotted line. Ding and her family didn't. Ding had learned that the condos Vanke wanted to build on her land would sell for around $1,500/square foot.

Even after the government resettled her village and paid them social security benefits, Ding calculated there was still millions of dollars leftover for the city and the developer.

Ding stayed put. While crews ripped apart her neighbors' homes, leaving piles of rubble all around her family's home, Ding says the local police started following her and her husband. She says they kept watch from a parked car outside her home, they followed her husband to her business, and finally, she says, they intercepted her husband while he was boarding a train to Beijing to lodge a complaint to the central government. She says police took her husband to a local state-owned hotel and detained him there. After he escaped through a window, she says they came to his auto shop to arrest him.

I watched a video recorded from the auto shop's security camera (above) of her husband's arrest. Her husband Shen Guodong was charged with 'obstruction of justice' and sentenced to a year in prison. He's scheduled to be released in January. Ding's house has since been demolished. Because she refused to sign over her home, she wasn't compensated for it.

This year has seen an uptick in stories like Ding's. Illegal land seizures have become such a big problem that Premier Wen Jiabao has publicly lashed out against local government officials for it. At the same time, the central government predicts 400 million Chinese will move to cities by 2020. Ding's story is a reminder of how messy this massive migration of humanity can be.

Listen to the story, "A land grab for the Chinese countryside," on today's episode of Marketplace. And view a photo slideshow of the characters and places featured in this story.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.
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It is unfortunate that things like this are occurring in the world. I recently learned in class about the housing issue in China. It's astounding that a house costs more than 10 times the average salary. When in the US, most people with average salaries are eventually able to buy a home. Here, it seems like a much more difficult process.

It's such a shame that the government/police are still very strict. In John Pomfret's book, Chinese Lessons, he discusses how there was a class spy in his dorm. It's such an invasion of privacy. Especially now. It is very hard for me to imagine how anyone would find it reasonable for police to follow, and then arrest someone just because they do not want to move out of their homes. The closest thing I know of that happens like this at home, is when illegal immigrants are removed from their homes for being undocumented. What a tragedy.

Hi, Rob,

This is Eden, a University of Minnesota student from Taiwan who has been hearing and observation China for many years. I personally had hear lots similar things like this, and thought it is a result of rotten politics power and business( official collusion.)Maybe this is another type of "This is China moment", the frustration of culture shock in eastern culture, but I personally think that similar things happened in all around the world, the only differences are in western, you have chances to win the battle with gov't; this remind me the story of old statement, the penil story, about how Jacobs doubted the truth and the god, and he wrestle with the angel/God. apparently, China gov't is play the role of god, the absolute existence but you can never see the real face of it; to live, is always hard,and it's everywhere, not only in China.
As John Gilmartin says, to post this post might push you in danger; hoping that you will be fine.



Do to the vast occurrence of events like this I'm surprised more reporters have not addressed this issue. Old China vs New China or the cost of keeping traditions vs the cost of modernization is a pressing issue. As noted in your article this incident was driven by the local government officials. What is the central government doing to stop this? What do you think they should do? 

Dear Rob,
Thank you, this is honest, thoughtful, disturbing. Be careful of course, keep your friends advised where you're going, and when returning. Try to have several senior officials willing to vouch for you, keep several pieces of ready cash available to help you leave quickly if needed. I don't think you will be able to keep these reports going for much longer, which is a real shame. Thank you, John Gilmartin

I learned of the housing issue in China within an hour of landing in Beijing. Since I have had subsequent discussions with my classmates as to what contributes to the current position China now finds its self. We have discussed how that even with a free market the government still has complete control of all the land. This creates an issue because it essentially takes away the ownership that the citizens have of their property. The issue, as I have been going over with my peers, is that the citizens have no stable estate because they can loss their home anytime the government feels it is in the best interest of the country to take it away. Without being able to truly own property the citizens are at the mercy of the decisions made by government officials. This should be addressed sooner rather than later because the civil unrest will continue to grow around this issue until an appropriate solution is found.

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