Early one Wednesday morning three weeks ago, a group of men broke into the Shanghai home of 72 year-old Xie Guozhen and her husband.
“I had just woken up and was on the toilet when I heard them knock down the front door,” recalls Xie. “Five men pushed open the bathroom door, gagged my mouth so I couldn’t scream, and when I struggled, they pulled my arms so far behind my back it felt that they had broken.”
Xie says she was dragged downstairs, where she saw her 69 year-old husband tied up on the floor. She says the men threw the couple into the back of a van and drove them to an outdoor courtyard nearby, where they were kept the rest of the day. “When they released us, we ran back and found our home had been demolished,” Xie says. “All of my belongings, heirlooms, and family photos, gone. They had kidnapped us and robbed us of everything.”
‘They’ were government officials in Xuhui, a district in the heart of Shanghai. For more than a decade, the Xuhui government has tried to persuade people in the run-down neighborhood of Maggie Lane in Shanghai’s former French Concession to leave their homes.
The land is only the size of a city block. But Ye Mao, an analyst with the China Real Estate information Center, says it’s a potential gold mine.
“If this land could be developed into a residential area, it would easily be among the most expensive properties in Shanghai,” says Ye.
In 2005, a developer hired by the Xuhui government set fire to a house in Maggie Lane. The demolition crew was trying to scare people out of their homes. Instead, they burned an elderly couple alive in their bed. After that, the Xuhui government left the neighborhood alone.
Xie and her husband were among a handful of people who stayed. But all that changed this week. Now Xie, who suffers from colon cancer, and her husband Chen, have to find another home – much like tens of millions of others displaced by land grabs across China.
Beijing property lawyer Wang Cailiang says the problem is that GDP growth on the local level in China largely depends on the government seizing and then selling land.
“In a normal system, the government is not supposed to be benefiting from land transactions,” says Wang. “They should only be responsible for managing the land. They are not businessmen.”
In 1999, land sales made up just 9% of revenue for local governments. That’s skyrocketed to 64% just two years ago. Now, China’s economic growth is dipping, and the central government has ambitious plans to move a quarter of a billion rural Chinese into the cities over the next decade as part of a state-sponsored urbanization campaign. Wang says there’s more pressure than ever on local government officials to take people’s land by any means necessary.
“In Chinese, we call it ‘Hei Chai’– illegal demolition,” says Wang. “It’s when governments hire mafia types to kidnap people or throw them into illegal prisons, and then take their land. We’re seeing more and more of this all over China.”
Wang says the methods used in the Xuhui government’s taking of Maggie Lane –kidnapping Xie and Chen from their home and detaining them – violated Chinese law.
The Xuhui government refused repeated requests for an interview with Marketplace. Instead, officials forwarded the requests to Chinese state security officers, who then warned Marketplaceto stop talking to Maggie Lane residents.
Nearly a year ago when Marketplace began covering this story, Xie and Chen, the couple who just lost their home, were optimistic. Xi Jinping had just became president, and he spoke about the ‘Chinese Dream,’ the idea that all Chinese get a fair shot at achieving their dreams.
“The government talks about the Chinese Dream, but there is no sense of happiness or dignity living in this society,” says Chen. “It’s all gone. There is no hope in this life.”
Chen ends this thought with a question. “The Chinese dream?” he asks, shaking his head. “Whose dream is that?”