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They Took My House, Then My Husband

Rob Schmitz Dec 13, 2010

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.

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